Coercing Compliance
State-Initiated Brute Force in Today's World
Robert Mandel



The Study’s Central Thrust

FEW GLOBAL SECURITY ISSUES STIMULATE more fervent passion than brute force. Generally considered “the most extreme instrument of foreign policy,” the use of force often dominates security planning.1 A fierce debate rages about brute force, arguably the most controversial public policy issue in international relations:2 Some onlookers view force use as the most intuitive way to resolve disputes, a natural and appropriate reaction to perceived threat, while others view force use as primitive, inelegant, uncivilized, barbaric, and illegitimate—and often emotional and irrational3—reflecting the failure of more delicate instruments of power. Advocates of the first view pessimistically argue that we now live in an increasingly dangerous world where justified fears and real threats abound and where unruly disruptive state and nonstate players engage in ruthless behavior to attain their power-seeking ends; this global predicament necessitates strong military/police coercion as a management response to such anarchy.4 Advocates of the second view optimistically contend that we now live in a world characterized by enlightened, democratic, interdependent, peaceful cooperation; civil resolution of differences; and a sense of global community, where ideas of warfare and organized violence are increasingly obsolete; such views see force as superfluous due to the growth and spread of economic interdependence, democracy, and international institutions.5 Many academic scholars view force as atavistic, a reversion to outmoded behavior from bygone days deserving little attention now.

In a now-famous September 11, 2013, op-ed piece in the New York Times, to discourage American military action in Syria, Vladimir Putin stated, “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us’; but force has proved ineffective and pointless.”6 Ignoring the irony of this criticism coming from someone who had just authorized brute force use in Georgia (and who later authorized its use in Ukraine, an ongoing crisis at the time of this writing), this remark highlights the centrality of brute force debates in international relations.


This study is the first comprehensive systematic global analysis of major twenty-first-century state-initiated internal and external applications of brute force. The multilayered interpretive context (depicted in Figure 1-1) involves global system transformation, national might misperception, and modern coercion conundrum. Based on extensive case evidence, this investigation assesses the short term and long term; the local and global; the military, political, economic, and social; and the state and human security impacts of state-initiated brute force, explicitly isolating the conditions under which brute force works best and worst by highlighting (1) force initiator and force target attributes linked to brute force success and (2) common but low-impact force legitimacy concerns. Finally, this book provides policy advice for managing global brute force use.

This study comes to two major overarching conclusions: (1) The modern global pattern of brute force futility is more a function of states’ misapplication of brute force than of the inherent deficiencies of this instrument itself, and consequently it is not surprising that a mismatch exists between states’ brute force application and twenty-first-century security challenges; and (2) the realm for successful application of state-initiated brute force is shrinking, for when facing insuperable security challenges, there are identified circumstances where state-initiated brute force can serve as a transitional short-run local military solution, although not by itself as a long-run global strategic solution or as a cure for human security problems. In the future, brute force used as an instrument of state policy will need much smarter application than in the recent past to avoid pitfalls such as action–reaction cycles or regional contagion effects. This investigation thus calls into question much prevailing wisdom about brute force effectiveness and legitimacy.

By focusing on brute force use, this study is automatically emphasizing those confrontations that occur on the more extreme end of the coercion continuum representing the greatest security challenges state regimes face, ones where their very existence or continuity may be at stake or where they deem any other mode of response to be inadequate. These are often cases where diplomacy and economic sanctions have failed and where dire warnings and threats of force have been unable to achieve compliance. Thus this book’s scope envelops the most important and “worst-case” security predicaments anyone could imagine occurring in today’s world.

Figure 1-1. Brute force interpretive context.

Most relevant work does not concentrate on brute force, instead either more narrowly covering warfare or more broadly discussing all forms of coercion, including threats of force and shows of force. Although these broader and narrower studies are valuable for their own purposes, they do not isolate patterns of brute force success and failure. No existing study analyzes the major twenty-first-century state uses of brute force (through the end of 2013) as this book does. Many writings about force in today’s world either do not confront the fundamental conceptual paradoxes involved or—in confronting them—take polemical positions defending or attacking the value of applying force in most global predicaments.

This brute force investigation ties in with several other important security concerns: (1) pressures for gun control domestically and arms control internationally; (2) within-state social contract alterations between the rulers and the ruled regarding security responsibilities; (3) sovereignty transformation, reflecting security tensions between state freedom and global integration; (4) fluid global effectiveness and legitimacy norms and practices, including restraint by governments and freedom for individuals and groups; and (5) changing roles for police and military security forces. Although focused on global issues, the findings pertain to other levels of analysis, including interpersonal and intergroup aggression. This study’s analysis even links to discussions about human civilization’s progress toward enlightened civilized norms.


This study is exclusively interested in brute force—direct application of physical strength—in contentious confrontations, not the use of coercive diplomacy, threats and ultimatums, economic sanctions, or shows of force. Considering just brute force applications helps to isolate the security dilemmas this particular kind of physical strength use poses in today’s world. This analysis emphasizes the broad strategic context for force use, not specific tactics or training and morale methods.

Because of the distinctiveness of the post-9/11 security setting, this study chooses to cover only twenty-first-century brute force use, not that of earlier time periods. The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, appeared to alter prevailing global interpretations of both force effectiveness and force legitimacy: Although one could easily exaggerate the distinctiveness of this time period,7 considerable evidence exists that coercion norms and practices have undergone recent transformation. Studying so recent a time period has drawbacks in that this sharply limits the diversity of cases selected and the certainty that these cases have fully played themselves out, but this choice also has benefits in that it fosters homogeneity in the global security context, increasing the chances that this analysis can prioritize situations best and worst for brute force, taking into account the distinctive obstacles and opportunities present in today’s world.

As to geographical scope, this study’s coverage of brute force is explicitly global, incorporating both Western and non-Western force initiators. There is no special focus on any one particular country or region and no reliance on any one set of narrow security interests. The incorporation of both developed and developing countries’ force use captures appropriately the full range of relevant security implications.

This analysis focuses on brute force applications exclusively initiated by state governments, not by private groups or individuals. Within today’s global security setting, national governments possess the greatest incentives to use force to keep ruling regimes in power. Even with the proliferation of weaponry to private citizens, and widespread terrorist-initiated violence, state governments still possess the greatest potential for (1) force effectiveness, given their preponderance of lethal firepower; and (2) force legitimacy, given the security-promoting social contract embedded in the Westphalian system. So the greatest international surprise, disappointment, and resentment occur when state-initiated force fails.

This investigation incorporates both internal and external state brute force use. Most studies deal with only one or the other, but not both, because they see the two as so distinctive. In contrast, this study assumes that key commonalities exist between the two in security patterns, and it attempts to link wherever possible what goes on within states to what goes on across states. For example, how conceptually distinct are the Indian crackdown in Kashmir (technically internal) and the Russian invasion of Georgia (technically external)? Recently, internal force uses have had major international implications, and external force uses have had major domestic repercussions.

This book covers only major brute force uses. Major brute force use occurs where political stability threats are centrally involved, unlike minor internal state force uses to put down petty criminal threats with little impact or relevance to national security. So although the most common state use of force may be to crack down on internal criminal violence, that type of application is not the focus of the cases (although it is represented by the Mexican government’s use of force against the drug lords).

This study encompasses brute force use during both wartime and peacetime, for “the peaceful uses of military power can have as central an effect on state relations as does its warlike use.”8 Moreover, because recent war–peace distinctions have been difficult—thanks to the frequency of undeclared wars and forceful acts of military intervention that resemble wars—excluding one or the other seems to make little sense. War and peace are on a continuum, representing interconnected but differing phases of statecraft.9 Furthermore, military confrontations often morph dramatically over the course of the applied coercion, and observers may categorize such confrontations differently. Finally, in terms of global import, occasionally peacetime military interventions or police crackdowns short of full-scale war have more significant security repercussions than highly localized wars.

This study emphasizes brute force security implications—considering human security, state security, and regional and global security—and includes both short-run and long-run military and political, economic, and social impacts. Simply scrutinizing immediate success or failure in force effectiveness and legitimacy is insufficient. Because mission objectives may target the mass public as well as a regime, and force may have collateral damage on civilians, bottom-up human security concerns—including socioeconomic consequences—seem critical in gauging overall force outcomes.

Given this overall scope, this study assumes that brute force use is not random or haphazard, instead exhibiting significant enduring patterns of success and failure. To draw its insights, this book relies on comparative case study analysis incorporating force use description, purpose and rationale of force initiators and targets, force effectiveness, force legitimacy, and future prospects. To overcome the dual obstacles of preconceived biases about brute force and the absence of objective hard data on brute force outcomes, this study relies on the widest range of sources from all perspectives.


Meaning of Brute Force

Brute force entails the tangible physical application of military or police strength directly against a designated target for a designated purpose, usually to compel an enemy to submit to or comply with one’s will by impeding, constraining, or otherwise altering a foe’s behavior. Brute force is typically used against unwilling opponents who would not otherwise follow one’s wishes. State-initiated brute force use occurs when “physical actions are taken by one or more components of the uniformed military services as part of a deliberate attempt by the national authorities to influence, or to prepare to influence, specific behavior of individuals”10 either inside or outside a force initiator’s country. On a continuum going from attempts to influence via diplomatic persuasion to attempts to use power via the threat of force to attempts to compel via the application of force, brute force falls on the most severe end of the scale: “To step across the threshold between applying non-violent pressure and using lethal force is a profound act—a step into an arena in which opponents constrained by very few rules are compelled to prevail by inflicting death, destruction, and psychological suffering on one another.”11

Brute force, constituting the purest kinetic use of the “stick” rather than the “carrot,” provides starkly direct avenues for attaining objectives, such as blocking a forceful takeover, destroying a threatening facility, exterminating an enemy, occupying an area militarily, or seizing foreign assets. Brute force is a form of “hard power,” entailing the deployment of ground troops and naval and air combat units to attain designated objectives, in contrast to “soft power,” involving persuading others about the attractiveness of one’s values and ideas.12 Brute force involves “both the physical means of destruction—the bullet, the bayonet—and the body that applies it.”13 This tool contrasts with (1) cyber-disruption, where the physical effects are downstream rather than direct or immediate; (2) coercive diplomacy, where force is threatened but not applied; and (3) “shows of force,” where force is prominently displayed and sometimes demonstrated but not directly attacking an enemy.

The term brute force is bandied about pejoratively in many settings. When combined with certain value-laden terminology—such as political repression, violent crackdown, or naked aggression—reference to brute force may often reflect from the outset highly partial assessments rejecting the desirability of this policy instrument. Outside international relations, even in the field of computer science, brute force generally signals a primitive, inelegant solution.

Due to these nasty connotations, three clarifications seem essential at the outset. First, brute force does not equate with Carl Von Clausewitz’s notion of “absolute war,” in which the cataclysmic goal is complete annihilation of the target: Absolute war is designed to compel targets to comply without compromise or restraint,14 applying military strength in an unconstrained manner to obliterate the enemy quickly, completely, and permanently. Instead, brute force can be applied in either an overwhelming or a limited and carefully tuned manner. Second, although brute force use usually involves injuring or killing people and damaging or destroying property, this is not inevitable—a tangible physical application of military strength could occur directly against a designated target for a designated purpose with no human deaths or property damage, such as when a state army invades enemy territory, marches all the way to the capital city, and takes over the country while encountering no forceful resistance. Third, brute force may incorporate either deterrence or compellence elements (or a combination of both).

Regardless of terminology, brutality is usually involved in brute force use, with lethal weapons wreaking incredible death and destruction.15 Brute force is thus “a blunt instrument” regardless of “how precise and surgical the application of violence.”16 Nonetheless, brute force is distinguished from pure brutality because the application of physical strength may not involve gratuitous violence without purpose. The adjective brute is used throughout this study—although it is generally avoided in most force analyses—simply to convey that military or police strength is actually applied (not just displayed or threatened) and that carnage is typically involved.

Meaning of Force Success

Brute force use success is a function of a combination of its effectiveness and legitimacy. Many studies focus simply on force effectiveness, with some equating effectiveness with overall force success or even having an implicit “might-makes-right” premise that military victors can control perceived force legitimacy. However, sometimes perceived illegitimacy leads to coercive outside intervention, and sometimes enhancing force legitimacy undercuts force effectiveness.

Meaning of Force Effectiveness

Force effectiveness gauges the degree to which the direct tangible physical application of military or police strength against a designated target achieves designated mission objectives. This often occurs through applying the “capability to impose unacceptable costs”17 on force targets. Specification of mission objectives is necessary to determine force effectiveness; if these objectives change, then force effectiveness determination would have to fluidly transform as well. Force effectiveness involves some key distinctions: (1) short-term versus long-term force effectiveness; (2) force effectiveness for national security versus for regional or global security; (3) force effectiveness for state security versus for human security; and (4) force effectiveness for military objectives versus for political, economic, or social objectives. Although the alternatives in each of these four areas are not mutually exclusive, they do reflect different emphases that could ultimately produce differences in the way success is measured. The most common force effectiveness errors are to focus just on immediate military outcomes rather than long-range objectives; national security rather than regional or global security; state security rather than human security; and political-military objectives rather than socioeconomic objectives. Force uses cannot be considered effective if target “compliance did not last for long”18 and failed to accomplish broader strategic objectives.

Meaning of Force Legitimacy

Force legitimacy gauges the extent to which the direct tangible physical application of military or police strength against a designated target conforms to widely embraced moral and legal principles. Specifically, this usually involves “the compatibility of the results of governmental output with the value patterns of the relevant system,”19 involving maintenance of fairness/justice, following due process, adherence, and compliance with the popular will in determining leadership and making decisions.20 With this meaning in mind, it is not surprising that “state use of brute force today raises key legitimacy questions.”21 In practice, however, state political leaders often judge force legitimacy simply by the degree of national and global approval, a somewhat controversial measure because public support for force use may derive simply from its quick and low-cost success even if prevailing norms and principles are violated and dirty tactics are used. The primary error in judging force legitimacy is basing conclusions on one’s own standards and values rather than sensitively taking into account those of either force initiators or force targets.


1. Richard K. Betts, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 4.

2. Jan Angstrom and Isabelle Duyvesteyn, “War, What Is It Good For?” in Jan Angstrom and Isabelle Duyvesteyn, eds., Modern War and the Utility of Force: Challenges, Methods and Strategy (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 4; and Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994), p. 1.

3. Robert Jervis, Force in Our Times (New York: Columbia University Saltzman Working Paper #15, July 2011), p. 3.

4. Robert J. Art and Kenneth N. Waltz, eds., The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics, 7th edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), p. 1; and Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen, “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks,” Foreign Affairs, 91 (March/April 2012), p. 79.

5. Robert J. Art, “American Foreign Policy and the Fungibility of Force,” Security Studies, 5 (Summer 1996), p. 7.

6. Vladimir V. Putin, “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” New York Times (September 11, 2013); retrieved from

7. F. H. Hinsley, “The Rise and Fall of the Modern International System,” Review of International Studies, 8 (January 1982), p. 1.

8. Art, “American Foreign Policy and the Fungibility of Force,” p. 41.

9. Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 9.

10. Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, Force without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1978), p. 12.

11. Seyom Brown, The Illusion of Control: Force and Foreign Policy in the 21st Century (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), p. 5.

12. See Joseph S. Nye Jr., The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 4; Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 5; and Kurt M. Campbell and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 7.

13. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 2008), p. 8.

14. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), chapter 1.

15. Betts, American Force, p. 12; and Smith, The Utility of Force, pp. 27–28.

16. Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), p. 355.

17. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, January 2012), p. 4.

18. Peter Viggo Jakobsen, “Coercive Diplomacy,” in Alan Collins, ed., Contemporary Security Studies, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 286.

19. Peter G. Stillman, “The Concept of Legitimacy,” Polity, 7 (Autumn 1974), pp. 32–56.

20. See, for example, Roy Godson and Richard Shultz, Adapting America’s Security Paradigm and Security Agenda (Washington, DC: National Strategy Information Center, 2010), pp. 34–35.

21. Andrew Hurrell, “Legitimacy and the Use of Force: Can the Circle Be Squared?” in David Armstrong, Theo Farrell, and Bice Maiguashca, eds., Force and Legitimacy in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 15.