IN THE JOURNAL | GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES
Understanding America's global role in the age of Trump
April-June 2017
By: Rodger Baker

Reagan came to office at a time of double-digit interest rates and chaotic oil markets, in a binary world of the US-led West versus the Soviet Union in the East, and on the heels of a major American intelligence reassessment of the Soviet nuclear and conventional threat. The structure of the US economy was still based on manufacturing with a strong export component, and the coming computer revolution was just beginning. Reagan even noted in his 1983 State of the Union address that “To many of us now, computers, silicon chips, data processing, cybernetics and all the other innovations of the dawning high technology age are as mystifying as the workings of the combustion engine must have been when that first Model T rattled down Main Street, USA” – a comment that seems rather quaint given today's technology-driven lives.

In the Soviet Union, Reagan had a single major foreign threat to contend with, and he coupled his push for missile defense systems (to negate the advantage in Soviet missiles) with calls for reductions in nuclear arms. Peace through strength was intended to deter conventional and nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies by the Soviet Union and its allies.

In his March 1983 address to the American people on defense and national security, Reagan explained peace through strength as the application of a policy of deterrence. “Since the dawn of the atomic age, we’ve sought to reduce the risk of war by maintaining a strong deterrent and by seeking genuine arms control. ‘Deterrence’ means simply this: making sure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States, or our allies, or our vital interests concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains. Once he understands that, he won’t attack,” Reagan said. “We maintain the peace through our strength; weakness only invites aggression.”

Two months earlier, in his State of the Union address, Reagan had highlighted the dual economic and military components of a policy of peace through strength. “Our strategy for peace with freedom must also be based on strength – economic strength and military strength,” Reagan said. “A strong American economy is essential to the well-being and security of our friends and allies. The restoration of a strong, healthy American economy has been and remains one of the central pillars of our foreign policy.” The dual concepts of a strong domestic American economy and a strong defense capability were tied together into a single strategy with a global focus.

The Trump administration has picked up on these two themes and revived the peace through strength concept. The focus is on rebuilding the American economy through manufacturing, infrastructure development and tax reform, and on strengthening American defense, in part through an expansion of nuclear capacity. But the conditions are different now. Manufacturing and exports are no longer as important to the US economy, technology has created entire new sectors of economic activity and trade patterns have expanded into massive networks spanning continents. Interest rates, in double digits when Reagan took office, are barely rising above record lows today, and oil prices remain hovering near lows, while US domestic production is on the rise. Technology has advanced the tools of warfare and disruption into the cyber realm, reducing the speed and confidence of identifying the perpetrator and altering the perception of risk and reward for state powers as well as nonstate actors.

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