ASCF Report | 2.4.13
By Alan W. Dowd
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 peace-through-strength doctrine. 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.
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.”
Washington put it more genteelly: “There is nothing so likely to produce peace
as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
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 and 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 Trumanpraised 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,” JohnKennedydismissed the notion that “peace can be achieved
through conferences and commissions, through meetings and good-will tours,” andvowed 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.”
Balance or Deterrence?
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 doctrine 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
- 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
peace-through-strength doctrine earlier in the 20th century, before
Munich and 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 doctrine’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 as300 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.
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.
when the peace-through-strength doctrine 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.
peace-through-strength doctrine 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.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.