Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Reaganism v. Neo-Reaganism

Mini Teaser: Reagan knew the difference between a conservative foreign policy and Wilsonian interventionism. Do his soi-disant heirs know it too?

by Author(s): Richard Lowry

What would such a foreign policy look like in practice? Ronald Reagan provides a model. His foreign policy was enunciated with a ringing idealism. It was not, however, idealism for its own sake or one applied indiscriminately, but one with a specific purpose and grounded in power politics. It aimed at eroding and defeating a hostile world empire. His means were not mere words, but the sheer weight of U.S. power, augmented in a massive arms build-up designed to spend the Soviets into the ground. All the "tear down this wall" speeches in the world wouldn't have won the Cold War without this exercise in cold-blooded power politics.

If Reagan was willing to give a corrupt authoritarian a shove when the opportunity presented itself (for example, Marcos in the Philippines), he also depended on authoritarian regimes as crucial allies in the Cold War. He was willing to work with the material the international order presented him; he would not allow an unrestrained idealism to get in the way of prudence and necessity; and he understood how progress toward liberalization often occurs. It usually happens gradually, as less-than-savory regimes change over time in reaction to a variety of forces, from the growth of a middle class to the development of a free market to American diplomatic pressure. This practical policy, which had its theoretical foundation in Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Dictatorships and Double Standards", was condemned at the time by liberals who talked in the same sweepingly idealistic terms used by today's neoconservatives.

Reagan unapologetically called the Soviet Union evil. During the Cold War's endgame, however, he worked diplomatically with its leader--circumstances changed and his policy changed with them. Indeed, Reagan's embrace of Gorbachev in the face oftraditional conservative opposition to dealings with communists was a lesson in the entrepreneurial nature of modern conservative thinking. Conservatives do take chances--but not without a cold-eyed appreciation of all the dynamics at hand. If Reagan had a black-and-white worldview, its implementation came in shades of gray.

It is precisely this approach that needs to animate a conservative foreign policy today. A conservative grand strategy will support simple but durable steps towards order and security in many of the world's poorly governed places. It will not resist change and indeed will support policies to quicken it, as Reagan did in Central America and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. But wise conservatives also know that the U.S. military is an imperfect instrument for openly forcing such change on alien populations. They are willing to put American energy behind the effort to promote the emergence of roughly harmonious political and economic systems--rather than asking the U.S. military to create American-style democracies and judging success or failure by that exacting and unrealistic standard.

With a few exceptions, Bush is pursuing this kind of conservative policy. Consider his handling of Russia, which has been prudent and mindful of the limits of U.S. influence over Moscow--although not by any means mindlessly wedded to the status quo. The administration supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine over Putin's objections. The central organizing theme of Bush's foreign policy--the Bush Doctrine, emphasizing the expansion of liberty abroad and preventive war as a last resort--is correct. The Bush Doctrine reflects a fundamental belief in the goodness of American power and the necessity of its robust assertion around the world. The United States should be proactive in seeking to reshape an international order, especially in the Middle East, that produced the mass murder of 9/11. The expansion of liberty, constitutional liberalism and market-based economic systems will tend, although not inevitably or perfectly, to shape nations that respect the norms of civilized behavior and pose less of a threat to the United States. But the policy of achieving this goal will prudently reflect differing realities in countries from Pakistan to Iran and not one universal moral standard.

In the neocon over-interpretation, however, the Bush Doctrine becomes problematic. Yes, Bush's rhetoric--especially in his second inaugural address--suggests that the American model of democracy has universal validity and applicability. But in its grand sweep, the Bush rhetoric is just that--rhetoric, which he has not allowed to trump pragmatic considerations, whether with regard to Russia, China, the Central Asian republics or Saudi Arabia. Immediately after the inaugural, administration officials were out explaining the obvious--the administration's policy in the real world would remain largely unchanged. But the neocons often seem to take the rhetoric literally, as if the crooked timber of humanity can be straightened and emblazoned with the U.S. Bill of Rights.

It is crucial that the Bush Doctrine succeed. When it has indulged in neoconservative excess, as it has occasionally in its over-optimistic post-invasion approach to Iraq, it has teetered on the edge of failure. It is through Reaganite realism that Bush will navigate the world in a way that protects our interests, expands the zone of decency and makes us safer. For conservatives, this is the way forward for America in the world.

Essay Types: Essay