Blog Post - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Reflections on President Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” Speech

| June 07, 2023

Sixty years ago at American University, President Kennedy delivered what is believed to be one of his finest speeches, where he laid out his “Strategy of Peace.” The message was exceptional and could only be delivered from a position of great strength that Kennedy, as the President of the United States, enjoyed both at home and abroad at that time. It resulted in some important breakthroughs such as the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and a hotline agreement between Washington and Moscow, among others. Nevertheless, later U.S. presidents reversed Kennedy’s vision and adopted a rather aggressive posture against the former Soviet Union. The trend continued even after the Soviet dissolution at the end of the Cold War and led to U.S.’s direct and indirect involvement in various other wars. 

60 years later, the world has changed significantly, but the essence of Kennedy’s strategy of peace is still relevant and much more needed in the deteriorating global security environment. However, given the level of mistrust and evolving competition between global powers including the U.S., China, and Russia, it would be unrealistic to expect such a breakthrough to happen today or in the near future. However, the alternatives to peace, i.e. risks of nuclear annihilation, which in fact triggered President Kennedy’s pacifist approach, are still present and continue to threaten the global security. Therefore, no matter how elusive peace may appear, its pursuit should remain a priority for world leaders. 

President Kennedy’s peace aspirations equally resonate with South Asian security dynamics, where densely populated India and Pakistan face the risk of an advertent or inadvertent nuclear war. Today, strategic stability in South Asia is under massive strain due to unresolved territorial disputes such as Jammu and Kashmir, evolving nuclear doctrines, growing conventional asymmetry, pursuits of missile defense systems, growing nuclear entanglement, incorporation of emerging technologies, the impact of great power rivalry in the region and beyond, and the politicization of foreign policy for domestic political objectives, etc. In the aftermath of the 2019 Pulwama/Balakot crisis, it was hoped that this could be South Asia’s Cuban Missile Crisis moment and the risk of mutual annihilation would lead to some steps for peaceful resolution of bilateral issues or at least will give way to some risk reduction measures. On the contrary, the ground reality indicates a more risk-acceptant attitude and hardened political positions. Nuclear learning in South Asia has largely been influenced by the Cold War experiences, but when it comes to crisis stability, India and Pakistan have not followed the same path. They have mostly relied on a third-party intervention instead of engaging in a bilateral risk-reduction mechanism.  

With his vision and statesmanship, President Kennedy demonstrated that strength lies in the pursuit of peace and not war. In today’s divisive world, such leadership is needed more than ever with the ability “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side.” There is a lesson for regional players like India and Pakistan to display such leadership qualities, engage in dialogue, and develop consensus for strategic restraint in South Asia to save the current and future generations from the risk of nuclear war. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Noor, Sitara.Reflections on President Kennedy’s “Strategy of Peace” Speech.” Reflections on John F. Kennedy's 1963 American University Commencement Speech, June 7, 2023, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/reflections-president-kennedys-strategy-peace-speech.

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