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The Myth of Peace Through Strength

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

The sweeping conservative victory in last November’s elections marks a reaffirmation of the politics of strength in America, of hawkish toughness, of faith in the efficacy of military power to “defend” us and guarantee our security; a reassertion of the belief that peace depends on the projection of our national power, on the perception by the rest of the world of our global supremacy; a rekindled faith in what I call in this essay the myth of peace through strength. This faith in the “deterrent” effect of American power is not new, nor is it limited to so-called conservatives. But the national consensus which had developed since 1945 around faith in the politics of strength was severely shaken by the Vietnam experience, which seemed to expose in so many ways the ineffectiveness, the inapplicability, and the counter-productive consequences of our enormous military, economic, and political power.

The past 18 months, however, have witnessed a remarkable revival of the old Cold War fervor, based on the strange delusion that the United States has become, in the wake of Vietnam, a “pitiful, helpless giant,” the easy prey of such international “bullies” as Khomeini and the Kremlin. The two specific incidents which, by traumatizing the American people, have helped to produce this belligerent resurgence in foreign policy have been, of course, the seizure of the American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since these events occurred, a troubling clamor for arms has been rising in the United States, a renewal of hawkish posturing, of Cold War rhetoric, summarized in the campaign promise of President Reagan to “rearm America” and climaxing in the conservative victory in November.

As this essay seeks to demonstrate, not only will policies of “strength” produce neither peace nor “respect” for America, but the two specific crises which have so aroused the American people are themselves, to a large extent, the predictable consequences of that very policy of “strength,” that unrelenting hostility to the “Communist enemy,” which conservatives like President Reagan are constantly urging. Each crisis, in fact, is an incident in the two large conflicts which have dominated American foreign policy since 1945: the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the challenge of revolutionary nationalism in the Third World. Although the two conflicts are not necessarily related, American policy has forced them together not only in the sense that we have viewed each conflict as part of a larger struggle against an enemy called “communism,” but also in the sense that our response to both conflicts rests on the same conceptual assumptions: that international politics is a deadly struggle of kill or be killed, a fiercely competitive game which we must win if we are not to lose, that it is a struggle similar to war, that it is, in short, a zero-sum game.

The image of international politics as a game of winners and losers is not, of course, peculiar to the United States. It has its origins in the competitive state system and the intensively aggressive nationalism which have dominated Western politics since the end of the Middle Ages. The history of international politics since then has been the history of constantly escalating conflict and of chronic wars. The fate of even the most vigorous and determined players in that struggle provides little support for the notion that this war of all against all has produced many “winners.” In fact, the Hobbesian game of international politics has clearly been self-defeating and enormously destructive for almost all modern nations. Since 1914, modern total war has become so destructive as to make the concept of “winning” in international competition increasingly meaningless; and since the advent of nuclear weapons, it has become a truism that no one can “win” World War III, so that the major national interest of every state today is peace, with the most fundamental component of any national interest being sheer survival.

Yet policies based on the assumption that international politics is a zero-sum game must, necessarily, produce war. There is a logical contradiction between policies of “strength,” designed to produce “winners,” and the search for order, stability, and peace, which requires accommodation and compromise. The tragic irony, of course, is that the United States, because of its geographic isolation, was able to escape, in the past, the most destructive consequences of international games playing; and we entered the arena of global politics, in the 20th century, proclaiming proudly our determination to transcend this selfish, irrational, and self-defeating game, to lift, through our power and example, the tired cynical European world out of the morass of power politics from which all nations had suffered so much for so long.

Unfortunately, we have proved even more vulnerable than the Old World to the beguiling image of international politics as a competitive game. Egged on by a fiercely chauvinistic public which derives profound satisfaction from thrusting upraised index fingers at television cameras, conditioned by a culture which reserves its loudest plaudits for winners and its most scathing contempt for losers, we have become the most vigorous players in the game of international politics. We have been so concerned with being “winners,” with being “Number One,” that we have lost sight of our concern for peace and order in the world. In fact, we have become victims of that oldest and most self-defeating of illusions, that peace is achieved through strength, through being “Number One.”


The futility of international games playing can be demonstrated without recourse to any other history than that of the Cold War itself. After 36 years of vigorous competition with the Soviet Union, have we gained anything? Are we more secure than we were in 1945? Have our policies of strength “deterred” the Soviet Union, enabling us to combine the delights of being “Number One” with the obvious need for peace? Quite the contrary. Thirty-six years of Cold War have provoked the Soviet Union into a continuously escalating challenge to our hegemony, producing a disastrous and nearly uncontrollable arms race, a climate of international tension and confrontation in which both superpowers not only have the capacity to annihilate each other but are constantly tempted to do so by the deep, mutual suspicions engendered by the Cold War itself. Both superpowers have added to world tensions by their search, all over the globe, for client states to use against the other; they have seriously aggravated their economic and social problems by channeling so much of their productive resources into armaments, goods which contribute nothing to the real wealth of either society and thereby create serious inflationary pressures.

Common sense alone demonstrates the futility of making global peace and order depend on policies of “strength,” for the Soviet Union will no more accept a world in which its own security and interests depend on the good will and benevolence of the United States than we have ever been willing to make our interests and security depend on the good will and benevolence of the Soviet Union. Our stock response, of course, is that the Cold War is the other guy’s fault, that we are prepared to give up playing the armaments game, but the other side will not cooperate. The answer is, of course, disingenuous in the extreme, since our policies of “strength” contribute as much to the danger of war as those of the Soviet Union. But it is more than disingenuous; it is unrealistic at a very fundamental level. The question is not who is to “blame” for the Cold War. Such a question misunderstands and misrepresents the basic dynamics of international conflict, which is not dependent on the presumed “aggressiveness” or “peacefulness” of individual states. Conflict is necessary and inevitable so long as states define their interests against each other, behave as if international politics were a zero-sum game. For in that case, every state must, in defense of its own interests, act in ways that will necessarily appear threatening and “aggressive” to others.

We contribute to the Cold War in a major way, not because our leaders are really imperialist warmongers, just as “bad” as the Soviet leaders, but because we define our national interests against the Soviet Union, define them as incompatible with Soviet interests. If we define the goal of American policy as the search for “advantages” over the Soviet Union in the Middle East or Africa, as checkmating their interests in the Persian Gulf or in the Far East, then our strength and our victories, which necessarily appear to the Soviet Union as their weakness, and their defeats, will inevitably provoke Soviet leaders to respond in defense of their own interests with the same kind of aggressive action we would take, and have taken, whenever we confront what appears to us as Soviet strength or Soviet victories.

The fact that international conflict is produced by the clash of national interests is an obvious truism; but we persist in the delusion that this clash can be resolved to our advantage through our strength, that peace and stability can be achieved unilaterally, through our power. Yet we cannot simultaneously pursue a policy aimed at victory, in which our interests are measured against those of the Soviet Union, and one aimed at peace and stability, which necessarily requires an acknowledgement of the legitimate existence of both sets of interests.

We conceal this contradiction from ourselves with the argument that we do not object to legitimate Soviet interests, only to Soviet policies of “aggression.” But any state, including the United States, is prepared to use force, act “aggressively,” in the pursuit of what it defines as its own interests. Consider, for example, our intervention in Vietnam, where we used force on a far greater scale and acted at least as ruthlessly as the Soviet Union in its invasion of Afghanistan. The point is not to show that we are as “bad” as the Soviets but to note that whether the use of force appears “aggressive” or justified depends entirely on one’s national perspective. And the conservatives who now control our national administration, and who are loudest in their moral condemnation of Soviet “aggression” were also the loudest in supporting aggressive American policies against Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, the Soviet Union, or other “enemies.” Aggression, like hell, is always for others. It is what other, more benighted states do to promote their interests.

Even to the extent that we recognize that international conflict is not a simple morality play, we ignore the role played by our own national interest in producing such conflict. We overlook the degree to which the aggressiveness of others, the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union, is a response to our own military power, our own strength, our proclaimed status of global and military supremacy. In a zero-sum game in which we define our interests against those of others, our very existence appears to other, potential losers in the game as an act of aggression.


Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of a larger strategy to gain access to the Persian Gulf; that does not appear to be the case, but the hypothesis is plausible, and relevant to this argument. For if, as many experts believe, the Soviet Union faces an oil shortage in the foreseeable future, it may well seek access to the resources of the Persian Gulf. Is it realistic, more important, is it in our interest automatically to define Soviet actions in search of petroleum as a threat, to respond with hostility to anything the Soviet Union might do in the defense of its own economic interests? Is it realistic to assume that the Soviet Union will resign itself to an oil shortage, accept serious economic dislocations, reconcile itself to an inferior status in the world, simply through the “deterrent” effect of our power? Will it not, instead, be provoked by our hostility and our power, as it has been provoked for the last 36 years, to build up its own strength and power in defense of its own vital interests? Is it not obvious that Soviet policy is a mirror image of our own, each side responding to the strength of the other by building its own strength? And that by reading Soviet national needs as a threat to our security, far from creating peace through strength, we drive ourselves and the Soviet Union to that very nuclear catastrophe which our policies of strength are supposed to deter?

Lurking at the heart of every facet of our Cold War policy is an unrealistic, because so obviously self-serving, dual standard of national morality, a smug but deadly assumption that because we make an adverse judgment of its political system, the Soviet Union, in a sense, does not have the right to have any interests; and any action it takes in defense of its interests—increasing its nuclear capability, attempting to extend its influence in the Third World, trying to improve its global image—is taken as proof of its “aggressive” character, its deviousness, its determination to have its way, even at the risk of world peace. Conversely, when we do precisely the same thing—increasing our nuclear armaments, projecting our power in the world, seeking to “win” the Third World to our side—we are working for peace and global order.

This self-serving, chauvinistic morality cripples our understanding of international conflict at every level, even among devotees of Realpolitik, like Henry Kissinger, or balance of power advocates like the late Hans Morgenthau, who are betrayed by their vocabulary. They speak of “disciplining” the Soviet Union, using “rewards” and “punishments,” assuming not only that we are the “good guys” but that we stand, somehow, outside the system of world order, that we have a special responsibility to make other states “behave,” curb their national demands, without recognizing any similar responsibility for ourselves; assuming, in fact, that we are a kind of immaculate state, without any national demands that might appear threatening or aggressive to others. Even sophisticated observers speak of anything that serves our interests, in Korea, the Middle East, Latin America, as contributing to “security,” as if our interests represented the norm, while interests in conflict with ours, views of the world not convenient to our interests, are “destabilizing,” a threat to world peace, defined as American hegemony.

Even if one is convinced that our moral superiority is an objective fact, and not merely a trick of patriotic perspective, we cannot resolve the clash of national interests in the world on the basis of such a clearly self-serving moral standard. We cannot build peace on the basis of what Finnish President Kekkonen calls “confining the Russians to a ghetto,” that is, denying the legitimacy of their national interests—such as the need for petroleum resources—because we disapprove of their political system. As Henry Kissinger put it, before he became a media celebrity, “no state can doubt its own good faith.” We cannot make world peace depend on a Soviet acceptance of our definition of their moral worth, on their abdicating their interests because they acknowledge their moral worthlessness, on their willingness to “convert” themselves into something which conforms more to our ideological preferences. America may well be “the greatest place in the world,” but peace cannot be made to depend on other nations subordinating their own interests to ours, making their interests dependent on our good will on the basis of such a self-serving moral judgment.


Our policies of “strength” have had no more success in building peace and stability in the Third World than in our relations with the Soviet Union. The projection of our power in the Third World, that demonstration of “toughness” and “strength” so dear to conservatives like President Reagan, far from commanding any respect, have, to the contrary, produced that fanatical hostility of which the Iranian crisis has been such a striking example. And the notion that the seizure of the hostages was provoked by a perception of American “weakness” not only flies in the face of the factual evidence, but it is typical of the way in which we have misread the national revolutions of the Third World and, as a result, helped to create that very violence and hostility which have so outraged us in Iran.

The great awakening of the Third World since 1945 is best summarized by the phrase, revolutionary nationalism. This was an attempt to create, out of the rubble of the colonial experience, nations which were capable of throwing off the humiliating yoke of Western domination. They would no longer be wards of the Western economies, and their resources would no longer be owned or managed by Western corporate interests. In short, the new nations of the Third World sought genuine national integrity and independence, transcending the bitter legacy of the white man’s burden. Such a goal was revolutionary, not only because it implied a revolutionary transformation of the domestic structure of Third World societies; it implied as well a new deal in the global distribution of wealth, power, and resources. Such a revolutionary goal necessarily placed the Third World on a collision course with the United States. The U.S. dominated the world market economy, its corporations controlled much of the economic resources of the Third World, and it had demonstrated its readiness, in the past, to intervene with “strength” in the Third World to guarantee its economic and geo-political interests.

Such revolutionary nationalism did not—and does not— have to be our enemy. It is possible for us to respond to the challenge of the Third World in a spirit of compromise and accommodation. Our failure to do so thus far reflects the fact that, as with the Cold War, we refuse to acknowledge the role we play in creating conflict situations in the Third World. In fact, our policies of “strength” have been much more counter-productive in the Third World than in the Cold War, for they have expressed, and have been perceived in the Third World as expressing, a paternalistic contempt for the Third World, with strong racist overtones. The media image of the Iranian revolution, for instance, has reeked with such contempt and condescension: Khomeini as a madman, his supporters as “crazies,” the taking of the hostages as an act without motivation.

In fact, the use in the media of such labels as “militants,” or more typically, “Marxists,” or “leftwingers,” is itself a way of refusing to understand and take seriously the grievances of the Third World; for these terms are used as a tautological “explanation” of anti-Americanism. These people oppose us, “hate” us, because they are Marxists, left-wingers, Communists, as if these labels were part of their biological make-up, created by God as “enemies” of the United States, unrelated to any events in their own societies, including anything we might have done or be doing to turn them into militant enemies. The presence or absence of such Communist or left-wing “enemies” in the Third World, the presence of anti-American militants in Iran, is not an accident, nor is it the work of “outside agitators.” A radical, anti-American nationalism is produced in the Third World by our own response to, our treatment of, its national demands. And beginning with the victory of Mao in China, in 1949, we have responded to the challenge of the Third World with that very policy of “strength” which Reagan conservatives argue will earn the “respect” of the Third World: from Chiang to Batista, from Somoza to Rhee, from Diem to the Shah of Iran, from Lon Nol to Duvalier, we sought to impose on the Third World our economic and military power, through the creation of “pro-American” regimes, based on the humiliating assumption that the nations of the Third World have so little integrity that they can be easily manipulated by outside power. And when these “pro-American” regimes, again and again, produced the very revolutionary violence and anti-Americanism they were designed to prevent, we concocted a convenient fairy tale to “explain” the situation. Again and again, it was a “Communist conspiracy” that caused a despot’s downfall. This was a delusion that has always been peculiarly attractive to American “hawks,” who refused to believe that the people of the Third World could want to challenge, or be capable of challenging, American power; that their hostility to American hegemony could come out of their own national needs, their concern for the poverty and demeaning status of their own peoples, in short, out of national pride. Instead, the Communist conspiracy “explains” revolutionary nationalism in the Third World as the work of “foreign agents,” benighted “subversives,” whose hostility to the United States inheres in their identity and does not really have to be explained.

In other words, the Communist conspiracy is the other side of the coin of those artificial “pro-American” governments we forced upon the Third World, based on the demonstrably false assumption that Third World nations have no real political or social integrity, no national pride. Rather they are passive counters, pawns in the global chess game between the United States and the Soviet Union, to be captured at will by either superpower. Everything that has happened in the Third World since 1945 contradicts this notion. The most obvious trait of Third World revolutionaries has been an almost paranoid concern for their own independence, a prickly, militant chauvinism such as vented itself in Iran recently. But cannot the Soviet Union “exploit” this revolution to its advantage? Without our enormous economic power, our capital resources, our leverage in the world economy, it is hard to see how the Soviet Union can have any more success than we have had in trying to “win” the Third World through policies of strength. And the Soviet experience in Afghanistan gives little reason to be alarmed about Soviet prospects of “winning” the Third World.

In fact, Third World nations have demonstrated that, despite their relative poverty and lack of power, their aroused national consciousness makes the attempt by either superpower to “capture” them extremely costly, particularly since the Third World can now balance the threat of one superpower by seeking the support of the other, a willingness which, of course, has nothing to do with being either “pro-Soviet” or “pro-American.” Third World nations may seek support at times from either superpower; they are, in the long run, pro-themselves.

During the recent election, President Reagan alluded nostalgically to the good old days when an American could travel in complete safety through the Third World, his American identity a badge of protection. Do such conservatives as Reagan not perceive the provocative arrogance suggested by such an image? That this perception of Americans as inviolate, immune to the poverty and disorder of Third World societies, striding masterfully across the lands of all those outlandish natives, did not reflect the “respect” of colored peoples towards their white masters but their powerlessness, the sullen subservience of humiliated people, waiting for the day, as in Iran, when they could revenge themselves on the powerful foreigner? Is it not obvious that the hysterical virulence of Iran is the inevitable recoil to all those policies of strength so dear to the hearts of our neo-imperialists and the humiliation of Third World peoples implied by such a demonstration of American power? Nothing in the history of the revolution in the Third World since 1945 gives support for the notion that our policies of strength have gained us anything there, except the hostility of its peoples.

If the Cold War is a no-win game, which can only bring catastrophe to the superpowers, and if the Third World is clearly not up for grabs in our competition with the Soviet Union, what exactly is at stake in this fierce struggle we are engaged in all over the world? Prestige. Conservatives argue that unless we pursue policies of “strength,” our global image will suffer, our enemies will perceive us as “weak” and seek to take advantage of us. Neither history nor common sense offers support for such notions. Prestige is the projection of an image of power and, current delusions notwithstanding, the projection of power does not deter, does not command respect. The projection of power appears to others as a threat, and in the history of international politics, threats almost invariably produce counterthreats. In the clash of national interests, the invocation of prestige, by raising questions of national pride, invariably stiffens attitudes, produces militancy; it almost invariably pushes nations towards war rather than peace.

Surely, one need not retell the history of Europe since the Middle Ages to make the point. The prestige of Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, William II provoked, in every case, hostile coalitions and devastating wars, fought against the perception of prestige, of great power. In more recent times, one can cite our own experience in Vietnam, our inability to “deter” Vietnamese hostility, even though such displays of great power as the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, should have been conclusive; the Israelis have yet to deter the Palestinians through their policies of “strength”; and we can add the example of Cubans, Algerians, Nicaraguans, Rhodesians, Iranians, Basques, and Irish. The list is endless of peoples who, far from being overawed by great prestige, by great power, are outraged by it into militant hostility.

The clinching argument for those who cling to a fallacious faith in strength and prestige is the Munich example. The. “lesson of Munich,” however, has become a cliché, an unexamined assumption which, in fact, appears to demonstrate the opposite of what it is supposed to teach. For the lesson of World War II would seem to be—and the example of the Third Reich would seem to demonstrate—that in an age of total war, Nazi policies of strength were clearly suicidal. World War II was made inevitable not by the response of Europe at Munich to Nazi frightfulness—Hitler was willing to risk a world war and was not to be deterred by anything France and England might do—but by the Nazi definition of German interests against the rest of the world, by the Nazi confidence that German prestige and German power would allow them to have their way, and by the Nazi faith in the tired old illusion that, with enough military power, Germany could “win” the game of international conflict and guarantee its interests and its security permanently. The most obvious point about German policies of strength, concealed by our morbid fascination with Nazi “macho” ruthlessness, is that they wrought the greatest disaster imaginable to German national interest. Anyone traveling through Germany in 1945 would have been quickly convinced of the truth of that conclusion. The real parallel between today and the 1930’s is not so much between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as between the Nazi leadership and our own hardliners as well as the hardliners in the Soviet leadership, who reject negotiations and accommodation as a sign of “weakness” and still hope to “win” the game of international politics. Surely the French and English conviction, in 1938, that World War II would be a catastrophe for all of Europe, reflected a more intelligent definition of national interest than the reckless and suicidal policies of strength of the Nazis, policies which resulted in the physical annihilation of much of Germany and its permanent political division.

The trouble with policies of strength is not that they are immoral or hypocritical or cynical or lacking in idealism but that they clearly do not work; they are, in fact, futile and self-defeating. Common sense demonstrates the point even more conclusively than history. Can we imagine ourselves pressured into accommodations, overawed into surrender by the prestige and power of the Soviet Union? Whence comes this faith that our power will so impress others? This faith in strength, this concern for “prestige,” is, in fact, irrational, rooted in masculine fantasies and chauvinist delusions of grandeur. Indeed, if we examine some of these excercises in the politics of “prestige,” great displays of national power, it quickly becomes apparent that they have been designed primarily for the domestic audience. Who, after all, thrilled at the thought that the sun never set on the British Empire, that Germans feared only God, that America was “Number One”? Who was most taken by the Nazi idea that the Germans are a master race? Who was Nixon really addressing whenever he used to get “tough” with the Russians? Who is supposed to be impressed by those bizarre, muscular editorials of William Buckley? Prestige, the politics of strength actually are exercises in solipsism, the way in which we convince ourselves of how great and tough our nation really is.


The faith in peace through strength simply will not withstand rational scrutiny. Our strength has clearly not deterred the Soviet challenge to our hegemony; it has, instead, greatly stimulated that challenge and provoked a ruinous nuclear arms race. And the readiness with which President Reagan appears willing to lay the burden of that race wholly on Soviet intransigence totally overlooks the role our own enormous nuclear power, our clearly perceived and loudly proclaimed “strategic superiority” have played in the past in provoking the alarming nuclear arms build up. Our willingness to accept for so long the risks of nuclear escalation, in the search for military superiority, is now bearing the bitter fruit of a greatly increased danger of mutual nuclear annihilation, a precarious impasse created by the illusion that we could achieve absolute security only through absolute military power.

If American strength is supposed to bring us peace, then Soviet strength, instead of being destabilizing, pushing the world towards war, should bring peace to the Soviet Union. Why should they have any less faith in the deterrent effects of their power than we have in the deterrent effect of ours? If strength produces peace, should not every state follow policies of strength? Modern nations have been playing that game for a long time, preparing for war in the hope that such preparations would “deter” enemies and bring peace; instead, arms buildups create fear and conflict and unfailingly produce war. Faith in peace through strength requires a kind of magical thinking, a tunnel perspective in which our own power deters everyone else, but no one tries to use their power to deter us.

If peace and global stability are necessary components to any realistic definition of our national interest, the only rational policy we can pursue is one not designed to “win” the game of international politics but to transcend the Hobbesian structure of global politics. We cannot move out of the shadows of global disorder unilaterally; but the willingness of others, including the Soviet Union, to join in the process, depends to a considerable extent on what we do. And what we have done, based on faith in the deterrent effects of global supremacy, has not served the cause of peace. If we confront today a powerful, aggressive, hostile Soviet Union and a militantly anti-American Third World, these Frankenstein monsters are, to a greater extent than we are willing to admit, our own creation, the product of the foolish assumption that while we proudly and defiantly refuse to accommodate to Soviet, or Communist power, arguing “better dead than Red,” responding to any evidence of Soviet strength with a call to arms, we expect the Soviet Union and the Third World to be cowed by our policies of strength, pressured into accommodation by our power.

The demand for American “supremacy,” so loudly proclaimed by politicians of both parties in the recent elections, is simply not compatible with the kind of stable, orderly world that will truly serve our national interest. Is this obsession with being “Number One” a rational policy, born out of a genuine concern for our national welfare, and an objective understanding of the complex dynamics of strength and deterrence? Or does it express an immature dream of masculine omnipotence, a fantasy we must outgrow if we are ever to become the genuine world leaders we so desperately aspire to be?


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