Force with diplomacy

Henry R. Nau is a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. A longer version of this article can be found in Policy Review, August/ September 2008.

What is the right response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the Duma’s recognition this week of two breakaway enclaves within Georgia? A purely diplomatic response offers too little, and using force ratchets up the risks of wider conflict.

The question of whether diplomacy or the use of force is best to meet such foreign challenges and promote freedom is hardly new in American foreign policy. Two long-standing traditions offer some answers.

Liberal internationalism, which is identified with Woodrow Wilson, seeks to reduce the role of force by promoting peaceful diplomacy through multilateral institutions. It expects expanded trade and modernization to slowly defuse global tensions and advance freedom.

In contrast, the classical realist tradition, practiced most notably by Teddy Roosevelt, carries a big military stick, defends free countries by balancing foreign powers against each other and worries that modernization may not lessen tensions but rather strengthen adversaries that continue to oppose freedom.


The problem with both traditions is that they fail to integrate force and diplomacy.

The goals of liberal internationalism are the right ones for U.S. diplomacy, because Americans balk at using force unless it spreads freedom. Classical realism, on the other hand, is right to emphasize the use of military force. Tyrants exist, and because they use force against their people, they are more likely to retain it as a viable option in dealings with other countries.

There’s a third tradition that pays more attention to combining force and diplomacy. Call it conservative internationalism. It’s conservative because, like classical realism, it assigns a significant role to the use of force. It’s internationalist because it seeks to spread freedom, a principal goal of liberal internationalism. Four U.S. presidents have successfully practiced conservative internationalism: Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.

Conservative internationalism integrates force and diplomacy by prioritizing goals. The Wilsonian goal of ending tyranny around the globe is far too ambitious, especially when it may require the use of force. Freedom advances best, with the least human cost, on the borders of existing democracies, not in distant neighborhoods where few democracies exist.


Truman and Reagan understood this well. Truman deployed U.S. forces in Western Europe primarily to rally and nurture freedom on the continent after World War II. Reagan waged an arms race primarily to bring freedom to nearby Eastern Europe.

Today, as the Georgian conflict demonstrates, the primary frontier of freedom lies along Russia’s border with the Baltic states, Ukraine and the Caucasus. Another is Turkey, which borders Europe’s old democracies. Still another is India and Pakistan. For conservative internationalists, nurturing democracy in these countries is far more pressing than democratizing Iraq and Afghanistan, which reside in mostly despotic neighborhoods.

Conservative internationalism combines force and diplomacy in another way. It does not regard force as a last resort if diplomacy fails -- a weakness of liberal internationalism. Nor does it consider diplomacy a substitute for force, as some realists believe. Rather, conservative internationalism holds that force empowers diplomacy. A huge invasion force had to be assembled in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 2002 to get U.N. inspectors back into Iraq and create the diplomatic option of monitoring the country’s weapons of mass destruction. Conversely, diplomacy validates the use of force; it wins the peace after force wins the war. The Bush administration had to learn this the hard way when it neglected diplomacy after successfully invading Iraq in 2003.

Jefferson and Polk were masters at joining force and diplomacy. Each time they used force, they strengthened their diplomatic hand. When the moment came to compromise, the two presidents did so from a position of strength. Jefferson led Napoleon to believe that if he went to war in Europe, the U.S. and England might align and seize Louisiana. So Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States to deny it to England. Polk ended the Mexican-American War short of annexing the entire country because he repeatedly sent envoys to Mexico City and ultimately accepted a final compromise negotiated by one of them with whom he bitterly quarreled.


There is a third way that conservative internationalism integrates force and diplomacy. Unlike classical realism, it does not hold that a country’s material resources define an outer limit to its conduct of foreign policy. Nor, like liberal internationalism, does it believe that international consensus ultimately constrains foreign policy.

Rather, it believes that the majority will of free peoples limits a country’s ability to influence international events. If presidents cannot retain the majority support of their own and other democratic peoples, they have no business trying to spread freedom to nondemocratic countries.

The toughest test the next president will face is his ability to maintain a consensus with the U.S. and among democratic countries when he has to resort to the use of force. As long as authoritarian governments persist, force will be used in international affairs, and the right response to it is to join force and diplomacy, not use force as a last resort or as a substitute for diplomacy.