“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.” – President Ronald Wilson Reagan –
The Serengeti – A lioness watches a herd of antelope cross a thin river basin at the bottom of the hill. She is hungry and alert. The lioness looks at the herd. Her mind naturally focuses on the old, young, and weaker antelope. Seconds later, she springs from the hill and attacks the oldest antelope in the herd.
The lioness’s success was due to her keen attention to the weak and strong within the herd. She would never attack the strongest antelope. This would require risking injury and maybe death. Attacking a weak antelope doesn’t carry such a risk.
We are very similar. For centuries, humans have engaged in warfare on a consistent basis. Looking back at all of the wars men have fought, there is one truth that cannot be rebutted; nations that possess a superior military force always have the option to live in peace. Weaker nations will always invite the type of aggression that we see in the Serengeti.
The phrase and the concept date to ancient times. Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) is said to have sought “peace through strength or, failing that, peace through threat.”
George Washington enunciated a policy of peace through strength in his fifth annual message to Congress, the 1793 State of the Union Address. He said:
There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.
In Federalist No. 24, Alexander Hamilton argued for peace through strength by stating that strong garrisons in the west and a navy in the east would protect the Union from the threat of Britain and Spain.
During the 1964 presidential campaign, the Republican Party spent about $5 million on “Peace through Strength” TV spots.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan used the phrase during his election challenge against Jimmy Carter by pointing out that Carter’s leadership was weak. Reagan illustrated that even the perception of weakness invites our enemies to attack the United States and its allies. Reagan later considered it one of the mainstays of his foreign policy as president. In 1986, he explained it thus:
“We know that peace is the condition under which mankind was meant to flourish. Yet peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations. George Washington’s words may seem hard and cold today, but history has proven him right again and again. “To be prepared for war,” he said, “is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”
This approach forced the Soviet Union to lose the arms race, collapse, and end the Cold War.
President Trump had the same approach. While Trump did not possess the communication skills that Reagan had, he made it clear to the nations of the world that the United States was strong and would not be tangled with.
The truth of “peace through strength” is also seen on a much smaller scale such as when we interact with competitors, adversaries, etc. For instance, in football, sometimes the defense has a cornerback with excellent skills at covering receivers and intercepting the ball. Because of his superior talent, the opposing team will avoid throwing the ball in his direction. Instead, the quarterback will focus on the weaker cornerback and test him early and often.
Some people do not like the concept of “peace through strength” because it offends them or does not fit their worldview. However, this truth has impacted human behavior since the beginning and will continue to do so.