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The Big Stick:

The Limits of Soft Power &

the Necessity of Military Force

Bibliographic Content

Eliot A. Cohen


Basic Books

Kindle, Hardback (304 pgs), Paperback (320 pgs), Audiobook (9hrs:10min)

Synopsis from Author

"Speak softly and carry a big stick" Theodore Roosevelt famously said in 1901, when the United States was emerging as a great power. It was the right sentiment, perhaps, in an age of imperial rivalry but today many Americans doubt the utility of their global military presence, thinking it outdated, unnecessary or even dangerous.

In The Big Stick, Eliot A. Cohen-a scholar and practitioner of international relations-disagrees. He argues that hard power remains essential for American foreign policy. While acknowledging that the US must be careful about why, when, and how it uses force, he insists that its international role is as critical as ever, and armed force is vital to that role.

Cohen explains that American leaders must learn to use hard power in new ways and for new circumstances. The rise of a well-armed China, Russia's conquest of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, and the spread of radical Islamist movements like ISIS are some of the key threats to global peace. If the United States relinquishes its position as a strong but prudent military power, and fails to accept its role as the guardian of a stable world order we run the risk of unleashing disorder, violence and tyranny on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The US is still, as Madeleine Albright once dubbed it, "the indispensable nation."

If you are interested in purchasing this book, ebook, or Audible audiobook, we have provided a helpful link directly to its storefront page on Amazon; purchase any version of the book and we get a small affiliate bonus for every referral. “As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.”

The Big Stick, Eliot A. Cohen, Cohen, Civil-military relations, hard power, soft power, war is my business, business, military

“The price of greatness is responsibility… one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes… You cannot stop. There is no halting-place at this point. We have now reached a stage in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be a world of anarchy or world order.” -Winston Churchill

The Big Stick is fundamentally about the continued importance of the use of military power - hard power - and the need to continue to use and hone it in spite of arguments to the contrary. Those arguments are based more on a perceived desire for the world to become something that it isn't, and it is Cohen's position that hard power is still very much a critical instrument of national power. An instrument as necessary now, and in the future, as it was during the Cold War. He identifies and counters those arguments with rational examples, discusses current and anticipated threats and how to mitigate them, and his own set of guidelines for the employment of hard power - understanding that there is indeed a time and a place for any tool.

From the position of a business looking to learn something from this book - what can we find? As stated, this book is about the continued importance of hard power - a tool available to all nations to influence others, as are the other soft power tools like sanctions and negotiations.  The most applicable business element that I can see, therefore, is marketing. While any department can find allegories, I find marketing to be the easiest and most likely to benefit by studying this book.

Just like the use of hard and soft power options, the environment, i.e. the market, and desired outcomes, will dictate which type of marketing avenues and tools will work to provide the best-perceived return on investment. Marketers have many different tools available - content generation, social media engagements, influencer collaborations, newspapers, television, billboards, etc., - and all have different ROI's based on the environment and way in which they are employed. So those people that are marketers and advertisers, or those that manage them will gain the most from The Big Stick. Before that, as always, let’s go over the content of the book before we discuss its business applications.

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force by Eliot A. Cohen establishes that the use of military “hard power” is still a necessity. He argues that even with the collapse of the Soviet Union we need American military strength and presence just as much now as before. He notes that there are times in which negative results came from the use of such force, but that overall it has been a net positive.

As mentioned, Cohen discusses the most common arguments against the use of hard power, but in equal measure counters those arguments. In later chapters, he goes on to analyze threats and the use of hard power with respect to those threats, upon 1) a rising China, 2) jihadis- Islamic extremists, 3) dangerous states - like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and 4) ungoverned spaces - like the seas, semi-autonomous regions, outer space, and the cyber domain. Finally, he provides his own set of guidelines on when and how to use military force. For our purposes here, however, we will only discuss Cohen’s guidelines, and it is from those guidelines we will find business allegories.

1)"Understand your war for what it is, not what you wish it to be."

Cohen acknowledges that the nature of conflict changes and that leader shouldn’t preemptively limit the scope of the use of force because they have some preconceived notion of what war is or must be. The nature of warfare -its ways, means, and ends - can shift based on the conditions of the environment. Since we can't predict how certain variables will present themselves at the beginning or during the course of a conflict, we also shouldn't limit our ability to be flexible.

“It requires a self-conscious purging of one’s mind of analogies, parallels, and metaphors - hard for anyone, and especially for political and military leaders launching a war.”

2)“Planning is important; being able to adapt is more important.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable," and both this quote and Cohen’s second guideline allude to the uncertainty in warfare. That sticking to a plan is ultimately pointless. It is, however, still important to plan, because it provides three things:

  1. A well-developed plan allows you to begin to act - without it, you will have no unified movement towards any end.
  2. It will help you develop a greater understanding of the variables in which you face. Without an understanding of your environment, you will find it challenging to adapt effectively, as you will not see potential causal relationships - e.g., your reactive actions to change conditions may hinder more than help your overall efforts.
  3. In the process of developing a plan, you also establish all the logistical and communication networks that make it work. When you have to adapt inevitably, it is these networks - previously established - that will allow your new adaptive plan to succeed. They are very much the circulatory and nervous systems that keep the military organ functioning.

“Very few wars in history last as long as planners think, cost what they expect in blood and treasure, or end up with quite the results hoped for or anticipated.”

3)“You will prefer to go short, but prepare to go long.”

War is expensive, bloody, and brings with it significant risks to the political body. As a result, most nations seek to end it as soon as possible. They want to achieve their end as fast and as cheaply as possible. This will lead them to execute actions that bring about "victory" sooner, but Cohen warns that they must also prepare for "victory" to come much later. Basically, in a situation where you anticipate quick success, are you also ready to support ongoing operations with blood and treasure for many years as needed?

"To commit oneself only to fighting wars lasting a few weeks or months is to fatally cripple one's ability to use force. Again, one must accept wars for what they are."

4)“While engaging in today’s fight, prepare for tomorrow’s challenge.”

This is about avoiding complacency and understanding that as you execute operations, there is always something on the horizon, and you also need to prepare for that. Campaigns and their operations don't exist in a vacuum, and some external actors have their own goals that may work against yours. We often suffer from tunnel vision as we are focused on the now. We must be able to pull ourselves out of this singular focus – at least on occasion – to see the bigger picture, and see what emerging threats are coming to the forefront; even as we are still locking horns with the current threat.

“It can be more dangerous not to act than to act - a point often lost in contemporary strategic debates. Inaction is a choice, too, and can have perilous consequences.”

5)“Adroit strategy matters; perseverance usually matters more.”

War, in the Clausewitzian-perspective, has been about compelling an adversary to carry out your will - war is a clash of wills in this sense. Strategy is about shaping conditions in such a way that you break their will, and they execute yours. Therefore, a competent strategy will be necessary to achieve this, but if the adversary never breaks, then you will continue to fight indefinitely. Basically, the purpose of war is not killing and destruction - those are the only ways and means of breaking wills - so if your strategy involves killing and destruction that doesn't bring you closer to breaking the adversary's will, then you will need to rehash that strategy.

“War is a contest of will: and although clever operations and tactics matter, they do not count as much as sheer grit, at all levels.”

6)“A president can launch a war; to win it, he or she must sustain congressional and popular support.”

Following the previous guideline, it is important to state that we must preserve our own will to stick it through a long-lasting conflict. While we seek to end a conflict quickly - bring the troops home - if conflict is necessary and that we must continue until our ends are met, the people need to understand why it is so. It will be up to our civilian leaders to explain this and keep people engaged.

“The greatest fault of both Presidents Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan was their failure to repeatedly explain to the American people why their country was waging those wars.”

The Big Stick for Business

For a business or a marketer to use some of the topics brought up by Cohen in his book, they need to understand a few things about each. When he, or we, speak of things such as war, strategy, planning, winning, etc., we have a perspective that is shaped by our own history. Ideas of what these mean - cemented in military imperatives, but underlying each term is a fundamentally human endeavor that transcends any particular profession. The ends, ways, and means may seem different and unique on the surface, but those underlying fundamentals are the same - an important premise of War Is My Business.

We will specifically look at those six guidelines that Cohen developed, and I will rewrite and discuss them as if they were guidelines written for marketers and their businesses. In this way, you will see those fundamentals begin to surface.

1)Understand your market for what it is, not what you wish it to be.

War, and military operations other than war (MOOTW), involves the threat and use of force against an adversary in order to compel them to your will. The nature of the environment in which war is conducted will dictate how the means and ways come together to produce results. While the variables cause complexity that creates uncertainty in what consequences may occur, the study of those variables - their causal relationships - will help reduce that uncertainty.

Similarly, a market is an environment in which marketers utilize various means and ways in order to influence an audience to execute their will. The nature of the market environment will dictate how effective ways and means (types of adverts, promotions, CRM, etc.) utilized to produce your desired results - a sale, an engagement, or gathering of contact information, to name a few.

But just as we shouldn't try to utilize military force or conduct warfare in a way that doesn't work towards a desired end, we also can't try to shape our business, or market its value, in a way that doesn't achieve our ends. For most businesses, we focus on marketing to our niches. We market to the needs and wants – the customers’ paint points - and shape an environment conducive to the desired response. Understanding your desired ends and analyzing the nature of your market will help you determine which means and ways work best. You can't act as if your market is something that it isn't because you prefer to engage different audiences or use different engagement methods.

2)Developing a marketing plan is important; being able to adapt is more important.

When you develop a marketing plan, you have to dig deep into where your target audience resides. Do they spend a decent amount of time on social media, and if they do, which platforms? If your audience is older, then it may provide you a better ROI to stick with traditional mediums - like print, radio, TV, or signage. If your audience is young, then you may need to continually keep yourself aware of new digital platforms as they can and may migrate to new ones every few years.

But the most important thing that the marketing plan provides you is the ability to act in a unified manner. To assess your market deeply so that if there are shifts in that market, you can begin to sense them and adapt your plan to what you are seeing. Without your plan, you wouldn't be in the thick of it to see how your engagements, your content, are being perceived. You wouldn't have the ability to gather metrics to which you can determine what you need to change in order to thrive later on.

3)You will want a quick ROI, but prepare for the long game if needed.

Marketing, for the most part, is a sunken cost that we can't get back. As a result, for our managers, owners, or even ourselves, we seek to see our marketing budget achieve a decent ROI in a relatively short time. That is because it is indeed a sunk cost, and we want to know if funding a particular campaign is worth the investment as soon as possible. That way we can cut it if we see it failing.

There are some markets and particular audiences; however, that will not provide a quick turnaround between initial engagement and the desired response. For these people, you will need to be prepared for continuous engagement. They will need to see the value of your offer through content and how you deal with current and potential customers and clients. You may need to even foster reviews from other satisfied customers and clients in order to build an aura of quality and excellence around your brand, and naturally, this is going to take some time. Prepare for that.

4)While engaging with your target market today, prepare for tomorrow's challenges.

There are handfuls of businesses that could have been said to be market leaders only to fail to adapt as the market shifted. Kodak and Blockbuster Video come to mind. They had well-established business models that made them profitable - Kodak had film, and Blockbuster had physical video and game rentals. As the markets shifted to digital cameras and mail-ordered and digital downloaded media, they started to suffer. Blockbuster is gone for all intent and purposes as a result of this, and Kodak allowed others to be frontrunners of digital cameras since their own digital camera was scrapped since it threatened their main income source: film.

Other companies saw the shift ahead of time, and some even led that shift. Netflix, who overthrew Blockbuster Video, made its mail-order video rental service somewhat obsolete by creating a Stream-on-demand service. Basically, for marketers, while you are looking at trying to solve your audience's pain points now, you need to pay attention to what their future issues might be with new ways to solve them - before someone else does that for you. Always work towards trying to “put yourself out of business” as Gary Vaynerchuk would say. For many, feedback from marketing and customer services will be the first trigger identifying a change in your market.

5)A well-developed marketing strategy matters; perseverance usually matters more.

This goes along the lines of preparing for the long game and focusing on constant engagements instead of the execution of a single campaign then counting your winnings. Needless to say, if your engagement plan is terrible, then persevering under that plan is unwise - it needs to change. In a situation in which there isn't much change to be allowed, however, then being persistent in your engagement will net you victory in the long-run. If by that time, your competition failed to be as persistent as you, then you will begin to take market share from them.

This would work for a business; however, we aren't necessarily trying to defeat our competition to such an extent that they cease to be viable companies, and we stand alone. For nations and their militaries, it is desirable to defeat adversaries so that only the state holds a monopoly over the ability to impose will through the use of force. In the economic sphere, however, countries generally prefer healthy competition and will employ anti-trust regulations to prevent or break up potential monopolies. That being said, out-willing your competition, so to speak, is still applicable given the conditions allow it.

6)A business can launch a marketing campaign; to win it, he or she must sustain management and stakeholder support.

Depending on the type of business, your marketing plan will need to get the initial support from your management to conduct it. Afterward, depending on whether they see an ROI or shifting brand recognition amongst the target audience, the stakeholders: employees, customers, shareholders, etc., - will themselves influence management, or management will act unilaterally, to continue or nix their support for your plan. Similar to how popular support, or the lack of it, can compel Congress to influence the war-making decisions of senior civilian and military leaders.

If your marketing plan requires support for the long-haul, you will need to stay engaged with your management and stakeholders in order to get their buy-in. If you suffer set-backs, they will need to know why, how it occurred, what you learned from it, and how you adjusted your execution to compensate. They understand that sometimes things don't go your way, but keeping them in the dark can have a negative influence on their perception of your capabilities. Constant engagement on your marketing operations, often simply in the form of metrics, your assessment of those metrics, and plans moving forward, will do well to sustain the support you need.


To wrap things up, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force by Eliot A. Cohen focuses on the use of a particular instrument of national power – specifically the military of the United States. This isn’t to say that it is a book about the use of the United States Armed Forces, but instead how to use them in relation to all other options available to the nation. The military is a powerful force. In the United States, at least, the Department of Defense is the largest single employer with some of the most destructive and impressive equipment and munitions at its disposal. But its ends are – and should – be aligned with the will of the nation, and its use should be considered alongside all other options available. This book simply emphasizes that as the global environment changes, this one particular tool is still very much relevant and necessary.

In business, we must constantly make assessments about our markets, its demographics, and how the interests of our customer-base may be shifting as new technologies emerge and cultures change. From that we determine which tools, and the ways we use them, provide us the best returns for our investment of capital and time. Based on our experiences and biases we or our superiors may prefer to use and focus on certain mediums over others when engaging our markets. We may believe that as technologies changes and the markets shift that certain tools are no longer the meta and that we must seek out new platforms, new and innovative ways to engage. In this sense, the determination on how to go about accomplishing your ends through the ways and means you have available is not unlike how a nation determines how best to achieve its ends. Ours is simply of a lesser degree in scope and in severity in consequence.

If you can learn anything from this book - from the perspective of a marketer - then that is to make no presuppositions about which tools work and which don’t without doing an effective assessment of the market itself. We must let the market, its metrics, and relationships; shape our decision, instead of letting our pre-conceived notions shape the market in our minds. There are other lessons to be learned but will leave that up to those interested in purchasing the book and discovering that for themselves. Eliot A. Cohen is an important political scientist, especially in regards to civil-military relations – his previous book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime we also reviewed. If the potential this book interests you, then please consider adding it to your library.  Links at the top of the page for those looking to buy.

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