Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” —George Washington
“It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.” —James Madison
“We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.” —Ronald Reagan
Peace through strength (PTS) – this is a recurring theme throughout the history of our great nation. It’s as old as ancient civilizations such as China’s Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War), and as new as today. I’ve heard people assert that the United States should only increase its military capabilities if it is attacked somewhere in the world. Others say that we shouldn’t augment our defensive or offensive strengths unless we are attacked on our homeland. That’s a relatively shortsighted strategy – the world is way too small for that to be effective. While some believe that you should only focus on military strength upon being attacked, either on the world stage or on our own turf, it is too late at that time to assemble and employ a suitable riposte.
Enter the strategy of peace through strength. It has been supported by several of our Founding Fathers and our U.S. Presidents from 1789 to today. The basic premise of PTS is that if the United States builds a military capability so great, with an extraordinary over-match ratio to potential attackers, that no nation on earth would dare to attack us because they know it would bring their swift and complete destruction.
By virtue of our PTS strategy, peace in our homeland would be achieved and maintained. If one accepts such a premise, then the next logical question might be, “to what extent do we need to arm ourselves to be that deterrent that we seek?” That would entail a constant comparative exercise, accomplished by thinktanks and large consultancies who monitor the military capacities of world nations.
A second, related question could be, “does this strategy only include conventional armaments or would it also include nuclear?” A third question might also be, “have we any empirical evidence that a PTS strategy was or is successful?” I might add a fourth question, but it has no matter-of-fact answer and that would be, “would super-arming our nation constitute a temptation for present or future political leaders to use that power for much the same reason that President Clinton claimed during his impeachment – “because I could.”
Historical Tie-in of Peace Through Strength
PTS is sometimes confused or interleaved with RealPolitik. RealPolitik is the result of a collision between Enlightenment ideas that our Founders espoused and the fast development of nation-states in the second half of the 19th century. On the one hand, we had political leaders who espoused ideologies and liberal type policies while, on the other hand, countries began the empirical quests for more power and domination, seeking colonies to aggrandize their positions on the word stage.
RealPolitik is a result of that strategic conflict and it is occasionally very tempting to associate PTS within it. The next evolution of these ideas extended RealPolitik and PTS into political realism. This happened when world nations began practicing international relations to try and justify their actions. We saw two generally oppositional ideas emerge: 1) policy actions and international relations are primarily concerned with the extension and growth of power and, 2) policy actions and international relations are the manifestation of a desire for national survival.
Summary and Conclusion
While not a subtle hint or a visible charge by our Founding Fathers for us today, PTS captures the American spirit of wanting to be protected against the bad will and actions of other nations. However, the reality of politics and national priorities in our times is such that we may not have the luxury of arming ourselves to the teeth, not to mention continuously updating our military arsenals with the latest technologies. We have nondiscretionary social entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security that must be paid up front. We also have a massive national debt that our politicians can’t seem to get a hold of. American politicians seem to have difficulty fending off involvement in foreign struggles. Consider President Bush’s war waged in Iraq because of his desire to reestablish U.S. world leadership after September 11, 2001. One close adviser revealed that the thinking behind the war was to show: “We are able and willing to strike at someone. That sends a very powerful message.” Consider President Obama’s co-invasion as well with NATO of Libya in 2011 – the stated rationale was to support Libyan rebels but then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “Publicly, ‘the fiction was maintained’ that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Qaddafi’s command and control. Given that decapitation strikes against Qaddafi were employed early and often, there almost certainly was a decision by the civilian heads of government of the NATO coalition to “take him out” from the very beginning of the intervention.”
My own conclusion is that the Founding Fathers had a period-appropriate notion of PTS, contextually supportive of the big ideas behind it, and resplendent with hope and faith for future peace. There are other strengths, however, that the United States possesses and nurtures which are undeniably elements of national prowess. These include our homeland values of courage, benevolence, individualism, economic opportunity, and generosity. These and other American values continue to attract many to our shores. Along with military superiority, they make us strong and resilient. That’s a certain broadening of the word strength in the term peace through strength.
Bob Brescia, Ed.D. of Odessa is a Teacher of Record for Ector County Independent School District, and an adjunct professor for Wilmington University. He previously served as the Executive Director for The John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute and served as the Head of School for Saint Joseph Academy in Brownsville. He is a board member at Constituting America in Dallas, a member of the Odessa Information & Discussion Group, and an Advisory Board member for Odessa’s Southwest Heritage Credit Union. He is the former chairman of Basin PBS television and the American Red Cross of the Permian Basin and former president of Rotary International – Greater Odessa. He is also a monthly columnist for the American Society for Public Administration in Washington, DC. Brescia has twenty-seven years of military service as a highly decorated Airborne Ranger Cavalry soldier, NCO, and commissioned officer in the United States Army. He received a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude) in Civil Government from Norwich University, a Master of Science in Computer Information Systems and a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University – European Division, and a Doctor of Education in Executive Leadership with distinction from The George Washington University.