It's a paradoxical truth that military readiness can keep the peace. The Romans had a phrase for it: Si vis pacem, para bellum, meaning “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
President Ronald Reagan called it “peace through strength.” Although Reagan might be the president most closely associated with that phrase, 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,” said President George Washington in 1782, putting it more delicately than the Romans.
“We infinitely desire peace,” said President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century later, “and the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.” He also famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” For Roosevelt, 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.” President Harry Truman praised the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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.”
“The vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment,” said 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.”
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.”
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.”
Now or later
These leaders understood peace through strength works in two important ways. First, at its best, it prevents war by deterring the enemy.
Critics of defense spending argue 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. Just compare military allocations, as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), during times of war and times of peace:
- In the eight years before entering World War I, the U.S. devoted an average of 0.7 percent of the GDP to national defense; during the war, U.S. defense spending spiked to 16.1 percent of the GDP.
- In the decade before entering World War II, the U.S. 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 the GDP to the military annually, spending almost 38 percent of the GDP on defense in 1944 alone.
- Applying the lessons of deterrence, Cold War-era presidents spent an average of 7 percent of the GDP on defense to keep the Red Army at bay.
We can never know what might have been had the U.S. 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.”
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.”
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 in 1961 defense spending consumed half the federal budget, while it accounted for 9 percent of the GDP. Today, defense spending is under 15 percent of the federal budget and 3.5 percent of the GDP (and falling). In fact, we could eliminate the entire defense budget and turn the Pentagon into a megamall, and yet we still would 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 - 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-Qaida is reconstituting in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria; North Korea is rattling nuclear sabers; and Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. These, it could be argued, aren't even our principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China's military-related spending has skyrocketed from $20 billion in 2002 to around $180 billion a decade later - 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.
Given the reservoir of U.S. military capacity, the balance of power still would seem to favor the U.S., even after sequestration takes its toll - until one considers 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 Roosevelt, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes worries Washington might be “out-sticked” by Beijing's antiship capability.
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.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey added that after sequestration, “We wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”
We now 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.” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno bluntly warns of “significant problems” if troops are deployed for combat before 2019. “They are not going to be trained properly,” Odierno said. “That means when they go, it is going to take them longer to do it. They might have more casualties.” According to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, “We are beyond muscle” and soon will “cut into bone.” If the sequester remains in place without substantive modification, the active duty Army could shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000; the Marine Corps could shrink to between 150,000 and 175,000. Although the budget compromise U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray produced (which returns $22.5 billion to the military in 2014 and $9 billion in 2015) 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 floated plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. 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.
- At the height of Reagan's buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Present-day fleet numbers stand at 285 ships. If sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy will be forced to mothball 38 more ships and might have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight or nine flat-tops. Already, the Navy has stretched the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rightly argues sequestration casts a “shadow of uncertainty” across the Pentagon and around the world, where the U.S. military often is the difference between stability and chaos.
That brings us to the second benefit of peace through strength. Churchill conceded, “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.” Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Hezbollah, radicalized regimes like Iran's, and death-wish dictators like Saddam Hussein might be the sort of enemies that simply cannot be deterred.
But even when the peace-through-strength strategy fails to deter such enemies, it equips the U.S. 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 multipurpose resources. 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 Pakistan.
Indeed, it pays to recall what the pre-sequestration military achieved: It shielded the homeland from another 9/11; eviscerated al-Qaida and eliminated Osama bin Laden; toppled terror regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; protected allies in Europe and the Pacific; deterred North Korea, China, and Russia; kept open the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Aden, and South China Sea; and rushed aid to Japan, Sumatra, Haiti, and the Philippines. Yet Typhoon Haiyan might mark the end of an 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, amphibious 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 also to project stability and buttress the liberal global order forged after World War II - an order that benefits the U.S. 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 U.S. As Dempsey puts it, the post-sequestration Pentagon will “be providing a lot fewer options and a lot less capacity.”
To avoid that, we must recognize a well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture.