Compellence; changing strategic values of this function of force

Another paper written for class, but I think that this one is interesting enough to post here.  Please excuse any typos, it was written with a time limit.

During the Cold War there were four categories that characterized the functions of force.  These four categories included defense, deterrence, compellence, and presence.  Compellence was considered to be one of the most important functions of force, and was used throughout the Cold War with varying measures of success.  Compellence is defined as applying force to cause another party to change their course of action.  This could be to cause to them to stop doing something, or it could be to cause them to start doing something.  This function is related to defense and deterrence, but there are important differences.    Defense is a reactive use of force, if someone attacks me, I will try to stop and limit their attack to protect myself.  Deterrence is used to prevent a party from taking an action.  If I know that another state has the capability to destroy my state, I will not attack them.  Compellence is different because while defense is reactive and deterrence causes a lack of actions from other parties, compellence results in other parties changing their behavior due to your actions.  Strategic thinking on compellence has changed from its use in the Cold War, its use in the peace operations of the 1990’s, and now for its use in the War on Terrorism.

During the Cold War new technologies enhanced the ability of states to apply compellence.  One of the most important changes was air power.  Air power gave states the ability to apply counter value targeting.  Counter value targeting is different from the traditional idea of counter force targeting where the aim is to destroy the other party’s military power.  In counter force targeting the goal is to destroy things that the other party values, such as cities, factories, and infrastructure.  Traditionally this was not possible because in order to be able to reach these targets you had to first be able to go through the countries military defenses.  Air power allowed states to fly overhead and drop bombs.  The idea behind counter value targeting according to Cold War strategic thinkers was if we destroy enough things that the enemy values they will act according to our wishes.

This method of compellence was used in the Vietnam War.  During the Vietnam War there was extensive bombing of counter value targets like factories in North Vietnam.  This strategy failed because it assumed that the North Vietnamese valued the same things that America valued, and failed to understand that the North Vietnamese were fighting a total war.  Compellence can be a limited strategy.  In Vietnam, after we bombed all of the available targets we had moved to the top of the escalation ladder and ran out of ways to compel the North Vietnamese.  Compellence will have limited utility when fighting an enemy who is conducting a total war and values their goal, such as unification of Vietnam, more than the things that are available to target, such as infrastructure.

Another case where compellence was used during the Cold War was the Korean War.  In the Korean War there was an extensive, and devastating, counter value campaign against North Korean targets.  Some of the targets included things like bombing dams that resulted in North Korean agricultural land being flooded resulting in mass misery.  North Korea had started with the total goal of re-unifying the Korean peninsula, but after a long stalemate at the 38th parallel, and after having much of their country destroyed, they were compelleled to accept the limited goals of the current status quo.  Another technological feature that aided in this compellence was the threat of the use of nuclear weapons.  The Americans let it be known that they would consider using a nuclear weapon in the Korean War if it continued and the fighting increased.

After the Cold War the nature of conflicts changed, and during the 1990’s there was an increase in peace operations.  Peace operations are when third parties, usually the UN or NATO, go into conflict zones and try to impose the condition of peace.  This is different than traditional peace keeping because in peace operations there isn’t an existing condition of peace, and the third party has an expanded capability to use force.  One major peace operation occurred in Kosovo.  In Kosovo there was major fighting and ethnic cleansing between Serbian forces and the Bosnian population.  There were many atrocities committed, and NATO decided to intervene to stop the conflict, partially out of concern that it threatened the peace of Europe.  In order to apply compellence in Kosovo, NATO used massive airstrikes as opposed to using ground forces.   After about 70 days of the air strikes the conflict was stopped due to the Dayton accords being signed.  Another conflict where compellence was used was in Haiti.  In Haiti the military seized power in the 1990’s by overthrowing the democratically elected President.  The military was abusing human rights as well as being involved with the drug trade.  The U.S. pressured the Military to give up power, but the military initially did not do so.  The U.S. sent American forces to Haiti to compel the military to return the democratically elected President to power.  This was a successful use of military threat in that it compelled the Haitian military to step down without requiring actual violence.

During the 1990’s there was controversy in the U.S. using compellence in peace keeping operations.  Many realists like George Kennan argued that since the U.S. had no national interest in these places the U.S. should not be involved.  Some of the arguments against were that the U.S. had a poor understanding of the places we were intervening in, and that the democracy that the U.S. was trying to compel states to implement might be worse for our interests than the existing authoritarian ruler.  Others like Lutterbeck, who in his famous article Give War a Chance, argued that by becoming involved in these conflicts it was actually making them worse.  His argument was that by not allowing either side to have a decisive victory it allowed both sides to continue fighting, and it discouraged the weaker side from making concessions to the stronger one to end the conflict.

One particular peace operation that showed the political limits of using compellence was Somalia.  U.S. forces went into Somalia in the 1990’s to provide humanitarian relief during the famine that was going on.  Somalia at the time had no real central authority, but had competing war lords, some of whom stole supplies.  America tried to apply compellence to one of the war lords, even putting a price on the warlord’s head, to try to change the conditions were the war lords were stealing aid and interfering with U.N. forces.  During the tragic Black Hawk Down incident militants shot down a U.S. helicopter, killed the American forces inside, and dragged the bodies down the street.  When Americans heard this story and saw the pictures from the media, they were outraged.  The mission in Somalia was withdrawn due to immense political pressure.  This political pressure limited American willingness to engage in compellence for peace operations, as seen by our reluctance to go into Rwanda during the massacres that were occurring there.

The idea of compellence underwent yet another massive change after the 9/11 attacks on America.  During the aftermath of these attacks the Bush Doctrine was developed.  The Bush Doctrine stressed the necessity of preemption against terrorist and radical forces.  One of the key arguments of the Bush Doctrine was that extremists are not susceptible to deterrence.  This is similar to the North Vietnamese situation; the extremists have total goals so there is no target that has enough value to change their behavior.  This can be seen in the extremists’ method of suicide attacks.  If someone is willing to die for their cause, as the 9/11 hijackers were, than there is nothing they value more than achieving their strategic goal.  Another issue with groups like Al-Qaeda is that since they are non-state actors they don’t have many traditional counter value targets like cities.  According to the Bush Doctrine, since these extremists cannot be compelled or deterred there was a need to use preemptive attacks.  In the case of Iraq it was argued that since it was thought that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and it was thought that he was working with terrorist groups, there was an urgent need to prevent the most dangerous weapons from going to the most dangerous actors.

Even if armed groups are unable to be compelled, states will still be able to be compelled.  This is important because many armed groups are dependent on states for patronage and sanctuary.  In the case of the Taliban they were told that if they didn’t turn over the people responsible for the 9/11 attack they would be invaded.  This didn’t work in the case of the Taliban, but it has the potential to work with other state actors who harbor terrorists.  Also, compellence can function as something other than military force, such as sanctions.  This has recently been seen in the case of Iran, who after devastating sanctions is now negotiating their nuclear program.  If compellent force is used against state sponsors of terror, and it is strong and credible enough it can have an effect on the strength of armed groups or rouge state.  Another example of this is the case of North Korea and Macao.  Macao used to be a major area of North Korean criminal activity, but in 2005 the U.S. Treasury Department took action against the Macao banking sector which led to North Korean bank assets being frozen and Macao changing financial policies to stop money laundering.  Compellence can be used still, but it might be the case that how it is use is changed.  Counter value approaches and military force still have utility, but now access to financial markets and global trade are more valuable, and weaker to coercion and compellence, than things like cities and factories.  Also, there is less likely to be political fallout due to these new methods, as opposed to an operation like Somalia.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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