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Reagan in Retrospect

In the late Fall of 1988, shortly before Ronald Reagan left office, I was a dinner guest at the home of a distinguished Nixonian.

In the late Fall of 1988, shortly before Ronald Reagan left office, I was a dinner guest at the home of a distinguished Nixonian. Because I had recently left Mrs. Thatcher's policy unit to become editor of the National Review, then as now a fount of Reaganite orthodoxy, my host treated me throughout dinner as a sort of special plenipotentiary of the Reagan-Thatcher axis. This was a good-natured joke, but the discussion was otherwise well-informed, realistic and fascinating. And it had a point to it.


The Nixonians present were seeking to establish that Reagan's broad foreign policy-military and economic competition with the Soviet Union accompanied by sharp ideological confrontation-had produced results neither better nor worse than President Nixon's policy of détente and economic cooperation. Both had ended at essentially the same point-namely with a U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement.

As the only Reaganite-Thatcherite at the table, I was surrounded and outgunned in this debate. (In other words, I lost most of the points.) But I produced one hypothetical argument that seemed to impress my host: suppose that the Soviet bloc were to break up and be replaced by independent nation-states, some of them democratic, over the next few years? Would that not demonstrate the superiority of the Reagan foreign policy?

My host pondered this seriously for a moment and then delivered this judgment. Yes, he could imagine something like this happening. It was not probable in the time-scale I had suggested, but it was well within the realm of possibility. And yes, if the Soviet Union were to collapse, that would have to be credited to the various pressures Reagan had exerted on it. He personally would be very happy to lose the debate for that reason.

And that is the nub of the matter-Reagan won the Cold War. Everything else is just details. But some of those details are very important. And how he won the Cold War is something we must get right-or our misunderstanding may lead to a series of bad imitations of his foreign policy.

Looking at what the Soviets used to call "the correlation of forces" in 1981, Reagan could see that the U.S. was losing ground materially in almost every respect. The U.S. economy was in a shambles with the misery index in the low twenties, inflation rampant and an accelerating recession. At the same time, the Soviet Union and its allies seem to be expanding everywhere in response to America's post-Vietnam paralysis. Cubans were in Africa, the Red Army in Afghanistan, SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe and Marxist guerrillas spreading through Central America.

In retrospect some analysts point out that the Soviet Union, behind the façade of this expanding power, was a far greater and more vulnerable economic shambles than the West. But that was a very rare view at the time, held not by liberal critics of Reagan who now invoke it, but by a handful of cold-warriors, economic statisticians, Sovietologists-and by Ronald Reagan himself.

At the time, Reagan's inheritance seemed even less promising than even the international challenges faced by Nixon and Kissinger in 1989 when Vietnam acted as a drag on all of America's alliances, not unlike Iraq today. To be fair, however, Reagan had two vital advantages over Nixon-one of which had been conferred by Nixon himself.

The first was America's strategic partnership with China. Here Reagan stood on Nixon's shoulders. Nixon and Kissinger had detached China from the Soviet Union in the early seventies, and Beijing remained an American ally all through the eighties.

This was vital to Reagan's overall strategy. He knew that he could not conduct a cold war of attrition against the Soviets and the Chinese simultaneously. So he put his anti-communist convictions in his back-pocket when Deng Xiaoping came visiting. He even distanced himself from his beloved Taiwan to maintain good relations with Peking.

The second advantage was the home front. Nixon had had to conduct both the Vietnam war and his overall foreign policy against a background of high and rising public disquiet. Even though he retained considerable popular support, he was bitterly opposed by the establishment, including some in his own party. And the Vietnam war had undermined the national anti-communism on which a Republican President would usually have been able to draw to sustain his policies. Détente was a sort of holding operation, with the Soviet Union restrained by the hope of economic benefits, until America regained its nerve.

And that had happened by the time that Reagan came to power. By then, the public was thoroughly (and rightly) alarmed about both the spread of Soviet power and the decline of American power-a decline symbolized all too brutally by the incarceration of the Tehran embassy hostages. President Carter's weakness and Soviet over-reaching had created a favorable public climate for Reagan to build up and use America's might.

As is well known, Reagan promptly embarked on three large policies.

  1. He revived the U.S. economy with an anti-inflationary monetary policy, tax cuts and a general loosening of the regulatory burden. Whatever the fiscal difficulties this subsequently entailed-and they were secondary and temporary-this policy mixture stimulated the longest peacetime U.S. economic expansion until that time. It also laid the groundwork for the new information economy that was one of the final straws that broke the Soviet back. But it meant that Reagan would have to live through a two-year recession, with all the political unpopularity it entailed, until the economic benefits started to appear.
  2. He embarked on a massive military build-up that included major technical and scientific innovations such as "Star Wars."
  3. Above all, he set about reviving American self-confidence-and in particular restoring the once-popular conviction that the U.S. was a virtuous power and that its impact on the world was good for the world.  This revival of American self-confidence was important for America in itself. But it was also an instrument of American foreign policy-both directly as in the promotion of human rights against the Soviet Union, and indirectly in that it shaped an American public opinion willing to support Reagan's bold and forward foreign policy. 

What must have particularly impressed the Kremlin, as Harvey Sicherman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia has observed, is that Reagan embarked on all three policies simultaneously, not waiting for the economy to thrive before he increased defense spending or challenged the Soviets ideologically on human rights.

There were, of course, other actions by the new administration that persuaded both the Soviets and U.S. allies that a bold new broom was sweeping the international scene clean. Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers, for instance, demonstrated a rare firmness in domestic policy (though Margaret Thatcher was showing an identical firmness towards labor unions at just that moment in Britain.) Obviously that firmness could be transferred to foreign policy too-and America's adversaries knew it.

But it was the three large strategic policies listed above that formed the bedrock of Reaganite foreign policy over the next decade. Against the background of this broad strategic pressure-which was undermining the Soviets day by day-Reagan's political and diplomatic tactics varied according to the needs of the moment. He could be challenging, unyielding and ready to compromise as the situation demanded.

Challenging as when he assisted the Afghan resistance with Stinger missiles or said plainly that the Soviet Union was an evil empire doomed to end up in the dustbin of history.

Unyielding as when he let the Soviets walk out of the Geneva arms control talks and, later, the Reyjavik Summit, rather than surrender what he considered vital American interests such as SDI or the installation of U.S. missiles in Western Europe.

Willing to compromise as when he signed, with Gorbachev, the first arms control agreement actually to reduce the nuclear weapon stockpiles on both sides-an agreement, incidentally, that achieved more than those previously obtained by his fierce critics in the arms control community. 

This combination of strategic competition and tactical flexibility ensured that, in Lady Thatcher's words, "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot." ("Not without a little help from his friends," she added sotto voce-his pre-eminent friends here being Lady Thatcher and the Pope.) Only month after he left office, the people of the communist satellites in Eastern Europe began overthrowing the "evil empire" and the job was completed by Boris Yeltsin two years later.

Was this the work of a simple-minded ideologue? Plainly not. Reagan was an ideologue when possible, a realist when necessary. His embrace of communist China shows his realism; his pursuit of human rights and his driving the evil empire into its grave shows his attachment to liberty.

This combination of realism and principle is not uncommon in statesmen who face vast historic challenges. Winston Churchill's affection for liberty is undeniable and his career was largely devoted to spreading its benefits. But he is also the author of the most extreme statement of foreign policy realism-namely that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make an alliance with the Devil himself.

It happens that the 1980s were one of those occasions in history when ideology was necessary and when realists became ideologues from that necessity. Reagan realized that if the American people were to meet the challenge from the Soviets in 1981, that they would have to be convinced that defending and advancing liberty was their historic and God-given mission. He also saw that the desire for liberty of the subject peoples of the Soviet empire was its most vulnerable point.

He crusaded for liberty; he advanced the interests of America; he liberated half the world. And he made it look easy.

Requiescat in Pace.  

Original article here.