Military Officer | 4.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

It’s a paradoxical truth that military readiness can keep the peace. The Romans had a phrase for it: Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

President Ronald Reagan called it “peace through strength.” Although Reagan may be the president most closely associated with “peace through strength,” he was by no means the first. Many of America’s leaders have recognized the peace-through-strength doctrine as the best way to protect U.S. interests and deter war.

“There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy,” President George Washington said in 1782, putting it more genteelly than the Romans.[i]

“We infinitely desire peace,” President Theodore Roosevelt declared more than a century later. “And the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.”[ii]TR famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” For TR, the big stick was the U.S. Navy, which he wielded adroitly to serve U.S. interests and prevent wars in the Americas, the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

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.”[iii]President 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.”[iv]

“The vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment,” explained President Dwight Eisenhower, one of America’s warrior-presidents. “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.”[v]

Outlining “a program to achieve peace through strength,” President John Kennedy vowed to “strengthen our military power to the point where no aggressor will dare attack, now or in the future.”[vi]

Reagan brought America’s “long, twilight struggle” to an end by 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.”[vii]

Now or Later
These leaders understood that peace through strength works in two important ways.

First, at its best, it prevents war by deterring the enemy.

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.”[viii]

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 devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to national defense; during the war, U.S. defense spending spiked to 16.1 percent of GDP.[ix]
  • 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 27 percent of GDP to the military annually, spending almost 38 percent of GDP on defense in 1944 alone.[x]
  • 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.[xi]

We can never know what might have been had the United States and its closest allies embraced the peace-through-strength doctrine 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.”[xii]

Upper Hand
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…to compete and jostle with one another 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,” Kagan concludes, “than certainty about who holds the upper hand.”[xiii]

Regrettably, America is dealing away that upper hand, as a strange-bedfellow alliance of deficit hawks determined to cut federal spending and isolationists determined to shrink the U.S. military’s reach try to do the impossible: balance the budget on the back of the military.

It’s impossible because, as then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in 2011, “The defense budget…is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes.” He noted that in 1961 defense spending consumed half the federal budget, while it accounted for 9 percent of U.S. GDP. Today, defense spending is under 15 percent of the federal budget and 3.5 percent of GDP (and falling).[xiv] In fact, we could eliminate the entire defense budget and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and yet we would still face a budget deficit—and wouldn’t even be putting a dent into the $17-trillion debt.

The nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected defense spending between now and 2021—$500 billion in sequester cuts plus $487 billion in cuts ordered in 2010[xv]—might make sense if peace were breaking out around the world. But we know the very opposite to be true.

The Middle East is on fire; Egypt is in a dangerous spiral of re-revolution; al Qaeda is reconstituting in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria; North Korea is rattling nuclear sabers; Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. And these, it could be argued, aren’t even our principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China’s military-related spending skyrocketed from $20 billion in 2002 to around $180 billion a decade later[xvi]—an unparalleled jump in military spending on a percentage basis. Russia’s military spending spiked 25 percent in 2012, and Moscow has unveiled plans for 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes and 28 new submarines in the next 10 years.[xvii]

Given the reservoir of U.S. military capacity, the balance of power would still seem to favor the United States, even after sequestration takes its toll—until one considers that America’s security commitments are spread around the globe, while Russia’s and China’s are concentrated in their neighborhoods. Indeed, with a nod to TR, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) worries Washington may be “out-sticked” by Beijing’s anti-ship capability.[xviii]

Worryingly, sequestration is more than just another postwar drawdown.

As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ominously detailed before the guillotine fell, sequestration “would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power,” yielding “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.”[xix] Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey added that after sequestration, “We wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”[xx]

Today, we can see why they spoke in such dire terms.

  • Pentagon documents leaked to USA Today indicate sequestration will produce an Army at “high risk to meet even one major war.”[xxi]Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno bluntly warns of “significant problems” if troops are deployed for combat post-sequestration. “They are not going to be trained properly. That means when they go, it is going to take them longer to do it. They might have more casualties.”[xxii] According to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, “We are beyond muscle” and will soon “cut into bone.”[xxiii]If the sequester remains in place without substantive modification, the active-duty Army will shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000; the Marines will shrink to between 150,000 and 175,000.[xxiv]Although the Ryan-Murray budget compromise (which returns $22.5 billion to the military in 2014 and $9 billion in 2015)[xxv] is a step in the right direction, it does not amount to much of a modification given sequestration’s trillion-dollar toll. Nor does it restore defense spending to pre-sequester levels.
  • The Air Force has announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes.[xxvi]Sequestration has forced the Air Force to ground 33 squadrons and cancel or scale back exercises like Red Flag-Alaska, depriving pilots of time in the cockpit, the key to ensuring readiness and proficiency.[xxvii]
  • At the height of Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships.[xxviii]Today’s fleet numbers 285 ships. If sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy will be forced to mothball 38 more ships and may have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight or nine flat-tops.[xxix]Already, the Navy has stretched the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years.[xxx]

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rightly argues that sequestration casts a “shadow of uncertainty”[xxxi]across the Pentagon and around the world, where U.S. military strength is often the difference between stability and chaos.

Fewer Options
That brings us to the second benefit of peace through strength.

Churchill conceded that “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.”[xxxii]Terror groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, 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 the United States with the capacity to defeat them rapidly and return to the status quo. Put another way, the peace-through-strength doctrine gives the commander-in-chief a toolbox full of resources that can be used in several ways. This is the secondary benefit of peace through strength, and it has paid dividends in the post-Cold War era—from Kuwait and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Abbottabad.

Indeed, it pays to recall what the pre-sequestration military achieved: it shielded the homeland from another 9/11; eviscerated al Qaeda and eliminated bin Laden; toppled terror regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; protected allies in Europe and the Pacific; deterred North Korea, China and Russia; kept the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden and South China Sea open; and rushed aid to Japan, Sumatra, Haiti and the Philippines. Yet Typhoon Haiyan may mark the end of the era of global multitasking for the U.S. military. As the toolbox is emptied, the military will be hard pressed to continue serving as civilization’s first-responder and last line of defense.

In other words, the value of ready brigades of highly-motivated, highly-trained troops; squadrons of stealth bombers, heavy-lift transports and air-superiority fighters; a fleet of super-carriers, amphib assets and missile-armed subs; a constellation of satellites; and a full quiver of missile defenses is in their capacity not only to deter enemies, but to project stability and buttress the liberal global order forged after World War II—an order that benefits America more than any other nation.

But fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes, less modernization and less training translate into slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller role for the United States. As Dempsey puts it, the post-sequestration Pentagon will “be providing a lot fewer options and a lot less capacity.”[xxxiii]

To avoid that, we must recognize that a well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture. 

[i] Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed., 1854, p.102.

[ii] Roosevelt, 1903; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=97733#axzz2jEykLGwu.

[iii] Churchill, 1955; http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/102-never-despair.

[iv] Truman, 1951; http://trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/viewpapers.php?pid=281.

[v] Eisenhower, 1961; http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm.

[vi] Kennedy, 1960; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25685#axzz2jEykLGwu

[vii] Reagan, 1982 and 1984; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=40290#axzz2jEykLGwu; http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2002/06/reagans-westminster-speech.

[viii] Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[ix] CRS, National Defense Outlays as a Percentage of GNP/GDP, FY1910-2003, 1998.

[x] CRS.

[xi] CRS.

[xii] Churchill’s Address to Congress, December 26, 1941.

[xiii] Kagan, pp.50 and 90.



[xvi] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, p.6.

[xvii]http://www.voanews.com/content/as-russias-presidential-vote-nears-putin-vows-big-military-spending-hike-140297933/152437.html ; Charles Clover, “Russia: A Return to Arms,” Financial Times, October 1, 2013.


[xix]http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/02/01/panetta-usa-today-interview/1884447/ ;


[xx] Quoted in Adam Entous, “Top military officer: U.S. can stay global power despite threatened cuts,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2012.

[xxi] Tom Vanden Brook, “Army warns it could have trouble handling single war,” USA Today, October 17, 2013.



[xxiv] Andrew Tilghman, “Hagel: Cuts will shrink pay, benefits, force,” Defense News, July 31, 2013.


[xxvi] David Lenman, “U.S. Air Force outlines plans to cut 286 planes, Donley says,” Bloomberg News, February 3, 2012.

[xxvii] John Tirpak, “Welcome to the hollow force,” Air Force Magazine, September 2013; Brian Everstine, “PACAF cuts back on exercises because of sequestration,” Air Force Times, August 12, 2013.

[xxviii] U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, “U.S. Navy active ship force levesl, 1886-present.”

[xxix] Peter Apps, “Analysis: From Syria to South China Sea, navies cruise back into vogue,’ Reuters, September 30, 2013.

[xxx] Christopher Cavas, “Fleet hovers around 300 ships in new U.S. Navy plan,” Defense News, March 28, 2012; AP, "U.S. keeping 11 aircraft carriers, Panetta says," Jan. 22, 2012


[xxxii] Churchill, 1955; http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/102-never-despair

[xxxiii] Quoted in Adam Entous, “Top military officer: U.S. can stay global power despite threatened cuts,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2012.