PURPLE PATCH: The Role of Military Power —John Garnett
The relationship between military strength and political influence is certainly not the proportional one implied by Mao Tse-tung’s famous dictum that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’; but although it is not a straightforward connection, few would dispute that in general terms there is a relationship between military strength and political power. On the whole, those who wield the most military power tend to be the most influential; their wishes the most respected; their diplomacy the most heeded. Of all the great powers, only Japan appears to disprove the connection between military and political strength. As Ian Smart says, ‘Japan is allegedly intent upon that alchemist’s “grand experiment”; the transmutation of great economic into great political power without the use of any military catalyst.’ Whether Japan will succeed is highly problematic, and the fact that it is trying is not so much because it is confident of success as because it has no real alternative.
The connection between military strength and political power was clearly perceived by R Chaput, when, commenting on the relative decline of British military strength in the 1930s, he wrote, ‘The weight of Great Britain in diplomatic bargaining is, in the last resort, proportionate to the strength of her armaments, and her influence for peace is measurable in terms of the force she can muster to prevent the overthrow of the political equilibrium by armed force.’ It is undoubtedly a serious mistake to assume that political influence is proportional to military strength; but it is an even more serious error to deny any connection between the two.
A second arrow in the quiver of those who queried the utility of military power is the argument that in ideological quarrels it is an inappropriate weapon because ideas cannot be defeated by force of arms. It is sometimes claimed, for example, that the notion of a ‘united Ireland’, which gives point to IRA activity in Ulster, cannot be defeated by the British military presence, and, therefore, that a political solution must be found to the problems of that troubled province. It is also sometimes claimed that in so far as the West is engaged in an ideological struggle with communism, its concentration on military confrontation means that it is planning to fight the wrong war. It is, of course, debatable whether the IRA is much interested in a united Ireland or whether the East-West struggle is predominantly ideological, but even if they are, the proposition that ideas cannot be defeated by military force cannot be accepted without serious qualification.
It is perfectly true that ideas cannot be eradicated without destroying all the books where they are written down and killing all the people who have never heard of them. In that sense the proposition that ideas cannot be destroyed by military force is probably true; but even though it may be impossible to eliminate ideas, it is certainly possible to render them politically in effective by the use of military force. The ideas of Hitler and Mussolini live on in their writings, which are accessible to all, but the military defeat of the Axis powers in 1945 went a long way towards relegating fascism to the periphery of practical politics. Similarly, in Ireland one may speculate that the ruthless use of military power could make the idea of a united Ireland politically irrelevant for the foreseeable future. The word ruthless is important. If the Kremlin had the problem of Ulster to deal with, it is easy to believe that within a period of weeks rather than months the IRA would have been systematically destroyed, its sympathizers incarcerated, and the entire province subjected to military discipline. In other words, criticisms about the way in which the British government has used its military power in Ireland are not criticisms about the effectiveness of the military instrument per se; they are only criticisms about the halfhearted, squeamish way in which successive British governments, rightly or wrongly, have used it.
Gernett is a leading writer on military affairs in the realist tradition. This passage has been taken from his article of the same title in a compilation titled ‘Perspectives on World Politics’. The article is a selection from ‘Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Concepts’, which Garnett authored with John Baylis, Phil Williams and Ken Booth