Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post–Cold War Order by Hal Brands, published by Cornell University Press. © 2016. All rights reserved.
Ronald Reagan became president at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy. As we have seen, America had absorbed blow after blow to its global position during the 1970s, fostering a widespread sense that the country was in inexorable decline. Amid the tumult and pessimism, however, several key trends were converging to create new sources of U.S. advantage and new openings for perceptive statecraft. The question of the 1980s, then, was whether American officials could turn structural opportunity into successful strategy—whether they could devise policies that would harness the positive trends, reverse recent setbacks, and mold the global environment in ways that accentuated U.S. influence and power.
The answer was hardly obvious when Reagan took office. Although he had deftly exploited Carter’s failings during the 1980 campaign, Reagan was not generally regarded as an incisive strategist when he arrived in Washington. Rather, Reagan’s apparent inattention to detail, his ideological and even Manichean rhetoric, and his attraction to simple solutions for complicated problems all caused many critics to view him as unsophisticated at best and downright dangerous at worst. Throw in his advanced age and his Hollywood background, and some of Reagan’s own advisers were initially skeptical. “When I first met Reagan,” said Paul Nitze, a top arms-control official during the 1980s, “I thought he was just a born loser.” One historian of this period has rendered an equally severe judgment, calling Reagan a “ceremonial monarch” with “limited knowledge of what was going on in the outside world.”
Appearances can deceive, however, and Reagan was actually well equipped for the challenges he faced. The president had good strategic instincts, in that he possessed an intuitive ability to get to the heart of difficult issues, and a keen sense of how individual policies related to broader designs. Reagan, one adviser recalled, had “this marvelous ability to work the whole while everybody else is working the parts.” He also had the confidence to think big—to challenge prevailing orthodoxies and chart potentially groundbreaking courses of action. Reagan’s “strongest qualities,” George Shultz later wrote, included “an ability to break through the entrenched thinking of the moment to support his vision of a better future, a spontaneous, natural ability to articulate the nation’s most deeply rooted values and aspirations, and a readiness to stand by his vision regardless of pressure, scorn, or setback.” Moreover, while Reagan was no master of detail, he had spent nearly two decades prior to 1980 speaking and thinking about the central problems of U.S. diplomacy. This sustained intellectual engagement allowed Reagan to develop many core principles of his foreign policy before becoming president; it also gave him a firmer grasp of key geopolitical issues than many of his contemporaries realized.
Most important of all, Reagan possessed an unshakable faith in America’s national potential. To be sure, Reagan had frequently deplored the state of the country during the 1970s, and he was alarmed by many of the threats at hand. “Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day,” he declared in 1976. Yet at a deeper level, Reagan firmly believed that the United States possessed immense and enduring strengths, from the dynamism of its economy, to the resilience of its political system, to the force of its ideological example. “It is important every once in a while to remind ourselves of our accomplishments lest we let someone talk us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he said. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan thus took issue with those “who think we are over the hill & headed for the dustbin of history,” arguing that the country’s best days and greatest glories were ahead of it. This essential optimism pervaded his later conduct as president, and it left him well suited to pursue the sort of ambitious—even transformational—endeavors that ongoing global changes were now making possible. “Let us begin an era of national renewal,” he declared in his inaugural address. “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”
Nowhere, in Reagan’s view, was the imperative of such renewal greater than in superpower relations. Reagan had long seen the Cold War as an all-encompassing conflict between freedom and darkness, and he was as worried as anyone about the course of that contest in the 1970s. “If present trends continue,” he said in 1978, “the United States will be assigned a role of permanent military inferiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” Reagan feared that adverse trends in the nuclear balance would soon give Moscow the chance to coerce and intimidate the West; he was equally troubled by recent Marxist victories in the Third World and by America’s apparent inability to respond effectively. The Soviets were becoming bolder by the day, he believed, and U.S. passivity would invite disaster. “The Soviets have spoken as plainly as Hitler did in ‘Mein Kampf,’” he said shortly becoming president. “They have spoken world domination—at what point do we dig in our heels?”
Reagan, then, believed that the Cold War was reaching a crisis point. But as someone who had long expounded on the pathologies of the Soviet system, he was also perceptive of emerging strategic opportunities. The flip side of Reagan’s faith in democratic capitalism had always been a deep skepticism that communism could permanently endure. “Communism is neither an economic nor political system—it is a form of insanity—a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature,” he observed. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan was thus keenly aware that it was not Washington but Moscow that faced the more intractable long-term problems, from growing dissidence, to an increasingly brittle political system, to a command economy that was becoming less competitive by the year. “Nothing proves the failure of Marxism more than the Soviet Unions [sic] inability to produce weapons for its mil. ambitions and at the same time provide for their peoples [sic] everyday needs,” he wrote. Even when things seemed darkest during the Carter years, Reagan could still say that his theory of the Cold War was simple: “We win, they lose.” So long as the United States could tap into its fundamental advantages—and Moscow’s fundamental weaknesses—it would triumph in the end.
Doing so presupposed sound policy, however, and here Reagan believed that the country had taken a detour. Like many conservatives, Reagan saw détente as a strategic blunder, one that had “increased the tempo of Communist efforts to undermine Western security, while at the same time inhibiting the West from making appropriate responses to defend our security interests.” Détente had led America to slash defense outlays, he alleged, while doing nothing to prevent Moscow from raising its military budget or seeking advantage in the Third World. Likewise, it had allowed the Soviet bloc to profit from increased East-West trade and financial linkages, while causing leaders like Kissinger to mute their criticism of communist repression at home. Relaxing international tensions was a worthy goal, Reagan believed, but the particular characteristics of détente had helped Moscow increase its influence and hide its internal decay. “I don’t know about you,” he said in 1977, “but I [don’t] exactly tear my hair and go into a panic at the possibility of losing détente.”
These attacks on détente were not entirely fair, because they ignored the constraints that U.S. policymakers faced, and because they slighted the fact that expanded East-West contacts were actually compounding Soviet-bloc weaknesses. But Reagan’s critique nonetheless informed his calls for a more assertive approach, one that would use all aspects of national power to meet the Soviet threat, exacerbate Moscow’s debilities, and regain the edge in the Cold War. “The essential elements of any successful strategy,” he said in 1979, “include political, economic, military and psychological measures.” In particular, Reagan advocated more determined steps to halt Kremlin encroachment in the Third World, and efforts to punish Soviet overextension by aiding anticommunist rebels in countries such as Afghanistan. More vocally still, he argued for a major military buildup to reverse the trends of the past two decades and provide greater leverage vis-à-vis Moscow. Military power was not “the only measure of national power,” he commented, but it was “the cement which makes national power effective in the diplomatic arena.”
Perhaps most provocatively of all, Reagan contended that Washington should intensify the strains on the Soviet system itself. He called for stricter curbs on East-West commerce, and a public diplomacy campaign to support Eastern-bloc dissidents and highlight the worst aspects of communist rule. “A little less détente with the politburo and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions,” he predicted. In the short term, these measures would accentuate the ideological and economic bankruptcy of the system; over time, they might help foster internal reforms that would make Moscow a less authoritarian and threatening rival. “The more we focus attention on internal Soviet repression, and focus our demands in this area,” Reagan wrote, “the better chance that over the years Soviet society will lose its cruelty and secrecy. Peace could then be insured, not only because the Soviets fear our deterrent, but because they no longer wish to blot out all who oppose them at home and abroad.” The United States could turn the tide of the Cold War, Reagan believed, if it were willing to hit Moscow at its most vulnerable points.