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Defense Engagement since 1900: Global Lessons in Soft Power

Defense Engagement since 1900: Global Lessons in Soft Power edited by Greg Kennedy. Kansas University Press, 2020, 312 pp. 

In the midst of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) shift from wars in the Middle East with extremist groups to power struggles with near-peer adversaries, new strategic centers of gravity come into focus—chief among them, soft power. In no other way can the US retain allies and keep intact its sphere of influence over nations near to China and Russia. In this context, Defense Engagement since 1900 is an ambitious work of applied military history meant for all readers, but particularly those focusing on military and political affairs. The book offers lessons from the past for current challenges over the course of 10 case studies with different authors. The collection is compiled and introduced by Greg Kennedy, a professor in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) International Defence Engagement Strategy defines defense engagement (DE) as “the use of our people and assets to prevent conflict, build stability, and gain influence” (p. 243). Over the course of the book, Professor Kennedy and the other authors put forth various considerations to support embracing DE in the UK and abroad. Notably, the case study is a unique form of analysis that furthers military and political research by comparing historical analysis to contemporary defense problems. While the vehicle of a case study may risk losing some readers, it is well used in this book by placing current policy issues alongside historical lessons learned.

DE is not a new concept, but its applications are continually refreshed. It embodies the desire to achieve influence and advantage by “engaging with neutral nations, allied nations, and even adversarial nations through military interactions” (p. 2). Such interactions are not simply kinetic in nature; instead, the intention is to utilize “soft power” attributes within the military power sphere. These activities and actions run the gamut from “war-gaming, exercising, and common-doctrine creation through to technological exchanges, professional military education, and intelligence sharing” (p. 3). Ultimately, the aim of DE is akin to the aim of alliance building: to deter, assure, attract, and prevent. Deterring wars is better than winning wars in the first place.

DE was first espoused as a British military activity in the National Security Strategy of 2010 as a means to tackle risks before they escalated. DE is historically championed by military attachés—officers who commonly straddle the military and diplomatic divide. They are uniquely positioned to examine the ability of a state’s military to move away from thinking of its role as the applicator of force and towards an applicator of power. The DE influence is at the core of what this application of military power aspires to accomplish.

Of the book’s 10 case studies, the most contemporary is the final one concerning the Brexit decision, Britain’s new position in the world, and DE’s ability to ameliorate some of the undesired ramifications of Brexit. By not viewing Britain through the lens of a “Remainer” or “Brexiteer,” but rather through the lens of the United Nations, the authors find evidence for a decline in the UK’s world standing following the Brexit decision. Immediately after Brexit, for example, the UK suffered a 15 percent devaluation of its currency.

Brexit’s peculiar harm to defense strategy was the utter lack of clarity on where the government’s priorities lie. Did the UK wish to remain a global nation with global influence or should it seek to focus more on Europe? There were no easy answers to these questions, causing further tension within the government. Regardless of whether one sees Brexit as a golden opportunity or a looming threat, the decision taken by the UK public on 24 June 2016 appears to have taken some toll on the UK’s international standing.

The authors of the Brexit case study make clear that DE can help mitigate some of the negative effects of the UK’s impending departure from the EU. They state that a renewed focus on the enduring UK-US relationship is more vital than ever. Also, a clearer focus on European engagement through existing institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offers the advantage of efficiently reaching 28 nations through a single aperture. The UK’s military can next pay particular focus on its closest European allies—France and Germany—with a close second priority on the near-abroad. Ultimately, an “everything everywhere” approach will clearly not deliver the desired outcomes, so perhaps it is time to rethink the scale of the UK Defence Department’s contribution to the UK’s international ambition.

Be forewarned that the scope of Defense Engagement since 1900 is narrow. It puts forth a perspective focused on the UK and is primarily European in scope. While parallels can be drawn to other nations and conflicts, one should know in advance that the book ultimately targets a Eurocentric audience. A second critique is that not all of the chapters offer true case studies in DE. The first chapter, for example, is primarily a historical recounting of the military attaché roles in various European countries from 1900–19. This recounting is a case study only in the loosest sense; it is better categorized as a historical summary. Finally, each chapter features another author’s voice and approach; some are dusty and didactic, while others sparkle with the author’s wit and personality.

DE will surely grow in popularity in the UK and abroad. The DOD recently released the unclassified portion of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Thus, it is clear that the American military also values scholarship on the topic of influence and legitimacy among foreign populations. In the end, the book predicts that several leading militaries must take on unconventional roles in the United Nations and NATO, recasting themselves in the coming years from wielder of force to employer of power.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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