BY RODGER BAKER
The New Year, of course, is a time when many reflect on the past and look toward the future. The past provides potential lessons and cautions for those who would seek to find tomorrow’s solutions in yesterday’s actions. In his 1994 book Diplomacy, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote: “The study of history offers no manual of instructions that can be applied automatically; history teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations. But each generation must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact comparable.”
While Kissinger is explicit on the importance of studying and applying history to policy, he is as insistent that history not be misapplied, that the assessment of the past not lead to false conclusions for the present or the future. Today, the concept of “Peace Through Strength” popularized by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s is emerging as a mantra of the incoming Trump administration, its advisers and supporters. The risk of raising iconic personalities and policies from American history is that lessons may inadvertently be misapplied. The concepts may be sound, but the interpretation and application in a different context may lead to wildly different results.
“Peace Through Strength”
“Peace Through Strength” was a cornerstone of the Reagan administration, an assertion that an economically and militarily strong United States was necessary to ensure peace and stability internationally by demonstrating the futility of challenging US power. But times have changed, the world system is far different than it was during the Cold War, threats have evolved, and the mythos of Reagan has perhaps superseded the reality of history. It is worth considering what Peace Through Strength meant in the past, what it may mean in the present, and perhaps most important, just how one measures American strength in the modern era.
It is hard to reconcile some current policy proposals — rolling back free trade, increasing tariffs, pulling back on the US global role and leaving allies to their own defense — with the underpinnings of the Reagan-esque Peace Through Strength, which encouraged free trade, an activist foreign policy and the strong support of distant allies. But it is also a very different moment in history.
Reagan came to office at a time of double-digit interest rates and chaotic oil markets, in a binary world of the US-led West versus Soviet East, and on the heels of a major US intelligence reassessment of the Soviet nuclear and conventional threat. The structure of the US economy was still based on manufacturing with a strong export component, and the coming computer revolution was just beginning. Reagan even noted in his 1983 State of the Union address that “To many of us now, computers, silicon chips, data processing, cybernetics, and all the other innovations of the dawning high technology age are as mystifying as the workings of the combustion engine must have been when that first Model T rattled down Main Street, USA.,” a comment that seems rather quaint given today’s technology-driven lives.
In the Soviet Union, Reagan had a single major foreign threat to contend with, and he coupled his push for missile defense systems (to negate the advantage in Soviet missiles) with calls for reductions in nuclear arms. Peace Through Strength was intended to deter conventional and nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies by the Soviet Union and its allies.
In his March 1983 Address to the Nation on Defense and National Security, Reagan explained Peace Through Strength as the application of a policy of deterrence. “Since the dawn of the atomic age, we’ve sought to reduce the risk of war by maintaining a strong deterrent and by seeking genuine arms control. ‘Deterrence’ means simply this: making sure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States, or our allies, or our vital interests, concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains. Once he understands that, he won’t attack. We maintain the peace through our strength; weakness only invites aggression.”
Two months earlier, in his State of the Union Address, Reagan had highlighted the dual economic and military components of a policy of Peace through Strength. “Our strategy for peace with freedom must also be based on strength—economic strength and military strength. A strong American economy is essential to the well-being and security of our friends and allies. The restoration of a strong, healthy American economy has been and remains one of the central pillars of our foreign policy.” The dual concepts of a strong domestic American economy and a strong defense capability were tied together into a single strategy with a global focus.
The incoming US administration has picked up on these two themes and revived the Peace Through Strength concept. The focus is on rebuilding the American economy through manufacturing, infrastructure development and tax reform, and on strengthening American defense in part through an expansion of nuclear capacity. But the conditions are different now. Manufacturing and exports are no longer as important to the US economy, technology has created entire new sectors of economic activity, and trade patterns have expanded into massive networks spanning continents. Interest rates in double digits when Reagan took office are barely rising above record lows today, and oil prices remain hovering near lows, while US domestic production is on the rise. Technology has advanced the tools of warfare and disruption into the cyber realm, reducing the speed and confidence of identifying the perpetrator and altering the perception of risk and reward for state powers as well as non-state actors.
And, of course, there is no Soviet Union. Rather than a single superpower adversary, the United States faces the emergence of several regional powers, none exactly an opponent, but each seeking to assert its own interests in the face of the single remaining global hegemon. The threat is seen less as a battle between nuclear-armed superpowers than as a struggle against non-state actors with a very different risk-reward calculus. It is not clear, for example, that a strong nuclear force will deter terrorist attacks by non-state actors and their sympathizers. Even the large-scale US military response in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks did not stop the later emergence of the Islamic State or its promotion of militant attacks against American allies, interests and homeland.
Reagan’s Peace Through Strength was more than simply about making America great: Reagan asserted America was already great but just faced some problems. His policy was about making America strong internally and externally so it could carry out its broader global mission of spreading democracy. Underlying Reagan’s policies was the recognition that American exceptionalism derived not only from its being powerful, but from its responsibility to spread the American system to other countries. In the super hero trope, great responsibility came with great power.
Beacon vs Missionary
Exceptionalism has long been a conceptual underpinning of American foreign and domestic policy. America’s founding myths perpetuate the idea that this is a unique country, one that has refined a system of government and personal freedoms that are not merely the result of local conditions, but universal in application. The debate among American leadership, as Kissinger highlighted, has long centered on whether to be the light on the hill, semi-isolated but a shining beacon for others to emulate, or to be the active crusading missionary, taking a direct role in bringing American principles and systems to the world.
Reagan was no isolationist; he did not seek retrenchment or withdrawal from the global role of the United States. Instead, he promoted internationalism, free trade, active financial and defense support of allies, and a hands-on approach to world affairs. The Reagan administration sought through strength a greater capacity to fulfill what he saw as the US role as the leader of the West, the bringer of democracy, and the guiding light to the world.
It is this broader mission that appears, at least on the surface, to be lacking in the incoming administration’s expression of Peace Through Strength. America is exceptional, but exceptional and alone, responsible for itself but not others. The goal is to make America great, but it is unclear to what end. In part this may be the wide swing reaction to the perception that the current Obama administration often appeared to focus on the interests, concerns, or verbal preferences of others over those of the United States. In times of transition the pendulum often swings wide before it moves a back a little toward the center. Reagan’s policies were a far cry from those of his predecessor, and Barack Obama shaped himself as the antithesis of what was derided as the cowboy-esque tendencies of the George W. Bush administration. In each case, though, the realities of the global system ultimately tempered at least some of the rhetorical and ideological differences, or at least their application.
Perhaps the biggest challenge currently is simply understanding just how to measure American power in the modern world. During the Cold War, the intelligence community produced so-called “net assessments” for the president and the administration to measure the net balance between different aspects of American and Soviet power and those of their alliance structures. These included economic, social, political and, of course, military comparisons, though the latter frequently defaulted to bean-counter comparisons of the numbers of systems rather than providing a holistic look at their overall effectiveness. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc gave rise to a clear preponderance of US economic, cultural, political and militarily power.
But that massive gap is narrowing, not necessarily due to a decline in overall US strength, but rather to the rise of regional powers — notably China and the re-emergence of Russia, but also smaller regional groupings that have been growing economically and militarily. Many worldwide argue that the United States should no longer be the default global leader, that other countries have the right to take their turn at broader international leadership, and that US ideals are not universal and so should not be asserted as such. The diffusion of global power is also creating a diffusion of global ideals. Global and domestic resistance to perceived over-globalization is strong, and the ability of the United States to assert its ideals and its right to lead the global system is increasingly challenged from without and within.
In relative strength, the United States is losing ground, particularly by measures from the beginning of the post-Cold War period. But that does not mean that any other single power will soon overtake the United States. The United States remains the single largest economy and the single most powerful military force in the world. The question is perhaps not whether the United States has strength, but how it intends to apply that strength, and whether the United States has vision beyond itself.