Here’s what you need to know about the forthcoming presidential election: Whoever you vote for in November, you won’t be voting for peace. Just as there is no credible peace party in American politics, so too there will be no peace candidate on the ballot—at least none with any substantial following.
Reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Greg Jaffe, military correspondent of the Washington Post, observed that peace “has become something of a dirty word in Washington foreign-policy circles.” As with other truly offensive terms, the p-word is disappearing from American political discourse. It is now found only infrequently on the lips of major political figures.
It wasn’t always this way. In former times, politicians spoke of peace frequently and fervently. Peace—comprehensive, definitive, and indelible—provided the overarching justification for the exercise of American power. American statecraft was synonymous with the quest for peace. Such at least was the view expressed by those charged with formulating and explaining U.S. policy.
Addressing his fellow citizens in the midst of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of victory producing “a world unity that will spell a sure peace—a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men.” When that victory finally arrived, FDR’s successor felt certain that peace was now at hand. “From this day we move forward,” Harry Truman declared on V-J Day, “we move toward a new and better world of cooperation, of peace and international goodwill.” The onset of the Cold War frustrated those expectations, but did not dampen Truman’s conviction that peace remained possible. The U.S. troops sent to turn back the invasion of South Korea in the summer of 1950, the president told his countrymen, were “fighting for the proposition that peace shall be the law of this earth.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower disagreed with Truman on any number of issues, but when it came to peace he was one with his predecessor. Peace, Ike explained in his first inaugural address, “signifies more than the stilling of guns, easing the sorrow of war. More than escape from death, it is a way of life. More than a haven for the weary, it is a hope for the brave.” The White House had a new occupant, but the pursuit of peace continued. Although John Kennedy began his presidency sounding a different, more bellicose note—calling on Americans to pay any price, bear any burden—by 1963 JFK had changed his tune. In a famous speech at American University in June of that year he said:
The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough—more than enough—of war and hate and oppression.
We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on—not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.
According to Lyndon Johnson, the combat troops sent to South Vietnam expressed his determination to advance the cause of peace. “Our generation has a dream,” he explained to the students of Johns Hopkins University in April 1965:
It is a very old dream. But we have the power and now we have the opportunity to make that dream come true.
For centuries nations have struggled among each other. But we dream of a world where disputes are settled by law and reason. And we will try to make it so.
For most of history men have hated and killed one another in battle. But we dream of an end to war. And we will try to make it so.
Richard Nixon concurred. For the United States, 1968 had been a brutal year. Yet when President Nixon took the oath of office the following January, he was filled with optimism. “Forces now are converging that make possible, for the first time, the hope that many of man’s deepest aspirations can at last be realized.” The basis of that hope? “For the first time, because the people of the world want peace, and the leaders of the world are afraid of war, the times are on the side of peace.” Nixon expressed his eagerness to seize the opportunity then presenting itself:
The peace we seek to win is not victory over any other people, but the peace that comes “with healing in its wings”; with compassion for those who have suffered; with understanding for those who have opposed us; with the opportunity for all the peoples of this earth to choose their own destiny.
Nixon’s rhetoric moved some Americans and left others rolling their eyes. After all, his many critics believed, Tricky Dick was a cynical opportunist who would say just about anything that might serve his own political purposes. Yet was FDR any less calculating than Nixon? Did Truman or Eisenhower more accurately grasp the course of history? Was Kennedy any less hungry for power than the man he defeated in 1960—or did JFK’s undoubted charisma camouflage what in Nixon stood nakedly exposed? As for poor Lyndon Johnson, remembered not for building a Great Society but for bombing Hanoi, who can doubt that becoming a “war president” did not figure in his game plan?
Whether conviction or expediency—or some mix of both—motivated these presidents to talk of peace is difficult to discern. But speak of it they did: peace was the gold-filled pot at the end of the rainbow, the promised reward for all of the sacrifices that presidents summoned Americans to make as they sent U.S. forces around the world.
How seriously ordinary Americans took all the peace talk is likewise difficult to measure. When Franklin Roosevelt, in a fireside chat delivered on Christmas Eve in 1943, vowed “to rid the world of evil” and added that “winning the war” meant “winning a just peace that will last for generations,” did his listeners take the president’s words at face value? Or did they dismiss it as political speechifying? Regardless, during both world wars and for decades thereafter, peace remained the actual or theoretical or pretended objective of U.S. policy.
Today that is no longer the case. To the extent that peace still figures as an element in U.S. policy, it survives chiefly as an adjective, attached to a noun that inverts its meaning. The so-called peace process has long since ceased to be about resolving the antagonism that divides the Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, its purpose is to perpetuate a non-peaceful status quo.
More broadly, leading figures no longer venture the sort of big promises that became commonplace during and after World War II. Consider, for example, “An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals,” issued last year by the Mitt Romney campaign and still the authoritative statement of the candidate’s intentions regarding foreign policy. The document spills considerable ink battling the bogeymen of isolationism and national decline. It makes unmistakably clear Romney’s commitment to bolstering U.S. military power and ensuring the security of Israel. Yet it neither articulates a vision of world peace nor expresses any inclination to pursue such a goal. One suspects that the Romney camp values peace chiefly as a euphemism for American hegemony.
That said, Barack Obama hasn’t offered a whole lot more. In 2008 candidate Obama ran for the presidency promising to bring the unpopular Iraq War to a responsible end, while upping the ante in Afghanistan. Once installed in the White House, he made good on both of those promises. Four years later, President Obama is running for reelection promising to bring the increasingly unpopular Afghanistan War to a responsible end. Simultaneously, with minimal fanfare, in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Iran, his administration is expanding the very same war on terrorism that his predecessor launched in the wake of 9/11. As to how perpetuating this war, now in its second decade, will yield something akin to peace as Franklin Roosevelt or even Richard Nixon would have understood the term, Obama has been largely silent.
On the occasion of—prematurely? comically?—receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the president seemed more interested in justifying war than in offering a clarion call for its elimination. “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” he bluntly announced. Yet the president not only contended that eradication was implausible. He also suggested that war’s elimination might be undesirable. In pursuit of righteous causes, violence possesses a putative utility that the United States is unwilling to forgo. The challenge facing humankind, Obama continued, lies in “reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”
Pursuant to that reconciliation, the best Obama could offer was the conviction “that all nations—strong and weak alike—must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” Rather than promoting peace, the president sought to distinguish between permissible and impermissible force. No nation, he argued, “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.” Preserving the legitimacy of those prospective interventions is a U.S. priority.
Now, there is something to be said for puncturing fantasies of worldwide permanent peace, with lions and lambs bedding down together. Obliged to choose between illusion and reality as the basis for U.S. policy, I’ll take the latter every time. After all, when it came to peacemaking, Jesus himself came up short. Why indulge notions that an American president, no matter how shrewd or creative, can do better?
Still, as with sex, so too with war: When realism becomes little more than a convenient excuse for voiding received norms, you’re courting trouble. That’s where the United States—peace joining chastity on the scrapheap of discarded ideas—finds itself today. As events during the George W. Bush era had already indicated and as developments during the Obama presidency have affirmed, Washington refuses in practice to be bound by limitations to which it expects other nations to adhere. Preventive war? Prohibited to others, permitted to the United States. National sovereignty? Other nations should respect it; the United States need not. The killing of noncombatants? Always wrong; but in our case accidents happen—here’s a wad of cash expressing our regret.
During World War II and the Cold War, the political leaders professing to believe in peace were assuring Americans that war is not normal. Today’s political leaders offer no such assurances. “This is the American era of endless war,” Greg Jaffe wrote in his 9/11 anniversary piece in the Washington Post. Just so. And on that score, both parties and both presidential candidates are in fundamental agreement.