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Why Military Power is Paramount to Peace

December 1, 2014

Today’s article is an essay I wrote for the Coursera course “Conditions of War and Peace”. It deals with why military power is so important in international relations. The question I was answering was “Among the following three concepts, which one do you think is more important in keeping peace: military power, democracy, or free market. Choose one of the three concepts and discuss why that concept plays more significant role in keeping peace than others. Give a definition of the concept of your choice, i.e. military power, democracy, or free market, before you discuss how that concept is related to keeping peace”

There was a 1000 word limit and I was required to discuss the limitations of military power in the essay as well. All this meant that I somewhat underplayed the role of democracy and free trade – I will discuss this in a future post – so just keep that in mind when reading. Also, I’ll write a glossary post at some stage for terms like ‘security dilemma’. The focus on military power on this essay, however, is based on having finished an article on pacifism recently. That article dealt with domestic pacifism. Today’s post touches on the ramifications of pacifism in the international setting (ie. Absence of military power) . I’ll finish exploring pacifism in a post about balance and ideology in the near future.

And now, onto your reading!


Military power is more important than democracy or the free market in keeping peace for three reasons. Firstly, ignoring military power is ‘foolish’ [1] because the absence of military force leads to a power vacuum and instability. Secondly, the military through espionage, offers the only solution to the security dilemma, which contributes to instability and the outbreak of war. Lastly, though military power has limitations in its ability to keep the peace through deterrence, military power is indispensable to short term peace. Democracy and the free market can foster peace in the long term, yet they create short term instability which can only be quelled by military power.

Military power is the most important factor in keeping peace because without force there is a power vacuum. As Professor Fujiwara argued, this is ‘dangerous’ [2] because a power vacuum creates instability. Without military power, there is no concept of deterrence, and any power who takes up arms cannot be stopped. [3] A limited example of this can be seen post-WWI, wherein the great powers (US, France, Britain) greatly desired to avoid another war. [4] This saw Britain lower its defence spending from 35% of GDP in 1920 to just 8% GDP in 1933 – the year Hitler rose to power. [5] This significant reduction in arms spending across Europe was a contributory factor towards German aggression, with Hitler emboldened by Anglo-French weakness [6,7]. This led Germany to pursue expansionism and war. It should be noted that deterrence was the way to keep the peace. Hitler’s invasion and remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 succeeded because deterrence and retaliation were not employed. Hitler’s comment that “If the French had marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tail between our legs” [8] shows that even aggressive foreign policy regimes like the Nazis can be deterred from war. However, the failure to use deterrence, combined with a power vacuum due to limited defence spending led to war. This shows that military power is imperative to peace.

Military power is crucial in keeping peace because it provides the most viable solution to the security dilemma. The security dilemma posits that even defensive nations will escalate defence spending because they are unsure of their adversary’s intentions. This is a problem which free trade and the expansion of democracy cannot solve. The presence of the security dilemma in East Asia in disputes over the Senkaku Islands exists in spite of the explosion of Chinese free trade in recent years [9], and moves towards democracy in South East Asia. This is fundamentally because democracy and free trade don’t to change the lack of information that causes the security dilemma. However, military power can solve this problem through expanding its espionage activities. Espionage gives additional information about the intentions of countries like China and Japan. This additional information reduces the chance of miscalculation and escalation of arms. As Professor Michael Wesley of the Australian National University correctly argues “spying makes the world a safer, more stable place. Take away intelligence gathering, and the risks of misunderstanding, paranoia and sheer miscalculation rise rapidly – and so consequently do the risks of conflict.” [10] Through military power, ‘sheer miscalculation’ is eroded through espionage, and the security dilemma averted. This cannot be achieved through free trade or democracy as espionage is a military apparatus. Thus, military power is paramount in promoting peace.

Lastly, the significant limitations of democracy and free trade in providing short term peace, ensure that military power is required to maintain short term stability. Stable democracies are known under Democratic Peace Theory not to go to war with each other. However, in the short term new, unstable democracies create instability and often war. This can be seen in the unstable Weimar Republic, which descended into the authoritarian Nazi state in the 1930s, wherein democracy exacerbated nationalist tendencies in Germany. [Webb] The instability of democracy required a military hand to guide it, which was lacking with 1920s isolationism and 1930s protectionism. [Webb] Similarly, free trade like democracy promotes long term peace. For instance, trade strengthened post-war Japan’s ties with the US. However, free trade depends upon a stable geopolitical environment to exist, and this comes from military power. If free trade between nations requires safe seas, then the military is paramount because it guarantees that these seas remain safe.

Of course, no one factor like military power keeps the peace by itself; military power has significant limitations. For instance, deterrence is unable to stop powers who are willing to face the costs of war, or suicide bombers or those who believe war is imminent and thus engage in pre-emptive action. Deterrence is also limited by problems of signalling. A country might not pick up on signals of deterrence as these might be mixed or ambiguous or challenged by domestic politics in democracies. Furthermore, military power is constrained by domestic will to use it. The domestic anti-war politics that drove appeasement [Webb] meant that deterrence was not used in the 1930s and signals not sent to Nazi Germany. For instance, the lack of deterrence in retaliation to Italy’s invasion of Abysinnia in 1935 exemplified by the Hoare-Laval Pact was part of the reason for Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936. In spite of these limitations though, free trade and democracy are powerless in the short term, as seen above. Long term peace depends first on short term peace. Thus military power is vital despite limitations.

Military power is paramount in keeping peace. Without it, a power vacuum is created and mass instability and war results. Also, the military, through espionage, is the only factor that can solve the security dilemma, and bring peace. Of course, deterrence and military power have limits. However, since democracy and free trade do not foster short term peace and contribute to short term instability, the military is essential for bringing about the short term peace required for long term peace. Military power is the most important factor in promoting peace.


1 – Professor Fujiwara, “Between Power Politics and the Rule of Law”,, , Coursera , retrieved 30th November 2014.

2- Ibid.

3 – Professor Fujiwara, “Between Power Politics and the Rule of Law”,, Coursera , retrieved 30th November 2014.

4 – Ken Webb, Conflict in Europe 1935-45, GetSmart Education, 2011, Sydney pg. 20

5- UK Public Spending, “Total Spending: 1,372 ([pound] million) United Kingdom – 1933”, UK Public Spending, retrieved 30th November 2014.

[6] Webb, pg. 40.

[7] – Drawing on my HSC knowledge, I would further note Hitler’s comment that “If the French had marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tail between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance” . Here we can see that military force can prevent an escalation. Deterrence can work.;

8 – Ibid

9 – HSC economics knowledge

10 – Michael Wesley, “Spying scandal – a little snooping is actually a good thing”,–a-little-snooping-is-actually-a-good-thing-20131118-2xr3v.html, The Age, retrieved 31st November 2014.


From → Foundations

  1. Ingrid permalink

    Hey! I am taking this course on as well! It’s a well-written essay. I’m just starting to write the essay and I Googled about military power’s role in keeping peace, and I found this page. Good job, classmate! 🙂

    • Hi Ingrid! I hope you’ve been enjoying the course as much as I have! You may be interested to know that I’m going to do be doing more posts on the subjects covered in the Coursera course on this blog. Eg. The security dilemma, democracy as a condition for peace, and finally, my views on how to create a durable peace. Please, do keep reading this blog!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Balance and Ideology | The Holistic Thinker
  2. Military Power and Appeasement | The Holistic Thinker
  3. Democracy – A Condition for Peace? | The Holistic Thinker
  4. Paths to a Durable Peace | The Holistic Thinker

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