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Peace Through Strength

So-called "peace movements" promoting unilateral disarmament have fueled aggression and led to likely avoidable calamities, likely including the Second World War and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Principled deterrence through strength has been far more successful at promoting peace and democracy. Staff

October 4, 2023

Fallacies addressed in this article:

1. Claims that so-called “peace” or disarmament movements result in a more peaceful, free, or just world;

2. Claims that aggressors can be deterred through talks, appeasement, and/or unilateral disarmament rather than deterrent strength.

African-American Stanford Economist Thomas Sowell has noted that many social policies are falsely named by their stated purpose rather than their actual results.  He observes that this has been the case for so-called peace movements, which through moral paralysis, disarmament, and unilateral concessions to aggressor states, have precipitated wars, aggression, and untold human suffering.

Dr. Sowell observed that proponents have often presented their claims axiomatically without evidence, attacking the character and motives of those who seek security through strength while ignoring the disastrous results of appeasement policies.  These movements might be more accurately designated by their actual results as appeasement movements or enemy collaboration movements. Their historical results have not been peace, freedom or justice.

Russia’s War Against Humanity in Ukraine

In “Weakness is Lethal: Why Putin Invaded Ukraine and How the War Must End,” the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War analyzed extensive data to provide accurate insights.[1] They wrote, in part:

  • “Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t invade Ukraine in 2022 because he feared NATO. He invaded because he believed that NATO was weak, that his efforts to regain control of Ukraine by other means had failed, and that installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv would be safe and easy. His aim was not to defend Russia against some non-existent threat but rather to expand Russia’s power, eradicate Ukraine’s statehood, and destroy NATO, goals he still pursues.

  • “A series of events in 2019-2020 fueled Putin’s belief that he had both the need and a historic opportunity to establish control over Ukraine. Putin’s conviction resulted from [internal self-reflection and]…Western responses to global events and Russian threats in 2021…No diplomatic offering from the West or Kyiv short of surrendering to his maximalist demands would have convinced Putin to abandon the historic opportunity he thought he had.”

Credible threats of outside military intervention in defense of weaker unaligned countries have been an essential element of the international order in deterring aggressors for centuries. Generations understood the concept of a balance of power. If a hostile nation is allowed to annex smaller neighbors, the threat to oneself and allies grows, becoming much more costly and dangerous to confront in the future. When nations capable of deterrence explicitly refuse to do so, international law is supplanted by brute force and smaller, weaker countries become attractive targets for more powerful totalitarian neighbors.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan violated long-term commitments of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” demoralized allies, and incentivized aggressors. The US and NATO refusal to defend non-aligned countries upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine undermined the post-WWII world order and spurred Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.

Western weakness in “taking military intervention off the table” further reinforced Putin’s belief that the risks to Russia of invading Ukraine were low:

  • “Western responses to the Russian escalation on the Ukrainian border and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan likely reinforced Putin’s anticipation of a weak Western response. The West, including the US, signaled its intent to deter Russia via primarily diplomatic means during Russia’s military buildup on the Russian-Ukrainian international border in March and April 2021, taking military intervention off the table…[Biden’s call with Putin] notably occurred on the same day the White House announced that Biden had decided to draw down the remaining US troops from Afghanistan and a day before Biden’s announcement that the US would complete the withdrawal by September 1, 2021…Washington's purely diplomatic approach to deterring a Russian threat against Ukraine and withdrawal from Afghanistan likely strengthened Putin’s convictions that the West would not resist his invasion by force.”

  • “By 2022, no diplomatic offering from the West short of surrendering Ukraine’s sovereignty and abandoning NATO principles would likely have stopped Putin from invading Ukraine. Only the threat that the US or NATO would intervene militarily might have deterred Putin, but the US explicitly took such a threat off the table.[ISW, ibid. emphasis in original]

Much of Putin’s perceived “historic opportunity” reflected the weakness of Western leaders.  By explicitly rejecting the only potentially efficacious deterrent, Biden’s assurances to Putin that the US and the West would not intervene militarily to defend Ukraine did not stabilize the situation, but made Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inevitable.  Putin believed that his military risk against a smaller, poorer neighbor was low. With supposed Western guarantors of Ukrainian sovereignty instead providing explicit guarantees to Russia, the possibility of Russian military defeat was dramatically reduced. These assurances also ensured that the war, with its catastrophic loss of civilian life and damage to industry and infrastructure, would be fought overwhelmingly on Ukrainian rather than Russian soil.

With direct Western military intervention off the table, consequences that have historically been inflicted upon defeated aggressors, such as Germany’s occupation and dismemberment at the end of the Second World War, were limited downsides for Russia. Months before the invasion, Putin’s genocidal anti-Ukrainian manifesto in the vein of Hitler’s Mein Kampf evoked little condemnation from Western leaders.  Russian leaders have called for genocide against Ukrainians, ordered mass killings, and threatened to invade Poland and nuke London. Yet no Western leader has called for serious consequences that Russia would understand, such as decolonizing Russia’s empire. To the contrary, Western intellectuals have historically privileged and overlooked Russian imperialism.

Following the script of historical aggressors, Russia engaged in disinformation with contradictory claims. This served to obscure its aggressive aims with illusory hints that diplomatic solutions were possible and to appeal to various Western groups, from the so-called peace movement to right-wing extremists.  ISW wrote:

  • "Putin has sought to break NATO and Western unity, but not because the Kremlin felt militarily threatened by NATO. Russia’s military posture during Putin’s reign has demonstrated that Putin has never been primarily concerned with the risk of a NATO attack on Russia."

  • “Putin’s NATO and Ukraine narratives in advance of the invasion often contradicted each other – likely by design…The Kremlin propaganda machine also repeatedly claimed that Russia was not planning to invade Ukraine--even ridiculing the idea on the eve of the invasion--and framed its escalations as responses to the Western failures to give Russia adequate ‘security guarantees,’ simultaneously amplifying Putin’s theses on Russia’s historic right to Ukrainian lands. The narratives likely deliberately contradicted each other to mislead Western and Russian audiences’ understanding of Putin’s demands as well as to appeal to multiple different audiences at the same time.”

Many meritless and contradictory Kremlin talking points have been repeated and amplified in Western media and by so-called experts.  ISW continued to note that a lasting peace will not be achieved through the same policies of Western weakness and accommodation that facilitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

  • “Western discussions of the need to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict on the assumption that it is stalemated are thus deeply misguided. Even if [Putin] did show a willingness to negotiate some cease-fire along current lines, however, Ukraine and the West would be foolish to accept it. Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 with aims far beyond what his means could achieve. He settled for freezing the conflict on terms advantageous to him not because he had moderated his aims, but so that he could pursue them in other ways.

  • “A ceasefire or negotiation format freezing the conflict along the current lines, which are far more advantageous to Russia than the pre-2022 lines were, will be in Putin’s eyes nothing more than a kind of Minsk III—a new mechanism by which to continue to pursue the same aims. Such a ‘peace’ will be no peace at all. It will simply be an opportunity for Russia to rebuild its military and economic power, allow the West’s attention to be distracted, and seek to regenerate and benefit from cracks within Ukrainian society until it can resume its attacks.

  • “The idea of providing Putin with an ‘off-ramp’ and a ‘face-saving’ opportunity completely fails to learn the lessons of the past nine years. Putin created for himself a diplomatic ‘off-ramp’ in 2015 not because diplomacy convinced Putin to abandon his pursuit of Ukraine, but rather because he realized that freezing the frontlines was his best option for continuing to pursue control over Ukraine.” [emphasis ours]

ISW observed that there is only one durable solution to achieving lasting peace in Ukraine, whereas alternatives pose far greater dangers:

  • “An enduring end to the current Russian war on Ukraine requires forcing Putin to accept defeat.  He—and his successors—must be made to realize that they cannot impose their will on Ukraine and the West militarily, cannot suborn Ukraine politically, and cannot prevail diplomatically. As long as the Kremlin cherishes the hope of success—which any face-saving compromise settlement would fuel—it will continue to seek to overcome its setbacks in ways that make renewed war very likely.

  • “Ukraine and the West should seek a permanent end to this conflict, not a temporary respite. Renewed war will likely be larger in scale and even more dangerous to Ukraine and the West.  It will be extremely costly as well, since a renewed war once Moscow has rearmed and prepared will likely be far costlier and more dangerous. Demands to reduce the financial burden of supporting Ukraine now simply store up greater risk and expense for the future.

  • “There is no path to real peace other than helping Ukraine inflict an unequivocal military defeat on Russia and then helping to rebuild Ukraine into a military and society so strong and resilient that no future Russian leader sees an opportunity like the ones Putin misperceived in 2014 and 2022. This path is achievable if the West commits to supporting Ukraine in the prolonged effort likely needed to walk down it. If the West instead is lured by the illusion of some compromise, it may end the pain for now, but only at the cost of much greater pain later. Putin has shown that he views compromise as surrender, and surrender emboldens him to reattack.  This war can only end finally not when Putin feels that he can save face, but rather when he knows that he cannot win.”

Tragically, Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine likely could have been deterred entirely if a stronger stance had been implemented by Western leaders from the beginning.

The Preventable Tragedy of World War II

African-American Economist Thomas Sowell observed that World War II, the most devastating conflict in human history, was a likely preventable conflict which was facilitated by Western pacifist movements and appeasement policies.  In Knowledge and Decisions, Dr. Sowell wrote:

  • “British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain conducted a foreign policy designed to avoid war with Hitler through relatively small concessions, but the ultimate result of an unanticipated series of crises and concessions was to so shift the balance of power in Hitler's favor as to make war inevitable.”[2]

In a September 2023 interview on the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge program, Dr. Sowell stated:

  • “Stupid people can create problems but it often takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe…They blundered the West into into a war that probably would never have happened because the the totalitarian dictatorships the start of that war were well aware that the United States, Britain, and France had an industrial capacity greater than theirs and you don't you wouldn't ordinarily attack countries that have greater industrial capacity than yours unless you thought that they weren't they they were gutless and were and were foolish enough not not to remain armed and for three years of that war their Axis Powers won every single battle. The Western democracies lost in Europe and Asia wherever they fought until 1942. Winston Churchill made a speech and said, ‘we have a new experience, we have victory.’ When they won that victory in El Alamein and Northern Africa that was the first battle won by Western democracies in a war that was already three years old and from that point on especially when the United States came in and the American productive capacity was mobilized then it turned around. Today, people who are trying to say we need to disarm in order to have peace don't understand, in a nuclear age you're not going to get three years to figure out what's going on. You're either going to be ready on the first day of that war or you are going to lose.”[3]

The approach of Ronald Reagan that led to the dismantling of the USSR and the freedom of Eastern European nations was based on peace through principled strength. This has contrasted with the appeasement mindset and “one-day-at-a-time” decision making. In Intellectuals and Society (2010), Dr. Sowell expounded:

  • “Intellectuals’ faith in ‘reason’ sometimes takes the form of believing themselves capable of deciding each issue ad hoc as it arises…One-day-at-a-time rationalism risks restricting its analysis to the immediate implications of each issue as it arises, missing wider implications of a decision that may have merit as regards the issue immediately at hand, considered in isolation, but which can be disastrous in terms of the ignored longer-term repercussions. A classic example was a French intellectual’s response to the Czechoslovakian crisis that led to the Munich conference of 1938:

  • An eminent French political scientist, Joseph Barthélemy, who taught constitutional law at the University of Paris and was French representative at the League of Nations, asked in Le Temps the question French leaders had to answer: ‘Is it worthwhile setting fire to the world in order to save the Czechoslovak state, a heap of different nationalities? Is it necessary that three million Frenchmen, all the youth of our universities, of our schools, our countryside and our factories would be sacrificed to maintain three million Germans under Czech sovereignty?’”

  • “Since it was not France that was threatening to set fire to the world, but Hitler, the larger question was whether someone who was threatening to set fire to the world if he didn’t get his way was someone who should be appeased in this one-day-at-a-time approach, without regard to what this appeasement could do to encourage a never-ending series of escalating demands. By contrast, Winston Churchill had pointed out, six years earlier, that ‘every concession which has been made’ to Germany ‘has been followed immediately by a fresh demand.’ Churchill clearly rejected one-day-at-a-time rationalism.

  • “By the time that Barthélemy addressed the Czechoslovakian crisis, Hitler had already taken the crucial step toward preparing for war by remilitarizing the Rhineland, in defiance of treaty commitments, had initiated military conscription when there was no military threat against Germany, and had seized Austria by force. As Winston Churchill said at the time, ‘Europe is confronted with a program of aggression, nicely calculated and timed, unfolding stage by stage.’ This raised the longer run question posed by Churchill: ‘How many friends would be alienated, how many potential allies should we see go, one by one, down the grisly gulf, how many times would bluff succeed, until behind bluff ever gathering forces had accumulated reality?’ In short, the handwriting was on the wall for anyone who wanted to read it, and presenting the immediate Czechoslovakian crisis in isolation was one way of not facing the implications of a series of actions over a longer span of time, leading toward a growing threat, as more and more resources came under the control of Nazi Germany, increasing its military potential. That threat would be even greater with the significant resources of Czechoslovakia under Hitler’s control—as France would discover just two years later, when an invading German army battered them into quick submission, using among other things tanks manufactured in Czechoslovakia. The one-day-at-a-time approach has been applied to numerous issues, foreign and domestic. At the heart of this approach is the implicit notion that intellectuals can define an issue in ways they find convenient— and that what happens in the real world will remain within the confines of their definition.”[4]

As Dr. Sowell noted, this flawed approach of evaluating issues in isolation continues to be heard today across the range of issues.  One of the most dangerous is the application of the “one day at a time” thinking to security issues, minimizing the action of aggressor states through simplistic reductionism (“NATO shouldn’t risk confrontation with Russia over Ukraine” or “US tax dollars should not subsidize Ukrainian defense”) while ignoring longer-term pattern of aggression and the growing dangers they pose. This dangerous mindset favors appeasement and erodes international law.  In contrast, principled understanding and long-term strategic approaches of peace through strength represent the true “peace movement” that historically has succeeded at deterring war and promoting peace and democracy.


[1]. Nataliya Bugayova, Kateryna Stepanenko, and Frederick W. Kagan. “Weakness is Lethal: Why Putin Invaded Ukraine and How the War Must End.”  Institute for the Study of War, October 1, 2023.

[2] Sowell, Thomas. Knowledge and Decisions. Basic Books, 1996.

[3]  “Consequences Matter: Thomas Sowell on “Social Justice Fallacies.” Uncommon Knowledge series, Hoover Institution, September 7, 2023.

[4] Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society, revised and enlarged edition. Basic Books, 2012.

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