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May 11, 2010

What's So Backward about 'Peace through Strength'
Posted by Patrick Barry

UncleSam Given that the modern GOP is totally bereft of ideas, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see that the right has resorted to resuscitating old ones.  What is a touch surprising is that many of the old ideas being revived should be so terribly bad.  Take one of the latest recycled concepts gaining traction in conservative circles: Reagan’s foggy notion of an American foreign policy based on “peace through strength.” Frank Gaffney and Co. have an op-ed in the Washington Times ticking off their update to this Reagan-era principle. If you're like me, you'll probably find that it manages to be both repugnant and absurd. That said, the far right is far from alone in holding this perspective. Increasingly, it’s the mainstream of the conservative movement that is attempting to turn “peace through strength” into a credible foreign policy, as evidenced by Eric Cantor’s address at the Heritiage Foundation, where he mentioned the concept 5 times.

There are so many problems with this idea, it’s hard to know which to address.  While it’s obviously a recipe for unilateralism, and international isolation, for me, there are two, massive weaknesses, which rise above all the rest.  First is that it has no basis in reality.  The U.S. spends a huge amount of money on defense as it is.  Secretary Gates put this in stark terms over the weekend, when he spoke before an audience at the Eisenhower library:

For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?  Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China? (Emphasis added)

The U.S. advantage in defense so overwhelming that it’s hard to see the necessity behind expanding it in the fashion desired by conservatives.  Moreover, there’s a mounting consensus that all this spending hasn’t resulted in greater security at home, or ability to project influence abroad.  I’m curious to hear how the right would situate “peace through strength” in a context, which finds the U.S. military loudly arguing for shifting emphasis toward the diplomatic and development instruments of national power.

This brings me to my second point, which finds something much more troubling about the re-emergence of this “peace through strength” mentality: it misidentifies the origins of American power.  In his Heritage address, Cantor credits this so-called strategy for “usher[ing] in an unprecedented era of American prosperity.”  In Cantor’s estimation, America’s domestic prosperity owes itself to the expansion of military power.  This is wrong.  It’s also dangerous. 

It’s wrong because it identifies economic well-being as the result of military might, when most would agree that the causal link extends in the opposite direction.  While I think there’s definitely reciprocation between military, economic, and also political power, everybody from Secretary Gates to Fareed Zakaria, to President Eisenhower has recognized that our ability to counter threats abroad, rests heavily on an active and healthy economy and a political environment capable of sustaining that advantage and converting it to influence oversees.

But the right’s formulation isn’t just wrong.  It’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous because, military expansion, at the expense of a sound economic foundation, is a strategy not for the growth of power, but its erosion.  History has not been kind to countries that maintain a foreign policy of “peace through strength.”  By embracing this concept as a grand strategy, Cantor, Gaffney, and the rest risk fulfilling Eisenhower’s grim prophecy: “destroy[ing] from within what we are trying to defend from without.”


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