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The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free

The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free

by Christopher A. Preble

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Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions. In The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble explores the aims, costs, and limitations of the use of this nation's military


Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions. In The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble explores the aims, costs, and limitations of the use of this nation's military power; throughout, he makes the case that the majority of Americans are right, and the foreign policy experts who disdain the public's perspective are wrong.

Preble is a keen and skeptical observer of recent U.S. foreign policy experiences, which have been marked by the promiscuous use of armed intervention. He documents how the possession of vast military strength runs contrary to the original intent of the Founders, and has, as they feared, shifted the balance of power away from individual citizens and toward the central government, and from the legislative and judicial branches of government to the executive. In Preble's estimate, if policymakers in Washington have at their disposal immense military might, they will constantly be tempted to overreach, and to redefine ever more broadly the "national interest."

Preble holds that the core national interest—preserving American security—is easily defined and largely immutable. Possessing vast military power in order to further other objectives is, he asserts, illicit and to be resisted. Preble views military power as purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role. If it does not—if it undermines our security, imposes unnecessary costs, and forces all Americans to incur additional risks—then our military power is a problem, one that only we can solve. As it stands today, Washington's eagerness to maintain and use an enormous and expensive military is corrosive to contemporary American democracy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The Power Problem doesn't flinch from offering specifics as to what commitments the United States should keep and which it should shed. In addition to proposing criteria for using military force that are stricter than the old Weinberger-Powell doctrine—allied interests would no longer be treated as synonymous with American national interests—Preble suggests 'right-sizing' our military forces for the defense of American territory and the Western hemisphere. . . . Preble has started a debate where too often there has been a monologue."—W. James Antle III, Washington Times, 18 June 2009

"In this readable new volume, Preble argues flatly that the current level of American military capabilities makes the United States less safe, less prosperous, and less free. America's military power should be reduced to fit within the balances of the constitution and a realistic view of security requirements in a multipolar world. . . . Preble's spirited analysis gives rise to some big questions: Are American elites prepared to give up running the world? Can we afford to relinquish the prerequisites of global hegemony? Who will keep order in the world if not hegemonic America? . . . Whatever the inconveniences of change, Preble makes clear that the status quo itself is increasingly expensive and ultimately unsustainable."—David Calleo and Marco Zambotti, Survival, October 2009

"I want to recommend a new book called The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free. The book's got a good explanatory subtitle, but to briefly sketch the thesis, Preble argues that our over-large military establishment isn’t just a waste of money, but actually harmful to our security. . . . If we had much less military capacity, we would have a much narrower definition of the strategic purpose of our military—to defend the country against threats—and would find that we were happy with that equilibrium. But the large military spawns a grandiose strategic concept that winds up writing checks that even a gigantic military can’t cash. I think this analysis is dead on."—Matthew Yglesias, Think Progress, 25 April 2009

"I recommend Christopher Preble's excellent new book, The Power Problem . . . which tackles the familiar justifications for American dominance head-on, and shows that the usual pieties about global stability or spreading democracy are far from airtight."—Stephen M. Walt, ForeignPolicy.com, 12 May 2009

"In an important new book, The Power Problem, Christopher Preble defies the conventional categories and gives us a 21st-century foreign policy consistent with American traditions. . . . Preble argues that our current defense posture is radically out of line with American interests, properly understood. He calls for scrapping our outdated Cold War alliances, and insists that the constitutional goal of 'the common defense of the United States' could be secured by a military budget far smaller than what we currently spend."—Gene Healy, Washington Examiner, 14 April 2009

"An important book, The Power Problem, . . . puts forth the case that American military power naturally invites excessive or irrelevant use, and that the habits of mind created by military supremacy have caused the United States to be less safe than otherwise, less free, more vulnerable, and less able to do the things that fundamental national security demands. Its author, Christopher A. Preble, is a former officer in the U.S. Navy and is head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He argues, as many others do, that the United States has a level of military power that it doesn't need, that has limited utility against stateless enemies and insurgents, and causes confusion between military strength and national power, the latter being the ability to actually produce a desired effect. It is a good and lucid book and should be read."—William Pfaff, International Herald Tribune, 16 April 2009

"Here is a book that Dwight D. Eisenhower—the general and the president—would have greatly admired. Like Ike, Christopher Preble has a keen appreciation for the limits of military power, for the consequences of its misuse, and for the dangers of militarization. The Power Problem is simply terrific."—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

"Those who believe that U.S. military power alone can protect our national security should read Christopher Preble's The Power Problem very carefully. By analyzing the costs and benefits of using military power, Preble provides a useful guide that policymakers and the American public should consider before sending our troops into harm's way."—Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

"This extremely important book could not be more timely. Should the United States pursue 'military dominance'—Christopher Preble, a traditional conservative, courageously challenges the conventional wisdom. This thoughtful, tightly argued work is rich in insight and useful information and should be required reading for every member of Congress."—Carolyn Eisenberg, Hofstra University

"Christopher Preble compellingly argues that America's recent predisposition toward deploying force rather than more subtly using the mystique of limitless ability that only superpowers can wield is hurting its interests and place in the world. The Obama administration is inheriting a nation wounded by a 'power problem' after the exposure of key limits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Preble's book is must reading for the Obama team and others if they want to understand why American power is slipping and what can be done to reverse this worrisome reality."—Steve Clemons, Director, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation, and publisher, The Washington Note

"Christopher Preble skillfully analyzes the enormous and unaffordable economic and moral costs of our national security apparatus. He also shows that the cosmetic steps likely to be taken to reform the behemoth will fail. The basis of real reform, reducing the muscle-bound military colossus commensurate with a new grand strategy of prudence and restraint, is not what most liberal and conservative policy poo-bahs in Washington have in mind. Preble provides a useful guide to those truly interested in change, and he raises important questions for those who are going to wait for the wreckage to become obvious even to them."—Winslow T. Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information

"Christopher Preble offers a provocative challenge to the presumption—prevalent among liberal internationalists as well as conservative interventionists since the earliest days of the post-Cold War era—that the world welcomes America's global military presence and that chaos would ensue if the United States were to step back from serving as a global sheriff. With striking clarity of logic and command of current American policy, he makes a strong case that American policy makers routinely allow ambitions to exceed even the awesome military might of a sole superpower—with the result that America is less safe and less free than necessary. The Obama administration would do well to carefully consider Preble's solution to this 'power problem': a more humble grand strategy based on a more realistic balance of America's power and foreign policy commitments."—Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago, author of Bombing to Win

Product Details

Cornell University Press
Publication date:
Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Series
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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