James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

Afraid for the future of the West in the face of the Soviet threat, this former Trotskyite shaped Ronald Reagan's tough approach.

Burnham articulated an insight that later became a foundation stone of Reagan’s Cold War strategy. “We overstress the USSR’s strength,” he declared, “and understress its menace.” This seeming paradox reflected both the Soviet Union’s position of strength in the Eurasian Heartland and its intrinsic vulnerabilities. Far more than the United States, which dominated the globe economically, the Soviet Union operated on the margin—beset by economic stagnation, a discontented populace, declining birthrates, and the high cost of its dual aim of maintaining its empire and undermining Western strategic positions around the world. America’s soft policies, argued Burnham, enabled the Soviets to bolster their fundamental strengths and surmount their inherent weaknesses.

That was the situation through Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the Soviet Union, emboldened by the fruits of détente and what appeared to be halting presidential leadership, embarked on an adventuresome strategy. It beefed up its efforts to obtain strategic advantage in key Third World locations, heightened its support for the Castro regime in Cuba, funneled substantial resources to Communist movements in Central America and sent into Afghanistan a 150,000-troop occupation force that threatened to alter the balance of power in the region.

THEN, WITH Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, in part a harvest from Carter’s weakness, American foreign policy quickly moved away from the tattered détente outlook and edged toward Burnham’s hard-line philosophy. “So far,” declared Reagan at a 1981 news conference, “détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims. . . . Their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state.” It was pure Burnham. In a 1982 speech before the British House of Commons, Reagan replaced “peaceful coexistence” with a “rollback” metaphor by predicting the Soviet empire would end up in the “ash heap of history.” The foreign-policy establishment was aghast, but a year later, in describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” he rejected the “realist” notion that the Cold War was, at base, a traditional clash of nation-states with inherent and predictable geopolitical interests. It was, rather, an epic ideological clash fraught with ethical and moral ramifications and necessitating a global response.

Accompanying this was the powerful Reagan Doctrine, a direct challenge to the Brezhnev Doctrine. As Reagan put it in 1985, “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. . . . Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” The ensuing policy initiatives placed a further financial crimp on the Soviet economy. Soon Kremlin leaders were spending nearly $30 billion per year defending their gains in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and other locations under pressure from U.S.-backed “freedom fighters.”

The strategy worked. As military analyst Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, put it, “The Soviet system was dysfunctional; its empire was collapsing; the cupboard was bare. And Reagan’s surging military budgets, without question, brought this internal crisis to a head.” Soon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that his country must pursue serious disarmament agreements. Otherwise, he told his Politburo colleagues in October 1986, “We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities.”

Almost alone among serious U.S. politicians, Reagan believed it was actually possible to defeat Soviet Communism. It was a conviction supported by James Burnham throughout three decades of Cold War commentary. In 1960, he wrote that, while the USSR had a global goal and the will to pursue it, it did not yet possess the power to win the long struggle. The West, he added, had the power but lacked the goal and the will. “Which side will be the first to complete its triad?” he asked.

Reagan, supplying the goal and the will, completed the triad. By then, Burnham’s deteriorating health had removed him from the scene, and he died in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down and four years before the final collapse of his old Soviet nemesis. But his outlook helped guide events under the man who had quoted him copiously during those mash-potato dinners.

Does this define Burnham as a neoconservative? After all, his anti-Soviet stance was not far different from that of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, the neocon group that sought to nudge Carter toward a more confrontational Cold War stance and then ended up supporting Reagan in 1980. This group was made up of people such as Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Ben Wattenberg, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams. Some of these figures, along with subsequent allies such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, became ardent promoters of American bellicosity in the post–Cold War era, pushing for strong U.S. actions against Islamic fundamentalists, Arab despots, post-Soviet Russia, a resurgent China and various nettlesome dictators around the world.

In several respects, it seems clear that Burnham would not have embraced much of the neocon outlook that has emerged over the past two decades. Post–Cold War neoconservative thought has shunned the kind of power-conscious realism of Burnham and his Machiavellians and embraced a Wilsonian ideal of transforming non-Western societies by injecting into them what neoconservative writer Max Boot has called “the powerful antibody known as democracy.” William Kristol’s stalwart Weekly Standard consistently has extolled “morality in foreign policy” and cheered when President George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address, identified his country’s ultimate goal as “ending tyranny in our world” by supporting “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”

Burnham consistently rejected such thinking. His concern was U.S. and Western survival, not the well-being of the world and certainly not the export of Western values. He harbored little confidence that Third World peoples could easily reach serious levels of civilization. Indeed, he jeered at Third World leaders whose dictatorial abuses mocked their “Wilsonian” jargon, such as “the cant about ‘freedom,’ ‘anti-colonialism,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘self-determination.’” Further, he didn’t see any particular reason why these non-Western peoples would want to embrace cultural values imported from America, which he viewed as a “gawky adolescent” of a country, a European offshoot with little serious cultural sensibility of its own. “Who,” he asked, “listening a few hours to the American radio, could repress a shudder if he thought the price of survival would be the Americanization of the world?”

From his earliest Marxist days, Burnham disdained sentimentalists—dreamy reformers, liberals, progressives, abstractionist optimists—who couldn’t accept the fundamental reality of man’s tragic nature and thus retreated to consoling myths about the human experience. No doubt he would dismiss the neoconservatives’ democratization project as being based on such consoling myths. If their aim is American global dominance, he might have mused, they should formulate a philosophy of action based on the dynamics of pure power, not some wispy thoughts about turning Third World societies into modern, Western-style democracies.


YET BURNHAM did indeed see the Cold War as a “struggle for the world”—meaning the victor would gain a significant degree of global hegemony. Early in the Cold War he welcomed the idea of America liberating Eastern Europe, constructing an alliance with Great Britain, fostering the political unification of Western Europe, destroying the Soviet empire, and then seeking hegemony over undeveloped parts of Asia, Africa and South America. The result would be what he called a “democratic world order,” a term he employed for fear that readers would recoil at the word “empire.” But empire was what he had in mind.

Here’s where Burnham’s thinking gets intertwined with the neoconservative outlook, which also manifests hegemonic impulses. In Burnham’s case, his views on the subject reflect a nineteenth-century attitude about the superiority of Western culture and the need for the West to protect itself from hostile global forces by dominating the societies from which they could emerge. He was an old-fashioned imperialist who lamented that the West had been “drugged” by the “myth” that it was

always just . . . for Indonesians to throw out the Dutch, Indians the British, Indochinese the French, dark men the white men, no matter for what purpose, nor by whom led, no matter the state of development, nor the consequences to the local people and economy, nor the effect on world strategic relations.

Burnham, in contrast, was concerned primarily with “the right of Western civilization to survive.”

This was not a particularly provocative viewpoint in, say, 1900, but it has been overtaken by events since the end of World War II and particularly since the close of the Cold War. Will-to-power imperialism has little resonance in our time and no prospect for success. Burnham was out of date, stuck in a bygone era that he couldn’t quite relinquish. This was a lapse that undermined the rigor of his realism. But for neoconservatives the hegemonic impulse is quite different, based on a desire to bring U.S. imperialism forward into a new era of global democratic bloom. Such Wilsonian notions lack any shred of realism at all.