Military Power: The Best Concept for Peace

Military Power is the most important concept to keep peace. This realist position sounds rather paradoxical, however the idea is based on solid arguments.

Military power is the capacity to use force or to threaten its use in order to influence the behaviour of other states.
According to Peter Paret, Military Power “expresses and implements the power of the state in a variety of ways within and beyond the state borders, and is also one of the instruments with which political power is originally created and made permanent." (quoted in Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age)

Because a nation's military capability, or power, predicates that a country's military organizations receive national resources only to transform them into specific war-fighting capabilities (effective to the degree of enabling a country's leaders to impose their will on enemies [both existing and potential]), it can be argued that there is a direct link between military power and national power – i.e. the capability of a country to challenge other powers if so it wishes.

But how can military power produce peace?
Holding military capabilities implies being either defensive (to ensure security and self-defence capabilities) or offensive (with aggressive intentions); however while the latter may be an assurance of war, adopting a defensive posture doesn't pose a threat since it doesn't seek to maximise power (e.g. invasion to increase territory).
Defensive realism argues that nations acquire military power because they are eager to defend themselves and guarantee their survival - without maximising power - thus assuaging any fear that their neighbours, or adversaries, may have regarding an imminent attack. This argument is supported by world numbers 3 & 4, in The Four Worlds explained by Robert Jervis (in Cooperation under the Security Dilemma):
  • World #3 - describes a situation where a defensive posture is distinguishable from the offensive one and, even when an offensive offers advantages (determined by technology or geography) there is no security dilemma involved even though aggression may be possible. However, in this case the status quo states can follow different policies than those of the aggressors'; and warnings will be issued. 
  • World #4 – describes a situation where a defensive posture is distinguishable from the offensive stance and because there are advantages in defence, both parties are doubly stable. 
Another argument that can explain why military power can keep peace is deterrence.
In International Relations, the definition of deterrence is: a policy through which political leaders threaten military retaliation in an attempt to prevent the other side from resorting to the threat or use of military force, when pursuing its foreign policy objectives.
“A threat serves as a deterrent to the extent that it convinces its target not to carry out the intended action because of the costs and losses the target would incur.”(Paul Huth in Deterrence and International Conflict - Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates)
For a threat to work there must be a clear signal of retaliation, such as a clear military build-up, the development of nuclear programmes (for even if the programme is intended to produce cheaper electricity, the opportunity to develop it further into weaponry capacity will always exist, especially if the country goes rogue) and, therefore, the information about the retaliatory capabilities of the other party.  If after a careful analysis of the facts, a state is not willing to bear the costs of retaliation, then deterrence will have worked and peace will be kept (being the meaning of peace, in this case, the absence of an all-out war).

Military power is more efficient in keeping peace than democracy and free trade for the following reasons:
  • although democracies don't usually wage wars against democracies, they may wage preventive wars to either gain certain advantages or prevent other nations from increasing their military/retaliatory power. As Robert Pape so well argued “The US conquest of Iraq (...) challenges one of the most important norms in international politics - that democracies do not fight preventive wars - and so undermines the assurance that comes from the expectation that democratic institutions can keep a sole superpower from altering the status quo to its advantage." (in Soft Balancing against the United States)
  • although free market may  eventually lead to peace, it does not do so automatically.  The expansion of international trade is a contributor to peace in the long run, however free market alone is not a deterrent to war. Nevertheless, the expansion of economic interdependence has - so far - been the only factor of deterrence in the East Asia tensions (i.e. Territorial conflicts involving China, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Vietnam). 

Limits of Military Power
Although this concept can be very effective in maintaining peace, it also has its limitations – capable of producing the opposite effect. For instance:
  • The security dilemma can pose a threat to peace if neither parties involved hold enough information about each other (i.e. unaware of the adversary's intentions), working thus under the assumption that the other side is offensive. As a consequence, tensions escalate, we witness an increasing arms race and a war may break out. 
  • Deterrence may fail in the case of aggressive powers (that are more than willing to bear the costs of retaliation) and of pre-emptive attacks (i.e. due to a perceived imminent attack). In such cases there are only two options: either to make war or surrender (and given human nature, it's easy to assume that making war would be the preferred option). 
Despite the limitations of military power, it can be stated that – alone - it holds more chances of keeping peace than democracy and free markets by themselves; since history has proven that democracies not only can fight offensive wars but can also elect regimes prone to conflicts (therefore, granting the government public authority and legitimacy to fight wars); and there isn't enough evidence that free markets per se are a sufficient incentive to preclude armed conflicts.

(Image: Ha'adir/F35 - IDF Blog)


  1. You are right. Just look at the situation in South Asia!

    1. Exactly, Rummuser: South Asia is a perfect example of it, although economic interdependence has also played a major role. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Hi Cristina,

    This post should make idealists squirm lol. But anyway, it's true that if a nation holds military power and another doesn't, the powerful one will feel compelled to be more aggressive towards the other; whereas, if both nations hold military power they will think twice before attacking each other and will open other avenues to solve conflicts. It's common sense.

    Great work, chief :D


  3. I love this type of posts, Cristina! So the US eliminated the argument that democracies don't fight democracies; no wonder liberals hate Bush!
    Military power as the best tool to keep peace, yeah you're right cause diplomacy alone doesn't work either. But I have to ask one thing: how does military power keep peace when a non-state actor uses asymmetric methods?

  4. I like the subliminal nuclear message. Hey, I'm all for the realist position so military power remains the biggest power indicator for any country. That bullshit that economic liberals came up with to form the BRICS is phony and even India and China get that. Don't need to tell you folks about Russia right? The size of your military, the abundance of toys is what shows a country's strength, and that's that.
    Good job, Cristina.

  5. Agree with your thoughts Max....Its an irony that everybody thought with the prevalence of democracies and end of kings and feudal regimes, battles and wars would come to an end, but alas it has only become deadlier with the sophisticated weapons of today that no doubt is a deterrent. The only worry is mainly for the developing countries, who spend a considerable amount of resources which sometimes perhaps is more than the actual requirements at the cost of its people and development.

    1. K, these thoughts are not mine (although I feel flattered)...they were written by our editor in chief, Cristina.
      I agree with you thoughts on developing countries spending on defence in detriment of their people and national development.


  6. Cristina, what a wonderful work: thank you, thank you and thank you! The liberals must be squirming on their seats after reading this piece however, we need to ask one question: who can afford to have such a military might that they can actually make peace with it? Would Russia or China do it? I don't know...


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