American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, Richard K. Betts, Columbia University Press, 384 pages 

Old national-security habits die hard, for nations as well as for the analysts and politicians who think about their policies. The four-decade-long preoccupation known as the Cold War ingrained certain patterns so deeply into thinking about U.S. security that they have persisted amid the much different international environment of the subsequent two decades. One of those patterns, nurtured in the competition against another superpower with global reach, is to equate national security with international security, seeing sundry troubles around the globe as reasons for the United States to spring into action. Another pattern is the priority given to military force, a legacy of the Cold War being at its core a strategic arms race and on its periphery a series of proxy wars. The length of the Cold War led entire generations of policy makers and analysts to lose sight of how atypical each of these patterns is in the longer run of U.S. history.

So we have the anomaly of the United States, just when it should be enjoying its unquestioned post-Cold War position of preeminence and unmatched power, spending and acting as if it were still wrestling with a USSR-like adversary. Military force is still seen as the dominant instrument for advancing U.S. interests, as reflected not only in defense budgets but also in the militarization of security endeavors such as a “War on Terror.” America’s leaders, however, wary of high costs and the public’s squeamishness about them, do not commit the nation to its armed endeavors with the gusto and resources that characterized winning military expeditions of the past. Instead it is a small intervention here, a somewhat larger intervention there, and much hand-wringing and debate over whether whatever overseas problem led to an intervention has been adequately dealt with.

Richard Betts’s American Force is a trenchant critique of these habits. The book is also a lucid and insightful guide to the use of armed force as an instrument of U.S. power. Central to Betts’s approach is a clear-headed view of what constitutes U.S. national security—which should not be equated with international security—and of the importance of concentrating on genuinely vital interests as distinct from all the nice-to-have objectives that the United States seems to have picked up along the way to unipolarity.

National-security intellectuals of a certain age have had to make their own conceptual journeys from the Cold War to the post-Cold War era. This includes Betts, one of the leading American thinkers on strategic matters for over three decades. In American Force he goes out of his way to locate himself on the intellectual and political map: just to the right of the Democratic Party’s center during the Cold War, and just to the left of the party’s center now—“barely closer to John Kerry than to Dennis Kucinich.” Those scholars whom he sees on the wrong side of the issues he discusses—wrong because they favor the use of armed force to pursue expansive rather than narrowly defined conceptions of security—include neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and “fervent multilateralists.”  Those who are more on the correct side, as he sees it, are “realist doves, cautious liberals, and paleoconservatives.” Betts’s transition from Cold War hawk to post-Cold-War dove is fodder for accusations of inconsistency, but he is correct that what changed is not his own intellectual posture but the outside world.


A deep respect for military force and for what it can do to protect and advance the nation’s interests has characterized Betts’s work throughout his career, and it comes through in this latest book, notwithstanding his dovish lean on recent issues. He likes and respects the members and leaders of America’s armed forces, as is apparent in a chapter on civilian-military relations. He is “happy when they are employed by political authorities who know what they are doing.” Problems come when those authorities don’t know what they are doing, such as with invading Iraq.

One of two major themes in American Force concerns the inability to break those habits developed during the Cold War. The role of force in American foreign policy, says Betts, “should have been sharply recast but was not.” The only recasting was a sort of relabeling in which a global, activist, scattershot approach toward the application of force has continued, not to fight communism any more but instead to establish and maintain a liberal empire, which the United States mistakenly confuses with national defense. The political constellation that underlies this approach—and the military spending accompanying it—includes Democrats afraid of being viewed as wimps on national security, Republicans who have abandoned any commitment to fiscal integrity, and a public that was horrified by 9/11.

The second major theme is criticism of the Goldilocks approach to applying force: Americans are continually afraid of doing too much or too little. The result has been a series of deployments and interventions that are big enough to incur significant costs and resentments but too small to accomplish defensible and well-defined missions. Betts repeatedly refers to an aphorism from Clausewitz: “A short jump is certainly easier than a long one: but no one wanting to get across a wide ditch would begin by jumping half-way.” He implicitly identifies with what is best known as the Powell Doctrine, of going in big if we are going in at all. Or as Betts puts it, American leaders have “liked to use force frequently but not intensely, when the reverse combination would have been wiser.” As with many of his other recommendations, Betts acknowledges the political difficulty of following this advice. Making a hard choice between all out or staying out is an “unnatural act” for politicians, who always look for compromise.

Political challenges notwithstanding, Betts’s outlook toward the use of armed force would have saved the United States much grief if it had guided policy over the past 20 years. He regards military force as a very special and costly instrument, to be reserved for protecting truly vital interests. “It may not always be the last resort,” says Betts, “but it should be close to it.” This sparing and almost reverential handling of the military instrument is appropriate partly because of the unique suffering and sacrifice of those volunteers who make up that instrument. It is also appropriate because of the high uncertainty about the consequences and costs of using it. A big fudge factor has to be added to any estimate of such costs. Large-scale use of military force is a blunt instrument. “Any policymaker who hears a suggestion for ‘surgical’ military action,” advises Betts, “needs a second opinion.”

This is not a prescription for isolationism, or even unalloyed dovishness. It is more a matter of recognizing that conceivable uses of military force run the gamut from vital interests to aspects of the liberal empire that are far less than vital. It also involves a sensitivity to efficiency and costs as well as to objectives and aspirations. What ought to be an advantage of the top-dog position in a unipolar world, argues Betts, is that the United States can make better use of instruments less costly than armed force to advance its interests. That advantage has been insufficiently exploited.

Betts’s recommendations also do not add up to a single, simply stated formula for national-security policy. The closest he comes to a bumper sticker is “soft primacy and burden-shifting”—soft in the sense that the United States has more power than anyone else, but not necessarily enough to accomplish everything it might want. But the very complexities and limitations of wielding power in general and military power in particular are a big part of the lesson. This is the “dilemmas” part of the book’s subtitle. An extended discussion of counterinsurgency, for example, by no means disposes of David Petraeus’s doctrine but underscores the dilemmas inevitably involved in applying it, such as between encouraging democracy in the host country and maintaining centralized control over the war effort.

Betts’s book is an indictment of many of his fellow members of the national-security policy-making elite—for their failure to adapt to a changing world, their inadequate analysis of costs and benefits, and their generally sloppy thinking about several security-related concepts on which Betts gives us instruction. He pins blame for misdirections in U.S. security policy over the past two decades squarely on this elite rather than on larger streams of public opinion. At one point he suggests that the nationalist segments of the general public that Walter Russell Mead calls Jeffersonian and Jacksonian have understood the distinction between national security and international security better than the elites have. True, but some currents of American public opinion and perception, with roots that go back before the Cold War, have contributed in their own unhelpful ways to the patterns Betts describes. The Jacksonians’ simplistic, un-Clausewitzian attitudes toward war and peace, for example, encouraged the overmilitarized approach to counterterrorism under the War on Terror label.

Much of American Force is a rework of Betts’s earlier writings, giving the book a somewhat episodic flavor. The underlying intellectual framework is consistent, however, and the resulting volume is a compendium of valuable advice for addressing national-security issues in coming years. On which issues will his military advice have to be applied? Betts suggests they might involve an entirely unanticipated adversary—and this is not a cop out, because most applications of U.S. military force over the past century could not have been anticipated years earlier. He does single out China as the most important identifiable adversary, advising us to do the hard work necessary to avoid a new Cold War with Beijing, while deciding—consistent with the “go all out or stay out” principle—whether or not Taiwan is worth defending.

The more immediate applicability of the sagacity in this book concerns the current saber-rattling over Iran. Betts reminds us that Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China were once considered more alarming threats than the mullahs in Tehran are now. Here again the Cold War’s conclusion merits reflection. “The ultimate evidence against preventive war was the surprisingly peaceful end of the Cold War,” says Betts, “which clearly demonstrated the wisdom of waiting the adversary out and relying on containment and deterrence rather than precipitating a showdown that turned out to be unnecessary.”

Paul R. Pillar teaches in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University and is the author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform.