“We maintain the peace through our strength; weakness only invites aggression” – Ronald Reagan.
The doctrine of “peace through strength” has long been the mantra of many Republican lawmakers and indeed presidential candidates when it comes to foreign policy. It has appeared in almost every Republican election platform since 1980, when the then President Ronald Reagan popularised the slogan, culminating in the largest military build-up in American history with a 35% increase in the defence budget. If there was one issue that probably every Republican presidential candidate shared during the heated debates in the primaries, from Governor Jeb Bush to businessman (and now president) Donald Trump – it was the need to restore American military strength and assertiveness abroad.
To evaluate the effectiveness of such a policy, one needs only to look back to the Reagan era – the days of the Cold War – a time when Soviet aggression struck fear into those who lived in the free world. President Reagan inherited a foreign policy mess, marred by the former Carter administration. President Carter’s Middle East policy essentially ended with the emboldening of both the Soviet Union and radical Islam, culminating in a blatant Soviet attempt to extend Communist influence through the invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of a détente between the USSR and America, and a hostage crisis in Iran perpetrated by radical Islamic fundamentalists, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. This could hardly have been described as a peaceful world.
This is when Ronald Reagan’s policies came into play. Reagan’s views were simple – he opposed inflation, he wanted lower taxes, and ultimately, he wanted to restore American military strength and leadership in the world. The American people, reeling from the crises that arose from the former Carter administration, turned to the new doctrine of “peace through strength”. It is worth noting that just hours after Reagan was sworn into office in 1981, Iran released the American hostages trapped in Tehran. President Reagan embarked on a bold move to once again make America the leader of the free world. How? His plan, similarly to his views, are simple – to make America (and by extension the free world) revered – respected by its opponents and trusted by its allies. The American military underwent its largest build-up in its history during the entire Reagan administration, with the defence budget increasing by 35% or an increase of more than $140 billion for an expansion of both conventional and nuclear military assets; and the infamous Strategic Defence Initiative program (however, the SDI was not completed).
What was the result of Reagan’s build-up? Again – simple. By negotiating from a position of significant military strength, President Reagan actually brought about one of the most peaceful eras during the Cold War. This flew in the face of all the critics who argued that “peace through strength” would lead to war between America and the Soviets. Instead, the Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan; the Berlin Wall fell; the Brezhnev Doctrine (Soviet foreign policy that allowed Soviet troops to invade member states of the Warsaw pact if they departed from Communism) was no longer enforced; the Warsaw Pact was finally ended in 1991 (albeit this occurred during the presidency of George H.W. Bush) ending decades of totalitarian Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe; and ultimately, the end of the Soviet Union in the very same year, signalling a victory for the free world and a victory for “peace through strength”. The doctrine truly lived up to its name.
Moving back to the present, is the Reagan policy of “peace through strength” still relevant? Not only is it relevant, but it is needed now more than ever. Currently we are seeing instability across the globe – the rise of radical Islam and ISIS, and a belligerent Iran in the Middle East; instability in the South China Sea; and an emboldened and increasingly militaristic North Korea to name a few global issues. Furthermore, President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” lacked a fundamental ingredient – American strength. Whilst it is absolutely true that the rise of the new Asian Tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea) as well as increasing Chinese influence on the world stage means that a power upheaval is inevitable – if we are to learn anything from the Reagan era, it is that if we are to negotiate well, we must be respected. To be respected, one must be in a position of strength. Looking at the record of the Obama administration in terms of military strength, Obama has:
- Proposed cutting military spending to 2.3% of U.S GDP in 2024 – the lowest %GDP allocated to defence in post-World War 2 America;
- Allowed American military spending to decline the quickest in 2013, as compared to other democratic nations;
- Planned to cut 40,000 active duty U.S Army soldiers, as well as 17,000 civilian employees in the military;
- Allowed the U.S Army to drop to its lowest troop levels since pre-World War 2;
- Allowed the U.S Air Force to fall to its smallest and oldest combat force in its history;
- Delayed further developments of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defence system;
- Reduced defence assets in Poland and the Czech Republic.
As the globe becomes increasingly dangerous from the various threats to the free world, it is critical now more than ever to return to the American doctrine of “peace through strength”. However, just as important as military might is the notion of working with our allies. Just as Reagan did when he was President, Donald Trump must do now. The world needs American strength, but strength must also be coupled with international cooperation in order to ensure true peace in the global community.