Ronald Reagan was born into a different world. It was an age when imperial European powers held sway over much of the globe, and the United States had just begun to make its presence felt in international affairs. By the time he became president, Reagan’s critics on the Left would not only take aim at his physical age, but also assert that he was an intellectual lightweight—what ideas he had were relics of a bygone era. Meanwhile, those on the Right would worry about his commitment to countering the Soviet Union and his belief in the possibilities of personal diplomacy, which bedeviled so many presidents before him.
By the time he left office, Reagan proved both sets of fears were misplaced. In the twenty-two years since, even those who once believed he was on the wrong side of history have come to discover something more enduring (and even agreeable) in the policies of the lifeguard from Dixon. But did they, his onetime foes and sometime adherents, learn the right lessons from his presidential legacy?
Certainly, Reagan believed in the promise of human liberty. He sought to unleash it at home by removing the strictures of the state, while he trumpeted it abroad. He and his senior administration officials lectured their Soviet counterparts at almost every encounter. Reagan extolled the virtues of freedom and denounced the shortcomings, contradictions, and human-rights abuses of communist governments.
But Reagan went a step further. He wanted to provide aid to support democratic movements around the world to rollback the communist tide. Charles Krauthammer was to coin this “The Reagan Doctrine.” Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, Reagan urged:
We must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy… The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the instruments of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.
He populated his administration with those who thought similarly: the neoconservatives. Among the most prominent in their number were Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams. If the problems abroad that vex the United States, that threaten its safety, are born from the lack of freedom, then it is the United States that has the power and prestige, the wealth and generosity to fan that freedom. It was a sunny Wilsonian argument. The spread of freedom, at least in the liberal-democratic tradition, would make the world safer and, in doing so, make the United States safer in it.
On the other hand, Reagan fully appreciated the reality of power. He instinctively understood that any expansionist state with the potential to dominate global markets and resources was a danger to America. If left unchecked, such a hegemon would come to constrain the U.S. economy and society. A Soviet Union on the march across the globe had to be resisted; American military preparedness would be a big part of the remedy. Reagan’s refrain became “peace through strength.” But his clear-cut conclusion was controversial. In the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, which took a more permissive view of communist expansion in the Third World, had won over many in the American foreign policy establishment.
Reagan would have none of it. Neither would those, the realists, who also saw the balance of power in the world shift dangerously during the 1970s. They knew that the United States had to reverse that trend through strengthened alliances and a restored American military. That is not to say they favored conflict, but the use of force would be an available option. Better still, they understood that military power, even when held in reserve, had utility. As Reagan also said—though often overlooked—in his address to the British Parliament: “Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used.” It would be up to Casper Weinberger and Colin Powell to clarify how and when that power would be used. They did not want U.S. forces committed unless the national interests of the United States or its allies were in clear jeopardy. And once the decision to commit U.S. forces had been made, they must be guided by clear objectives and given the freedom to achieve them. Under such guiding principles, the Reagan administration went about the revitalization of American power.
The balance between Reagan’s two precepts—freedom and power—became skewed after the Cold War. During the latter half of the 1990s, the rapid spread of democracy across Eastern Europe and parts of the Third World seemed to validate the ascendancy of the precept centered on freedom. Many came to believe that the movement toward liberal democracy and free markets was irresistible, though the United States might have to provide the occasional nudge—with military force if needed. Hence, the Wilsonian view began to muscle out what came to be considered outdated concerns over power relationships. After all, in a time when it was the dominant power, the United States should surely take aim at the problems of tyranny and poverty and root them out as the means to achieve long-term security. Such intellectual justification was used, in part, by Bill Clinton to involve the United States in the Balkans during the 1990s and by George W. Bush in Iraq after 2003. Certainly today, building democracies, no matter how creaky, seems to be increasingly embedded into the Pentagon’s operating procedures.
But was this the correct lesson to emphasize? Reagan appreciated the fact that America could not remake the world in its image overnight—to do so would require exorbitant cost in lives and treasure that would invariably impinge upon liberty at home in the form of higher taxation and bigger government. Reagan understood while policy can alter outcomes in the international environment having a proper appraisal of how that environment works is just as important.
Reagan was judicious in his tangible support for the democratic opposition to communist oppression. He supported Poland’s Solidarity movement. But that support was limited to warnings, economic sanctions, and an embargo on the use of U.S. technology for a Soviet pipeline in Siberia to Western Europe. He wanted to aid the Nicaraguan Contras in “body and soul,” but never considered sending American troops to directly support them; nor were U.S. forces directly committed to any other part of the world fighting against communism such as hot spots like Angola and Mozambique. Even in Afghanistan, where Reagan enjoyed his greatest success in rolling back Soviet gains, military aid started slowly and only dramatically rose to “do what’s necessary to win” in response to Soviet escalation in 1985. There was just one place where he acted to deliver a people from communism, a place where Reagan and his advisors feared a budding Soviet-Cuban threat to America’s western hemispheric security and knew force would be decisive—Grenada.
Moreover, his administration drew a line between totalitarian governments in the service of an expansionist communist state and authoritarian ones whose ambitions were confined to their own borders and had the potential to change. The administration readily dealt with Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines. But Reagan remained on the side of those ready to seize freedom for themselves. When Corazon Aquino led a popular campaign to unseat Marcos in a 1986 election, Reagan did little to keep his longtime acquaintance in office. Instead, Reagan facilitated the Philippine leader’s departure once he was convinced that “people power” legitimately prevailed. Such an approach to democracy promotion was evident even in Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary article that heavily influenced Reagan:
Democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government's effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government… Hurried efforts to force complex and unfamiliar political practices on societies lacking the requisite political culture… not only fail to produce desired outcomes; if they are undertaken at a time when the traditional regime is under attack, they actually facilitate the job of the insurgents.
A number of neoconservatives, like Irving Kristol and Robert W. Tucker, heeded her caution in the years after the Cold War, and argued that while the spread of democracy abroad was a benefit to the United States, it should avoid open-ended crusades to extend it further.
Neoconservatives were correct that ideas matter and that the ideas of liberal democracy and free markets are powerful ones. But they must also recognize that it is naïve to believe that everyone will embrace them in the same way. It is important that the ideas one wants to promote are already planted in the populace in which one wants to see them flower. Otherwise, lifting oppression might only be the first step in a long and painful process of tutelage or, worse, be replaced with another form of oppression springing from those who seek to take advantage of the power vacuum.