A Primer on Military Force
from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

A Primer on Military Force

U.S. Sheridan tanks mothballed at Fort Irwin, California Army National Training Center (Courtesy Reuters/Rick Wilking).
U.S. Sheridan tanks mothballed at Fort Irwin, California Army National Training Center (Courtesy Reuters/Rick Wilking).

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As I’ve written previously, policymakers and pundits have some pretty silly proposals for the use of military force. Whether it’s President Clinton,“[It would] scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp,” or uberconservative Pat Robertson, “We really ought to go ahead and [assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez]…It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war,” such harebrained schemes lack a basic understanding of military strategy, geography, and logistics, not to mention international law.

There is a political purpose driving every aspect of military force. According to Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz in his oft-quoted dictum, “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” Whether you are a policymaker, pundit, think tanker, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page, it is essential to clearly define your political objectives before dropping bombs or embarking on open-ended nation-building campaigns.

In the 1950s and 1960s, economist Thomas Schelling put forth a game theory approach that expanded and popularized the archetypal labels for the political goals behind military power. Schelling envisioned the threat or use of force as part of an ongoing bargaining relationship between two adversaries “in which communication is incomplete, or impossible.” Schelling believed that, in order to influence an adversary’s behavior, “violence is most purposive and most successful when it is threatened and not used.”

Deterrence and compellence, popularly referred to as coercive diplomacy, are the two political purposes of force developed by Schelling that are most relevant for current discussions about, say, threatening to bomb Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities or attacking Syrian armed forces. Even Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is a fan: “I believe in coercive diplomacy. I think that you try to figure out how to move bad actors in a direction that you prefer in order to avoid more dire consequences.”

Deterrence is the strategy of persuading a state to refrain from taking a certain action by threatening something of value. Successfully employed, deterrence convinces a state that the costs of change outweigh the costs of enduring the status quo.

Deterrence fails when an adversary does what it was warned not to do. For example, in October 2006, President Bush told North Korea, “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable.” Despite U.S. warnings, North Korea clandestinely transferred engineering and design know-how to Syria for what the IAEA called “very likely a nuclear reactor.” Bush’s threat failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear transfer, thus, deterrence failed.

Compellence, or coercive diplomacy, is a three-pronged strategy. First, a specific demand is made to an adversary. Second, a specific deadline or sense of urgency to comply is communicated. Third, a credible threat of military punishment is issued. Compellence fails when the threat’s target refuses to comply, or when the only means of acquiescence is through overwhelming military power.

With that in mind, the next time you hear about a policymaker proposing to bomb someone or something, consider whether the political purpose is deterrence, compellence, or simply destruction. To get you started, I’ve put together a list of recommended readings. (For my earlier primer on air power, click here.)


Daniel Ellsberg, “The Theory and Practice of Blackmail,” Lecture at Lowell Institute, March 10, 1959.

Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1960).

Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966).

Robert J. Art, “To What Ends Military Power?International Security 4(4) 1980: pp. 3–35.

Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction: Norms and Force in International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman, The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

James David Meernik, The Political Use of Military Force in U.S. Foreign Policy (Aldershot, UK: Asghate Publishing, 2004).

Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York, NY Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House, Inc. 2005).

Risa Brooks, Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Robert J. Art and Kenneth Waltz (eds.), The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics (Rowman + Littlefield, 2009).

Richard K. Betts, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Compellence/Coercive Diplomacy

Alexander L. George, David K. Hall, and William R. Simons, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy: Laos, Cuba, Vietnam (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1971).

James T. Tedeschi et al., “A Paradigm for the Study of Coercive Power,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June, 1971).

Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, Force Without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Washington, D.C. The Brookings Institution, 1978).

Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1987).

Alexander L. George, Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War (Washington, D.C. United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991).

Kenneth Schultz, Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Robert J. Art, “Coercive Diplomacy—What Do We Know?” The United States and Coercive Diplomacy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003), pp. 359-420.

Todd S. Sechser, Winning Without a Fight: Power, Reputation and Compellent Threats in International Crises (Stanford University, 2007).

Kyle Beardsley and Victor Asal, “Winning With the Bomb,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 53(2) 2009: pp. 278–301.


Thomas W. Milburn, “What Constitutes Effective Deterrence?Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 3, No. 2, (June, 1959).

Richard A. Brody, “Deterrence Strategies: An Annotated Bibliography,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 4, No.4, (December, 1960) .

Glenn H. Snyder, “Deterrence and Power,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June, 1960).

“Force, Order and Justice,” Report of panel discussion at International Studies Association annual meeting, Kenneth Waltz, chair, April 1967, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3 (September, 1968).

R. Harrison Wagner, “Deterrence and Bargaining,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 36, No. 2 (June 1982).

John J. Mearshimer, Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).

Paul Huth, Extended Deterrence and the Prevention of War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 1988).

Barry Nalebuff, “Rational Deterrence in an Imperfect World” World Politics 43(3) 1991: pp. 313–335.

Patrick Morgan, Deterrence Now (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Gary Schaub, “Deterrence, Compellence, and Prospect Theory,” Political Psychology 25(3) 2004: pp. 389–411.

Amir Lupovici, “The Emerging Fourth Wave of Deterrence Theory—Toward a New Research Agenda,” International Studies Quarterly, 54 (3) 2010, pp. 705-732.

What did we miss? Post a comment with your suggestions for our next reading list.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Defense and Security

Conflict Prevention

Political Transitions