We have been reminded that Ronald Reagan advocated “peace through strength”, which included the twin policies of deterrence and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Deterrence relied on ‘mutually-assured destruction’: it sent the message ‘if you strike us, we will strike you back’. This policy was successful against Russia because Russian cities would have been obliterated in the event of nuclear war and the Russians didn’t want to take that risk. The international situation has now changed, though, with the advent of Al Qaeda.
Deterrence would never work against Al Qaeda for two reasons. Firstly, the organisation is so dispersed that it does not present a target which could be struck with nuclear weapons – so it is an empty threat to say that one would strike back. Secondly, we now know that some of these terrorists want to die because they believe that they will go to heaven.
The SDI is similarly less effective against some of America’s current enemies. Al Qaeda uses suicide bombers and doesn’t yet use inter-continental ballistic missiles.
President Obama has realised that for America to respond to today’s situation it is appropriate to use soft power in addition to maintaining some elements of the Cold War policy. Islam is a peaceful religion but Muslims are encouraged to go to war if they are attacked or perceive themselves to be under threat; it is therefore necessary for America to be seen to be working for international peace rather than to be seen as an aggressor. America is able to act with international approval when it uses its strength to defend itself, to defend its allies, or (with UN approval) to protect vulnerable groups. Perhaps it is time to update the wording of the motto to “peace and strength”.