Reagan and Europe: A Forgotten Legacy?

As President Reagan is laid to rest this week, one wonders what he would have thought about the current state of the transatlantic relationship.

As President Reagan is laid to rest this week, one wonders what he would have thought about the current state of the transatlantic relationship.

Certainly, the president was not popular during the 1980s among broad segments of the European left, among students and among protestors. Reagan was dismissively described as a reckless cowboy, a geriatric with his finger on the nuclear button willing to bring the world to the brink of the apocalypse.

The president may not have played well among Europe's chattering classes, but he never lost the support of Europe's governments. One can argue that his administration was one of the shining moments of the Atlantic Alliance. Soviet attempts to split the West failed. Despite occasional clashes, Reagan enjoyed excellent working relations not only with his ideological soulmate, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but with other key Western European leaders: Francois Mitterand of France, Helmut Kohl of (West) Germany, and Benito Craxi in Italy, as well as Brian Mulroney of Canada and Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan. Indeed, one can argue that "the industrialized West"--as defined by a close set of economic, political and security arrangements--matured during the Reagan years.

The revival of America's deterrent capability and the massive expansion of its defenses could only have occurred with European and Japanese help, providing the capital to finance America's trade and fiscal deficits. When the dollar appreciated, Reagan's ties with European leaders helped to engineer two "soft landings," in 1985 and 1987, helping to keep the transatlantic (and trans-Pacific) economic relationships in balance.

Reagan never spoke of American power in the singular; in his rhetoric he was always cognizant of a shared partnership between the United States and its allies. Reagan made it a point to keep the NATO allies appraised of U.S. security policies, engaging their views and willing to accept that friends can disagree. Indeed, one could speak of an American leadership within a community of nations - but a leadership that was capable of taking into account the opinions and concerns of its partners.

Margaret Thatcher paid tribute to Reagan's ability to provide leadership for the West when she noted:

The international impact of these successes has been enormous. At a succession of Western economic summits, the President's leadership encouraged the West to cooperate on policies of low inflation, steady growth and open markets. These policies have kept protectionism in check and the world economy growing. They are policies which offer not just an economic message, but a political one: freedom works. It brings growth, opportunity and prosperity in its train.

I think that the former president would be very concerned about the state of the trans-Atlantic relationship today. He would certainly agree with the sentiment that the United States needs no "permission slip" to defend itself, but Reagan found ways to ensure U.S. security within the context of the Western alliance, not apart from it. 

His speech at Westminster College in 1990 is instructive:

For years it had been suggested by some opinion-makers that all would be well in the world if only the United States lowered its profile. Some of them would not only have us lower our profile - they would also lower our flag. I disagreed. I thought that the 1980's were a time to stop apologizing for America's legitimate national interest, and start asserting them.

I was by no means alone. Principled leaders like Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher reinforced our message that the West would not be blackmailed and that the only rational course was to return to the bargaining table in Geneva and work out real and lasting arms reductions fair to both sides.

Reagan did not disdain the allies. He realized that while America might have been the head of the West, it required the cooperation of all its parts in order to project power throughout the world. Reagan was able to use the West's division-of-labor to maximum advantage - allowing Europe and Japan to create the financial conditions necessary for America to act as the primary defender of the free world.

I think that the former president today might be concerned that China is increasingly becoming the nation's leading creditor - and the implications this might have for severely limiting the exercise of U.S. power in the future.

I think that he would be concerned about efforts to jury-rig democracy or to impose it by force. In his famous Westminster speech (1982), he presciently warned, "we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change." It is important to remember that he called for a proposal "to foster the infrastructure of democracy" and identified this as a generational task.

But most importantly, President Reagan would have engaged the allies in a full-court press.  Compare the major trips and visits he and his leading cabinet officials made to confer with partners and allies with the present administration. Defense Secretary Weinberger was willing to defend U.S. policies not only in sheltered environments such as press conferences but to engage in intellectual rough-and-tumble in hostile environments like the Oxford Union. Reagan's team was not apologetic for the stands they took - but they took the opinion of the allies and their populations - seriously. One senses that this spirit of debate has been lacking in more recent years.

For Reagan, America was a city on the hill, but it was not an "indispensable" nation.  It was the first among equals, or the elder sibling, within a community.

Reagan's speech twenty years ago at Omaha Beach makes this point clear - and it is on this basis that the transatlantic partnership needs to be reconstructed anew.