Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review: Exercise of Power by Robert  M. Gates

Mon, 01/31/2022 - 11:24am

Exercise of Power by Robert  M. Gates

Review by LTC Patrick Walsh


How did our country go so quickly from unique global power to a country that is widely perceived as no longer willing to bear the costs or accept the responsibility of global leadership—or even capable of governing itself effectively?[1]


Five pages into the book, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in a Post-Cold War World, you realize this is not merely one more storied victory lap by a man who had 50 years in government to collect them. With some hyperbole, one could say Robert Gates is issuing a “call to arms” that America needs to change the way it uses power. But that analogy does not fit, because in this book, Gates convincingly argues that the United States needs to use many other instruments of its power more effectively, and its military power less often. When a Secretary of Defense who worked for two Presidents writes a book calling for the increased use of diplomatic, economic and information power, all military officers and anyone who works in our national security enterprise should read it.

Gates answers his question posed above quite clearly. “The answer lies . . . in [the] failure to recognize, resource and use the arsenal of non-military assets that proved of critical importance in the long contest with the Soviet Union.”[2]  Utilizing examples during his time in government at the Central Intelligence Agency, working for the National Security Council and two terms as Secretary of Defense, Gates outlines successes and failures of the United States in using military and non-military power.

Gates praises America’s military and non-military roles in humanitarian relief, especially President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR was, according to Gates, extremely successful at organizing the various parts of the U.S. Government to assist Africa in dealing with the AIDS epidemic. If you have never heard of PEPFAR, then you will agree with Gates follow on point. America is terrible at taking credit for and publicizing these efforts.

Those who have spent the last two decades experiencing America’s successes and failures in Afghanistan and Iraq firsthand will be particularly interested in his discussions on American failures in Somalia and Haiti. Gates details that military intervention in a state that suffers from “internal conflict, ethnic, religious, or tribal violence, and/or a ruthless authoritarian government” is likely to fail. His explanation is compelling, so much so one wonders why American failed to heed this lesson in its long-term efforts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates does outline factors to consider going forward when America again looks to use its military to intervene in a country suffering catastrophic harm due to man-made disasters.

Gates also details how America has failed to marshal economic power to support its national security goals. Laying most of the blame on Congress, He cites the power of the U.S. economy as one of the reasons for America’s victory in the Cold War, and notes that economic sanctions can be used effectively in the right circumstances (like Iran in 2009, but not Iraq in the 1990s).  He also argues in favor of international organizations, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which further American interests in encouraging economic cooperation.

Gates endorses a strong military—and its use—but only in appropriate circumstances and only when supplemented by the non-military instruments of power.  He notes that a small military assistance of 400 Service Members effectively supported Colombia’s decade long transition to a stable government that successfully defeated an insurgent group. Gates proffers that these limited military advisors with significant help from diplomatic and economic assistance was far more effective than using a large military presence. He also supports, with some modification, the limited use of the military for clear limited objectives as argued by Secretaries Colin Powell and Casper Weinberger.   

Gates makes his argument for better use of non-military power through historical and current references to fifteen conflicts starting with Iran in the 1970s, and continuing through to modern day Ukraine, Syria and China. While he chooses examples which tend to highlight successes in his career, they are compelling. While his arguments are compelling, Gates excludes examples where he arguably failed to follow these teachings, like the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure to effectively use non-military power in those wars.

The book is a great review of how diplomacy, intelligence, economic levers, and strategic communication can be used to achieve national security goals. Military audiences who are versed in the D.I.M.E. factors (Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military, and Economy) will see recent real-world examples of their successful and not so successful implementations, and can use his analysis of when to use military and non-military power as one more tool in their proverbial national security toolkit. This book should be required reading at the military war colleges and on every commander’s reading list. National Security professionals should study it for its analysis on when to use the military, and when to use non-military power effectively instead. Exercise of Power is a must read for those currently serving in the national security apparatus.


[1] Robert M. Gates, Exercise of Power, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2020, 4.

[2] Gates, Exercise of Power, 5.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Walsh is a U.S. Army Reserve judge advocate and a current resident student at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He has served as a judge advocate assigned to a military police unit in Iraq, a national security law professor at the U.S. Army J.A.G. School, and many other assignments.  He holds a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and an LL.M. from the University of Virginia School of Law.