Foreign Policy

How Trump is achieving Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ approach to foreign policy

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On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump promised us a return to the Reagan-era doctrine of “peace through strength.” Over the last two weeks, the Trump administration has begun implementing that doctrine in a dramatic fashion. 

First came national security adviser Michael Flynn “putting Iran on notice,” in the wake of a missile test that appears to have violated United Nations Security Council resolutions.

{mosads}Meanwhile, halfway around the world, our new secretary of Defense, James Mattis, delivered a clear message to Pyongyang and Beijing: they would no longer have a free hand in Asia. South Korea will be defended and North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions will be scrutinized. The South China Sea will not become a Chinese lake.


Whether you agree or disagree with the policy decisions, you cannot say that the president isn’t continuing his effort to meet the promises he made on the campaign trail.

As someone who has spent more than a decade briefing senior members of the executive branch and Congress on the military capabilities of our potential adversaries, I can tell you it was past time America put many of those adversaries “on notice.” The last decade has seen one administration that unfortunately became consumed by two wars, to the detriment of our other commitments around the world, and another that was at best ambivalent about the long-term threats posed by the foreign adventurism of Iran, China and Russia.

Tehran, Beijing and Moscow have stepped firmly into the vacuum created by America’s distraction on one hand and ambivalence on another.

Iran and Russia have expended precious resources on shoring up the Assad regime in Syria. Iranian-supported rebels have reduced Yemen to a country in name only, and Tehran continues to pull the strings of its one-time nemesis, Iraq. While Tehran agreed to defer its nuclear ambitions after the promise of economic relief from the West, it’s not been dissuaded from continuing to develop long-range missiles and other asymmetric military capabilities.

China has continued its military buildup nearly unchecked, and engaged in one of the largest land reclamations in history, expanding reefs in the South China Sea to island bases capable of supporting military operations — not to mention its continued efforts to use so-called “soft power” to gain influence across Asia and Africa.

There can be no argument that Russia has been determined to reverse what it considers some of the most egregious territorial losses it experienced at the end of the Cold War. Nor can we disagree with the fact that it is parlaying its limited military capability into an outsized role on the world stage, in a way that is usually not helpful to the polices of the United States and its allies.

You would have to look back to the 1970s and the nadir of the Cold War to find another time when the United States found its self in such a challenging environment. At the time, the Soviet Union, buoyed by high oil prices, was supporting Marxists rebels and regimes in South America and Africa, and had invaded Afghanistan, all while engaging in a wide ranging military buildup. While we do not face a similar monolithic challenger on the world stage, taken together, the challenge from China, Iran and Russia add up to the same weight.

Confronting each of these challenges will take policies calibrated to their respective regions. But then, like now, the policy first has to be framed with a clear and unequivocal message. By declaring the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” Reagan made it clear that the era of accommodation with the Soviets was over. Similarly, last week the Trump administration put our would-be competitors around the world “on notice,” signaling the end of the status quo.

While the details and nuances of President Trump’s interpretation of a “peace through strength” doctrine, other than a military buildup, have yet to emerge, it is clear the gauntlet has been thrown and he now has the world’s attention. It’s more than the last administration achieved in eight long years.

Now comes the hard work of establishing the boundaries of that policy and building not only the military force but the coalition and treaty structures to support it. 


Joe Whited is the former Intelligence Lead for the House Armed Services Committee. He spent over 18 years serving in the intelligence community.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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