February is Ronald Reagan’s birthday month, and given what’s happening around the world—and specifically to the U.S. military—this seems like an ideal time to revisit the enduring relevance and importance of the strategy of peace-through-strength. Reagan didn’t invent the concept, but he certainly knew how to apply it in winning the Cold War. In doing so, he drew from the lessons of history. The current occupant of the Oval Office would do well to learn from Reagan.
It’s a paradoxical truth that military readiness can actually keep the peace. The Romans had a phrase for it: Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
George Washington put it more genteelly: “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
“We infinitely desire peace,” Theodore Roosevelt declared a century later. “And the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.” Quoting an African proverb, TR famously declared, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” For TR, the big stick was the U.S. Navy, which he wielded adroitly to serve the national interest and prevent wars in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Mediterranean.
Remembering Munich, Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, the men who crafted the West’s blueprint for the Cold War returned to the timeless lessons earlier generations had forgotten. Winston Churchill called for “defense through deterrents.” Harry Truman praised NATO as “an integrated international force whose object is to maintain peace through strength…we devoutly pray that our present course of action will succeed and maintain peace without war.” Dwight Eisenhower explained that “The vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.”
Outlining “a program to achieve peace through strength,” John Kennedy dismissed the notion that “peace can be achieved through conferences and commissions, through meetings and good-will tours,” and vowed to “strengthen our military power to the point where no aggressor will dare attack, now or in the future.”
And Reagan brought America’s “long, twilight struggle” to an end by echoing his predecessors, noting in his matter-of-fact way, “None of the four wars in my lifetime came about because we were too strong…our military strength is a prerequisite for peace.”
The American Security Council Foundation played an important role in developing the strategy of peace through strength. In fact, it was in 1978 that the ASCF created the National Strategy for Peace through Strength. In 1981, Reagan praised the ASCF for developing and coordinating the Coalition for Peace through Strength. In 1983, he described the ASCF as “the educational secretariat of the Coalition for Peace through Strength.” And today, the ASCF holds the trademark for the slogan “Peace through Strength®” which is also the ASCF motto.
Balance or Deterrence?
These men understood that peace through strength works in two important ways.
First, at its best, it prevents war by deterring the enemy. “An overwhelming assurance of security,” as Churchill counseled, is preferable to a “precarious balance of power.”
Critics of defense spending argue that a strategy of peace through strength is not worth the cost. In truth, waging war is far more costly than maintaining a military capable of deterring war. As Washington observed in his farewell address, “Timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”
Just compare military allocations, as a percentage of GDP, during times of war and times of peace:
• In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States spent an average of 0.7 percent of GDP on the military; during the war, the United States spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on the military.
• In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of its GDP on the military annually; during the war, the U.S. diverted an average of 33 percent of GDP to the military annually, spending almost 40 percent of the nation’s wealth on the war in 1944 alone.
• Applying the lessons of deterrence, Cold War-era presidents spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense, sometimes much more, to keep the Red Army at bay. Today, as China rises, Russia rearms and the Middle East burns, we are spending less than half that.
We can never know for certain what might have been had the United States and its closest allies embraced the strategy of peace through strength earlier in the 20th century, before Munich, Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor. But in the middle of World War II, Churchill offered his opinion: “If we had kept together after the last war, if we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need never have fallen upon us.”
It’s difficult to argue with Churchill, and it’s difficult to argue with the peace-through-strength strategy’s record. In his book “The World America Made,” Robert Kagan explains how “America’s most important role has been to dampen and deter the normal tendencies of other great powers…in ways that historically have led to war.” This role has depended on America’s military might. “There is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the upper hand.”
Regrettably, America is dealing away that upper hand. In 1991, the total active-duty force was 2 million; today, it’s hovering around 1.3 million—and falling. In 1991, the U.S. deployed 15 aircraft carriers, some 300 bombers and nearly 4,000 fighters; today, the U.S. deploys 10 carriers, 162 bombers and roughly 2,000 fighters—and falling. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. The size of today’s fleet is 285 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman.
This trend is only going to speed up in the coming years. Recall that the Obama administration halted F-22 production at 187 planes (far short of the planned 381), cut the nation’s strategic nuclear forces by 30 percent and has floated proposals to cut the deterrent arsenal to as low as 300 warheads (about the size of China’s). Recall, too, that the Pentagon was the first place President Obama turned when the debt crisis emerged as a political issue. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world,” he said in 2011. That led to a $487-billion cut in defense spending. He then signed a spending-control bill that could slash another $500 billion from the Pentagon.
The president has assured us that these Pentagon cuts aren’t really cuts. “Over the next 10 years,” he said in January 2012, “the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” That’s a fair point: Slower growth is not a cut. Deficit hawks have been making that case for 30 years. But apparently that logic doesn’t apply to Washington’s overflowing smorgasbord of social programs (a subject for another essay).
Of course, “the fact of the matter” is that a smaller Pentagon budget means fewer weapons systems, fewer troops, slower recapitalization—and more risk. But don’t take my word for it. As outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted when unveiling the president’s long-term defense-spending plan, “When you have a smaller force there are risks associated with that in terms of our capability to respond.” A 2012 Pentagon report conceded, “These budget reductions are not without risk.”
Risk—what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength”—is minimized by overwhelming firepower. In other words, the value of a squadron of stealth bombers, a fleet of super-carriers, a full-strength complement of F-22s, an arsenal of ICBMs, layers of missile defenses and battle-ready troops is in their capacity not only to deter rising powers and near-peer competitors, but to deter them from even trying to mount a challenge to the liberal order forged by the United States in the post-World War II era.
Such dominance is costly but not as costly as waging war against a near-peer competitor—the sort of war that kills millions and destroys nations, the sort of war the world has not witnessed in almost seven decades.
Of course, deterrence doesn’t promise the eradication of war. As Churchill noted, “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.” Terror groups like al Qaeda, radicalized regimes like Iran and death-wish dictators like Saddam Hussein may be the sort of enemies that cannot be deterred.
However, even when the peace-through-strength strategy fails to deter such enemies, it equips us with the capacity to defeat them rapidly and return to the status quo. This is the second way that peace through strength works, and it has paid dividends in the post-Cold War era.
Related, the peace-through-strength strategy gives the commander-in-chief a tool box full of resources that can be used in several ways.
Today’s military, as President Obama points out, has “decimated al Qaeda’s leadership…delivered justice to Osama bin Laden…put that terrorist network on the path to defeat…made important progress in Afghanistan…joined allies and partners to protect the Libyan people as they ended the regime of Muammar Qaddafi”—all while rushing aid to victims of disasters in Japan, Sumatra and Haiti; serving as the world’s last line of defense and first responder; and protecting Europe, the Pacific and the homeland.
What the president doesn’t seem to understand—as evidenced by the sweeping military retrenchment he has set in motion—is that being a global force for freedom and security is not preordained. It requires investment. Indeed, we are still living off the investments Reagan made in the U.S. military three decades ago.
As the president’s plans go forward—the massive spending cuts, the lead-from-behind doctrine, the abandonment of the two-war strategy—tomorrow’s military won’t be as ambidextrous in dealing with lesser threats. And it won’t be as effective at deterring the major threats that loom in this dangerous world.