Press Release

New Book, Dataset Offer Lessons to Policymakers for More Effective US Military Coercion

Study challenges conventional wisdom on using the military to achieve foreign policy objectives

Washington, DC – A newly published book, Military Coercion and US Foreign Policy: The Use of Force Short of War, examines how the US has used its military as a tool of influence, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy to achieve US policy goals. It shows that US efforts to coerce other countries fail as often as they succeed and calls into question many longstanding assumptions about military threats.

Since the end of the Cold War the US military has conducted hundreds of combat operations, exercises, and shows of force short of war to advance American interests and persuade adversaries to meet our demandsBased on a new dataset of more than 100 cases from 1991 to 2018, Military Coercion and US Foreign Policy reveals how, when, and under what conditions these military operations are most likely to achieve policy goals. Using statistical analyses and historical case studies, the authors give policymakers and practitioners new insights to help improve their odds of success.

Military Coercion and US Foreign Policy (Routledge 2020) is co-authored by the Stimson Center’s Melanie Sisson, James Siebens, and Barry Blechman, and features case studies by renowned experts such as Kenneth Pollack (AEI), Thomas Wright (Brookings), and Bill Durch (Stimson). The book builds upon the pioneering work of Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan in Force Without War: US Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Brookings 1978) in attempting to better understand how applications of military force, short of war, can help achieve foreign policy objectives. 

Key findings from the book include:

  • Maintaining large standing forward deployments does not affect coercion.Aside from “general deterrence,” when challenges to US interests arise, deploying new forces in a crisis is a more effective coercive approach than relying on large forces already forward deployed to a region.
  • Combining economic sanctions with military pressure lowers the chances of policy success. Sanctions may work on their own, but the odds of the US achieving its policy objectives is reduced when military actions are preceded or followed by economic sanctions. 
  • Elections undermine coercion. The US has a statistically lower chance of success when it attempts military coercion in a US presidential election year.
  • Exercises are not convincing. Holding military exercises may be important for readiness and confidence-building, but on average, using exercises as a signal to an adversary does not improve the chances that the US will get what it wants.

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Co-Author and Co-Founder of the Stimson Center Barry Blechman says, “For the past three years, the Trump Administration has attempted to coerce Russia, China, and Iran through the deployments of military forces combined with verbal threats and economic sanctions.  So far, these efforts have largely failed. Russia continues to occupy Crimea, China continues to lay claims to sovereignty in the South and East China seas, and Iran continues to threaten US interests in the Persian Gulf. In this new book, empirical data and case studies both demonstrate why such coercive actions often fail and how US leaders could improve the chances of achieving US goals without having to resort to military violence.”

Co-Author and Nonresident Fellow at the Stimson Center Melanie Sisson says, “This book makes clear that competition is not a contest of brute force.  During the post-Cold War era the United States frequently used its vastly superior military to resolve challenges to its interests, though without great success – US objectives were achieved only half the time. We hope this book both provokes policymakers to reconsider their assumptions about when and how to use the military to achieve foreign policy goals, and helps them to align defense plans and investments to meet the demands of competition.” 

Co-Author and Research Associate for the Defense Strategy and Planning program James Siebens says, “There are many examples from recent history when the US tried to gain significant concessions from much weaker states using very limited applications of force, often only to meet with frustration and mission creep. Military Coercion provides some key lessons learned from the successes and failures of our military strategy and operational art over the past few decades. It is imperative that the United States adopt realistic goals and coherent strategies to prevent unnecessary conflict, preserve our credibility, and advance our interests abroad.” 

The Stimson Center’s Defense Strategy and Planning Program identifies the historical, environmental, and institutional characteristics that have shaped the use of the US armed forces, and provides guidance to inform choices on how to use the military more effectively. Learn more about the short of war project at 

The Stimson Center promotes international security, shared prosperity & justice through applied research and independent analysis, deep engagement, and policy innovation.  More at


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