Military Statecraft and the Rise of Shaping in World Politics

  • Published

Military Statecraft and the Rise of Shaping in World Politics by Kyle J. Wolfley. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, 203 pp.

Military Statecraft and the Rise of Shaping in World Politics is a monograph that discusses the role of shaping, which the author defines as a  statecraft tool that emphasizes military relationships and partnerships rather than threatens violence or resorts to the use of force to achieve foreign policy goals. These partnerships can include training agreements, exercises, and some forms of military support like counterterrorism and humanitarian aid operations. Successful shaping operations can improve international relationships or attract partners, empower partner states to provide their own security, or assure partner states that they will be protected from rival powers. Kyle Wolfley’s research on contemporary statecraft began during his graduate studies at Cornell University and concluded during his years as an assistant professor of international affairs at West Point. Wolfley currently serves as an Army strategist at US Army Cyber Command and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The book contributes to the literature associated with nontraditional military employment by studying non-US powers including China, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom via the statistical analysis of ground force exercises in those countries and sentiment analysis of how US military doctrine addresses strategic uncertainty. The author’s core argument is that “major powers prioritize shaping when strategic uncertainty is high; that is when threats and allies become more ambiguous” (5–6). Wolfley’s research reveals a correlation between strategic uncertainty and a rise in the number and scope of military exercises from 1980 through 2016. Additionally, the author builds on literature associated with nonviolent and non-coercive uses of military power.

Wolfley supports his thesis with a rigorous analysis of data encapsulating decades of shaping operations and military exercises supported by non-US major powers. He uses a thorough analysis of US military doctrine to examine that data through the lens of strategic uncertainty. Wolfley examines the relationships between participating countries and gains insight into how shaping advances their national interests. He posits that the distribution of power across states—especially major powers—globalization, and military power contribute to an environment of strategic uncertainty, and that these factors create constraints and opportunities that can be exploited by shaping operations.

Wolfley divides shaping operations into four distinct categories that reflect the logic behind them: attraction, which involves assuring and managing allies; socialization, or transforming values and practices in a target country’s military; delegation, or passing the burden of defense to a target country; and assurance, or changing a country’s international alignment (24). While not every scenario is examined in detail, the author discusses shaping operations as a tool of national power across history, ranging from the classical era to the present day. The study focuses on operations from 1946 to 2016 and analyzes US military doctrine from 1976 to 2011.

Wolfley’s work addresses an under-researched area of military employment as an instrument of power. The author’s analysis indicates that while major powers may not go to war with one another in the future, military forces will play a substantial role in influencing the geopolitical landscape as competition increases. Military exercises provide a way for countries to build relations, receive training and experience that would otherwise be difficult to acquire, and manage conflicts without escalating to combat.

This insight into how militaries can support statecraft outside of war is especially important in the era of great power competition. Rising powers seek to increase their influence and in some cases improve their military capabilities to increase control within their claimed spheres of influence. As this occurs, other countries will seek assurance from traditional allies and possibly realign with other nations based on their interests. For the United States, shaping operations can assure Allies that they are protected, encourage new partners to align with US interests, and potentially influence domestic policy by exposing other nations to US values and creating a more favorable perception of such values in the future. Most importantly, because these objectives can be accomplished with operations that fall short of war, the United States can meet its security interests while reducing the risk of conflict with other powers.

In addition, following Wolfley’s line of thinking, one can reasonably expect that there will be an increase in the frequency of exercises involving rising powers and middle powers and that such military operations will probably be integrated with other instruments of national power to gain influence. Countries will likely use exercises to build relationships with other countries while avoiding the overt use of force or coercion to accomplish national security objectives.

While Military Statecraft focuses on US doctrine and ground force exercises, it opens up the discussion for many other avenues of research that can be addressed in the future. Analyzing strategic uncertainty through the lens of foreign militaries’ doctrines may prove fruitful in understanding how those countries perceive the international environment. Additionally, a thorough study of air and maritime force exercises will provide insight into how countries that rely on those forces can shape the geopolitical environment within those domains. Studies that examine asymmetric forces like unmanned aircraft, cyber capabilities, and paramilitary/law enforcement forces will also be valuable for understanding how countries that rely on those capabilities seek to shape the global environment in their favor.

Military Statecraft is well worth reading. It is an excellent study in the ways planners, commanders, and policymakers can use military forces to achieve political objectives without resorting to war or coercion. The book will be of particular interest to decisionmakers and planners who support security cooperation efforts or who are involved in strategic competition. It will also be of interest to strategists, policymakers, and military members working with foreign militaries in general.

Captain Charles Kinkey

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