Banks, Not Tanks: Using Money as a Geopolitical Tool

Banks, Not Tanks: Using Money as a Geopolitical Tool

Economic power can help secure America's interests.


In my last article, I noted that the tendency to define U.S. power as the ability to deploy military force was running up against clear limits, because “without the ability to instantaneously transport equipment and personnel from one area to another, the United States must either massively increase its defense and security expenditures to increase its presence in all theaters, trust that allies will finally meet the challenge and increase their own spending to fill in the gaps, or accept risks in certain areas.” Thus, my conclusion was the need for the United States to think in global terms and to prioritize the allocation of its military resources.

Such calls make some people nervous—that any sort of retrenchment will leave U.S. interests in other areas vulnerable and exposed. This thinking is reinforced by the belief that the only sign of a U.S. commitment is the use of the military instrument. Indeed, one of the tendencies in American national security policy over the last sixteen years has been increasing militarization of the U.S. response—and the shrinking of available options to an unpalatable binary choice between using force or doing nothing. This dilemma is intensified because, as Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris lament, “the United States too often reaches for the gun instead of the purse in its international conduct.” This is not just the conclusion of two “outsider” academics, but two distinguished public servants and national security professionals who have made the case for decreasing American reliance on military force as the premier way to influence international events from within administrations of both parties.


The United States has core vital interests in three broad regions of the world—the Euro-Atlantic, the Asia-Pacific and the greater Middle East—as well as the need to secure the Western Hemisphere from destabilization and to convert Africa from being an exporter of problems to a net contributor to global peace and prosperity. The military instrument is insufficient to achieve all of these tasks, yet, as they point out, the “United States instinctively debates the application of military instruments to address all of these complex challenges” while paying far less attention to the “use of economic instruments to accomplish geopolitical objectives.”

War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft is their blueprint for how the United States national security apparatus can better wield the economic tools at its disposal. It is, in military parlance, about putting the big “E” in the DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic) equation back into balance with the other ways in which a great power projects power. Indeed, as Ambassador John Cloud, the Ruger professor of national security economics at the Naval War College, writing in these pages, noted, a “tremendous advantage” the United States enjoys around the world, whether in responding to the crisis in Ukraine or other geopolitical challenges, is “the strength of free-market economics.” Yet it seems odd that the United States—which has one of the world’s most lucrative markets, has vast reserves of capital for investment, controls the world’s reserve currency and has done a great deal to set the rules of the global business order—chooses not to use these powers much more effectively. It is even odder that the geoeconomic approach seems to have fallen out of favor in Washington at a time when rising and resurgent powers like China and Russia embrace it as their first choice to gain influence and check U.S. power.

This is not an argument for eschewing the military instrument altogether—but instead to shift the balance back towards the use of financial and commercial tools to defend U.S. interests. It is a difficult case to disagree with—but how can the United States shift back to what was its preferred first choice for overseas engagement for much of its history, when banks and corporations, not tanks and battleships, were the main tools for projecting U.S. influence around the world?

Putting geoeconomics back into the national security game will not happen automatically. The two authors provide detailed recommendations but acknowledge that this will require extensive Presidential attention (as well as from the national security principals) to shift priorities and structures. It also requires a return of functional governance and the ability to get budgets passed by Congress. The United States was able to deploy and enjoy the force multiplication effects of targeted economic aid and assistance to the countries of central and eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989–91, because a compelling case was advanced to Congress, and a budget deal was in place that allowed budget requests to be considered and funded. Those conditions, to some extent, no longer exist in Washington today. The United States is not a significantly poorer country than in 1989, yet when massive geopolitical changes occurred in the Middle East, the refrain was that Washington had no money to spare, and many of the programs that were announced were ones where only a minimal amount of money would be made available.

The national-security mindset also needs to broaden. It is striking when one looks at the major recipients of U.S. assistance and the countries with which U.S. presidents (of both parties) over the last sixteen years have concluded the majority of executive agreements. Most are defined by their importance in the global war on terror, or by bringing important geographic value in creating security bulwarks against powers that seek to revise the current status quo in international affairs. Those efforts can get funded through an appeal to “national security,” but some of the wide-ranging geoeconomic instruments that would also help to buttress the U.S.-led global order—the comprehensive, multilateral free trade agreements in the Pacific and Atlantic regions—are looking wobbly. In Asia, it would be disastrous for U.S. interests if the “rebalance” ends up only having a military component, with no corresponding economic dimension. Thus, expanding the definition of states that matter to the United States from only those that are security partners to encompass the so-called “keystone states”—countries that help to knit together the current global and regional trading networks—would help mitigate the tendency to view every challenge in military terms. It would also help to redress the major imbalance in how the United States currently funds the different tools of national power.

Can geoeconomics gain traction in an election year? Both leading presidential candidates have expressed varying degrees of skepticism about U.S.-crafted free-trade pacts with other nations, and there is a mood among the electorate that the United States ought to turn inward. The geoeconomic case needs to be made as to why the prosperity of ordinary Americans is tied up with the maintenance of the current global system, one defined by open seas and open trade. Whether these themes will begin to be heard as we move towards the general election, however, remains to be seen.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the incoming Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a non-residential senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed are his own.

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