Small Wars Journal

Small Wars Journal Book Review: War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 11:37am

Small Wars Journal Book Review: War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft


Blackwell, Robert D., and Harris, Jennifer M. War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.


 War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft: Blackwill, Ambassador  Robert D., Harris, Jennifer M.: 9780674737211: Books


An emphasis on Great Power Competition currently dominates the Department of Defense (DOD).  Each service and Combatant Command is tediously turning the ship away from the War on Terror in order to focus efforts on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. However, they are doing so without stopping to ask a very simple question: Is the military most effective as the supported or supporting actor in Great Power Competition?

In War by Other Means former Ambassador to India, Robert D. Blackwill, and Rhodes Scholar, Jennifer M. Harris, clearly articulate an alternate path to American success in Great Power Competition: geoeconomics.  Geoeconomics, as they define it, is “the use of economic instruments to promote and defend national interests, and to produce beneficial geopolitical results; and the effects of other nations economic actions on a country’s geopolitical goals.”[1] The authors state that economics, and particularly geoeconomics, is the instrument of national power that the United States must employ to maintain its dominant position within the international system.

Blackwill and Harris succinctly argue that the United States should increasingly leverage investment policy, sanctions, cyber, economic assistance, monetary policy, and national energy policy in order to achieve geopolitical goals. Additionally, this book unashamedly outlines how PRC is dominating the US through its employment of geoeconomic strategies and is emerging as the most powerful economic actor in the international system.  PRC has continued to gather power through deft geoeconomic maneuvers that are individually targeting each state as part of the larger system.  In order to effectively combat PRC’s rising influence, the DOD may be required to relinquish its long-enjoyed preeminence in national tools of power.

The greatest strengths of the book are the case study analyses of the PRC’s strategies for six different international actors within its regional sphere of influence: Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, Southeast Asia, India, and Pakistan. The authors confirm the Chinese competency in crafting a specific geoeconomic strategy for each target state through a combination of creativity and determination. In Taiwan, PRC has successfully gained outsized influence by increasing trade and building interdependence to the point that “all paths to economic and political progress run through Beijing.”[2] Conversely, Japan has been punished by PRC through boycotts on goods, rare earth metal bans, and territorial disputes. These actions have isolated Japan from its neighbors, and further tested the US alliance. The authors also discuss the outright challenge to the World Bank posed by the Chinese created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), of which the US and Japan are notable omissions. These examples alone demonstrate the skillful maneuvers and unique approach that PRC has designed for each state.

A second strength of the book is a brief synopsis of America’s historical employment of geoeconomics, and a call to recognize the current geoeconomic environment that threatens US national interests. In its infancy, the US engaged in what the authors call “The Geoeconomics of Survival” which were critical to the country’s early development. The Founding Fathers demanded equal access to American ports for every European state, then avoided conflict over territory through the Louisiana Purchase. Further examples are numerous throughout American history, but especially after WWII. Programs such as the Lend-Lease act and the Marshall Plan are clear examples of how American economic prowess advanced foreign policy goals. The authors also argue that Vietnam caused a policy shift towards military power, and the end of the Cold War relegated geoeconomics to the shadows. Despite these significant early contributions, geoeconomics is often overlooked as part of the strategy that ended the Cold War. More recently, the Global War on Terror further emphasized the military’s primacy in foreign policy. Unfortunately, America’s contemporary military dominance has created American policy makers that are hesitant to link economic and geopolitical agendas.

This is a strong book, but not without limitations. One weakness is the list of 20 policy prescriptions the authors laid down in 2016. These prescriptions are individualized, detailed, and time sensitive. While certain recommendations like “Convert the energy revolution into lasting geopolitical gains” are still relevant, others such as “Pass Trans-Pacific Partnership Round 1” have been overcome by events.[3] The specificity and number of these prescriptions somewhat detract from the book’s long-term value. Thankfully, the book and even these detailed policy recommendations are very easy to read. Its comprehensive value is reinforced by the simple language, numerous examples, and the authors’ obvious passion for the topic. Readers are not required to have an economics degree or an in depth understanding of economic instruments.

Seasoned military members, especially those serving in interagency billets and major Component Command staffs, should pay close attention to the book’s four lessons discussed just prior to the policy prescriptions. The authors outline four easily digestible and useful lessons, which are extremely relevant to all stake holders in today’s Great Power Competition. First, national power is dependent on the domestic economy, and its ability to effectively utilize resources. Second, as global competition shifts towards geoeconomics, so must US foreign policy makers competencies and priorities. Third, rising powers utilization of geoeconomics have resulted in some of the most difficult geopolitical challenges the United States has recently encountered. A reexamination of these geopolitical challenges may provide insight. Lastly, as the US confronts adversaries that utilize private companies to achieve public policy, the US will require greater interplay between domestic economic decisions and national security decisions. Economics and national security cannot stand apart.

We can all agree that globalization and liberal institutions have created a significant interdependence between PRC and the US. Through its geoeconomic acumen, PRC has continually achieved national power accumulation goals and increased influence. If we accept the assertions of the authors, every DOD stake holder must ask themselves several questions. Given their current geoeconomic success, what is the likelihood of military conflict with PRC? And if economics assumes priority, how can the DOD contribute meaningfully as a supporting actor in Great Power Competition? The DOD is required to prepare for open conflict with adversarial states, but we must also focus on the means to achieve success in concert with the other instruments of national power. War by Other Means offers a functioning primer to increase our understanding of the current and future operating environment, as the US engages in Great Power Competition with the PRC and beyond.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, Naval Postgraduate School, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Blackwell, Robert D. and Harris, Jennifer M., 20.

[2] Blackwell, Robert D. and Harris, Jennifer M., 88.

[3] Blackwell, Robert D. and Harris, Jennifer M., 220–50.

About the Author(s)

Wes Dyson is a graduate of Bucknell University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and
is a Major in the United States Marine Corps. Wes is currently pursuing a Master of Science
degree in Defense Analysis as a student at Naval Postgraduate School.