Peace Through Strength

What does it mean to pursue ‘Peace Through Strength’?” – the Lonely Realist

Historians have celebrated the globalist foreign policy pursued by the Reagan Administration and emphasized by President Reagan in a 1986 speech warning that “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” As TLR spotlighted in “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick,” President Reagan adopted a muscular U.S. foreign policy that pressured other nations to conduct their affairs knowing that America would back up its tough words with equally tough actions. That conviction led to the collapse of the Soviet empire and cemented the position of the U.S. as global hegemon … to America’s enormous benefit. Conservatives were the most significant supporters of President Reagan’s activist/interventionalist foreign policy, viewing it as necessary for the protection of American interests. History has proven them right. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. took an escalating activist position against socialist and communist governments America’s actual and potential enemies. President Reagan left a legacy of speaking bluntly and wielding a Big Stick, the cornerstone of successful American policy over the following two decades …, until the retreat into isolationism by the Obama and Trump Administrations.

Big Stick Diplomacy had been Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy trademark, expressed by him as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” That accurately described the approach of Presidents who held office during fraught foreign policy times, including Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. They spoke softly, clearly and calmly and enemies and allies alike listened attentively. When America’s enemies failed to adjust their actions, out came the Big Stick …, a synonym for “peace through strength.”

The world’s perception of America’s commitment as an ally and globalist changed in 2012 when President Obama failed to take action against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. America had spoken loudly and, when its warning was ignored, did nothing. Its enemies got the message. Syria and its allies – Russia (in Ukraine), China (in the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait) and Iran (throughout the Middle East) – thereafter engaged in virtual carte blanche aggression, without experiencing reprisals. With the change in American administrations in 2017, however, America’s enemies feared they had a tougher adversary in President Trump, especially with the new President’s amplifications of Reagan tough talk. That turned out to be wrong. Although President Trump told the U.N General Assembly in September 2017 that “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” and initially reinstated military aid to Ukraine, warning Germany that it had become overly dependent on Russian energy and pressuring NATO allies to increase funding for NATO defense, he thereafter backtracked on aid to Ukraine, reacted favorably indifferently to Russian aggressions, was ineffective at altering Germany’s energy policies, and was not successful in increasing NATO spending. The Trump Administration thereby continued the Obama-era slide into foreign policy disengagement coupled with unproductive tough talk. For example, after assuming office President Trump complained that President Obama had left him “with a war ready to start” with North Korea and made North Korean denuclearization his foreign policy priority, threatening Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” No action followed, with the White House subsequently announcing that “President Trump likes Kim Jong Un” …, and North Korea continuing to build nuclear weapons and test long-range missile systems. President Trump pursued a similar strategy with Venezuela and Iran, threatening action to effect regime change in each …, with ineffectual follow through. The failures of President Obama in Syria and Ukraine and of his pacifist policy towards Iran, and the “speak loudly and carry a little stick” strategy of President Trump with respect to North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Ukraine and (thereafter) Afghanistan marked a bewilderingly slippery slide into the sort of isolationism that had defined America prior to WWII …, and it doesn’t require a history PhD to know where that led.

Signs hoisted at recent 2024 Trump Presidential campaign rallies nevertheless proudly proclaim “Peace Through Strength,” equating Ronald Reagan’s muscular foreign policy with the foreign policy strategy of President Trump. Indeed, there was a 17-month period when the Trump Administration flirted with a strategy of “peace through strength” during the tenure of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was fired by the President in 2019. Bolton’s disagreements with the President’s diplomatic initiatives towards North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan’s Taliban, his condemnation of Russia’s global aggressions, and his efforts to persuade the Administration to maintain U.S. forces in Syria to counter Islamic State and Iranian influence proved too much for the President. As President Trump said, “If it was up to [John Bolton], he’d take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn’t matter because I want both sides.”

Although President Trump has not yet presented a 2024 foreign policy platform, he has given indications that his second term would broaden and deepen his first term disengagement. For example, he stated in a May 2023 CNN-hosted town hall that he would withdraw American support from Ukraine because “we’re giving away so much equipment, we don’t have ammunition for ourselves right now,” adding that “I want everyone to stop dying…. And I’ll have that done in 24 hours.” Both supporters and detractors have interpreted the former President’s statement as calling for an immediate cessation of American aid to Ukraine, and President Trump’s closest allies in Congress accordingly have actively opposed further Ukrainian aid. Nevertheless, as TLR wrote last month, supporting proxies who fight America’s battles indeed is “peace through strength,” superior to the alternative of committing America’s military to protect American interests (as the U.S. is doing by recently stationing two aircraft carrier strike groups and an Ohio-class nuclear submarine in the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf). As Hafez Assad, Syria’s then-dictator, said after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, “ [America] betrayed Vietnam. Someday you’re going to sell out Taiwan. And we’re going to be around when you get tired of Israel.” Abandoning Ukraine would be a step down that road, and reducing ties to NATO would be a further step, one which inexplicably remains a goal for President Trump, with Rolling Stone reporting that the former President directed his advisers to ensure that no so-called “NATO lovers” become candidates for positions in his second administration (an anti-NATO policy with potentially catastrophic consequences). The Council on Foreign Affairs described  the former President as “A skeptic of international institutions, he has withdrawn from UN bodies governing health and human rights, major multinational agreements on climate, arms control, and Iran while renegotiating U.S. trade deals, feuding with U.S. allies, imposing new immigration restrictions, and launching a tariff battle with China.” Stephen Walt in his 2021 analysis of President Trump’s first term added that, although the former President “can claim a few foreign-policy successes [by, for example, “not starting any new wars or creating any new failed states [and by] negotiating a new trade agreement with South Korea and an updated version of NAFTA”]…, America’s adversaries are more dangerous than they were in 2016, the United States is weaker, sicker, and more divided, relations with many U.S. allies are worse, and [American] moral leadership [has] been badly tarnished.” What then would “peace through strength” mean in a second Trump Administration? It undoubtedly would mean a redoubling of America First rhetoric without consequent follow-through, which is quite different from the “peace through strength” strategy successfully executed by President Reagan.

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