The First Principles of Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Policy
A deeper understanding of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy doctrine is essential for three reasons beyond its historical significance.
First, many of Reagan’s critics and revisionist defenders have distorted his record and the lessons to be derived from it.
Second, the contending approaches that Ronald Reagan assailed—unrealistic realism and liberal multilateralism—continue to influence current debates about American grand strategy.
Third, Reagan’s legacy transcends his times. Ronald Reagan’s grand strategy, adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, provides the most prudent framework for America’s foreign and national security policy, as well as the standard of measure for judging all candidates for national office.
After briefly summarizing the precarious conditions that President Reagan inherited, the first part of this essay analyzes the grave defects of the unrealistic realism of Nixon–Ford–Kissinger and the liberal multilateralism of the Carter Administration. The second part sets forth the first principles of Reagan’s foreign policy, their application to the paramount challenge of the Cold War, and their felicitous consequences. The third rebuts the errors and distortions, replete in revisionist accounts of Reagan, that subvert the true meaning of his legacy. The fourth explains why the first principles of Reagan’s doctrine are valid not only for his time, but for ours as well.
The Flawed Alternatives: Unrealistic Realism and Naïve Multilateralism
It has become increasingly fashionable in many quarters to take the end of the Cold War for granted. That was not how it looked when Reagan became President in January 1981. The 1970s was a dismal decade: freedom in retreat, collectivism on the rise. The power and scope of government expanded voraciously, stifling the incentives for innovation and growth that had been responsible for the post–World War II economic boom in the United States.
The Arab oil boycott following the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 and the oil shocks of 1978–1979 following the fall of the Shah of Iran exacerbated stagflation (low growth, high interest rates, high inflation), ravaging the American economy. By the final year of the Carter Administration, the economy had plummeted to post–World War II lows, with inflation reaching 12 percent and interest rates soaring to 21 percent. Defense spending had dropped to 4.8 percent of GDP, less than half of the amounts that liberal Presidents Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson had spent to keep the nation secure.
The Iranian takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 epitomized the enervating self-doubt about the credibility and capability of American power. For 444 days, the militant mullahs held 52 Americans hostage, defying and humiliating a Carter Administration that was evidently unable to do anything about it.
What made America’s predicament more ominous was that it coincided with the rising power and assertiveness of the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, the Soviet Union engaged in the most massive peacetime military buildup in history, consuming more than one-quarter of its GDP. Correspondingly, Soviet expansionism surged, culminating in the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The Soviet dictators were confident that the correlation of forces had changed irrevocably in their favor. Egged on by the Kremlin, a virulently anti-American Third World bloc at the United Nations reached its peak of influence, with American ideals and interests relentlessly under assault.
The flawed strategies of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations bear major responsibility for the dangerous and deteriorating strategic situation that confronted Ronald Reagan when he took office in January 1981.
The Unrealistic Realism of Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger
Presidents Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974) and Gerald R. Ford (1974–1977) and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (1973–1977), who served under both, had sought vainly to constrain Soviet power by defining American interests more narrowly while depicting the Soviet threat less menacingly. Nixon and Kissinger devised and implemented a version of détente, defined as a more cooperative, less confrontational relationship with a Soviet Union that was presumed to be a traditional nation-state seeking stability rather than a revolutionary enterprise seeking hegemony.
The Nixon–Kissinger conception of world politics sprang from the classical realist tradition, which takes a dark view of human nature and accepts the inherently anarchic nature of international politics where there can never be a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Based on this fundamental view, realists conceive the limits and possibilities of international politics through the prism of four core propositions.
A narrow definition of the national interest, largely divested of moral or ideological content, must drive American foreign policy.
International politics will remain primarily a struggle for power and equilibrium rather than a quest for justice.
Foreign policy should ignore regime type or ideology in assessing threats or opportunities.
Accordingly, it should never aim to transform the domestic nature of states.
As Nixon and Kissinger saw it, domestic constraints made retrenchment necessary as well as prudent. Having won the election of 1968 by a narrow margin, Nixon faced a nation convulsed by the Vietnam War. Even after his landslide reelection in November 1972, Nixon faced a Democratic Congress hostile to increasing defense spending and American military intervention abroad.
The policy of détente toward China and the Soviet Union reflected a major shift in the perception of American interest and how to promote it. Ideology, regime type, and the threats associated with them had become, according to Nixon and Kissinger, less important as sources of international conduct when compared to traditional narrower conceptions of the national interest. Whereas previous Administrations had defined the Soviet Union as an implacable revolutionary adversary with unlimited aims and ambitions, Nixon and Kissinger considered the Soviet Union a traditional type of empire, dangerous and expansionist but with limited aims, offering the possibility of achieving durable equilibrium through a mixture of deterrence, trade, and arms control.
Nixon and Kissinger spoke publicly of removing ideology or regime type as reference points for measuring threats. “We have no permanent enemies,” Kissinger announced in 1969; “we will judge other countries on the basis of their actions and not on the basis of their domestic ideology.”This de-emphasis on ideology and regime type inspired Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford to improve relations not only with the Soviet Union, but also with China. As Kissinger put it in typically realist fashion, Chinese “leaders were beyond ideology in dealing with us. Their peril had established the absolute primacy of geopolitics.”
Nixon and Kissinger also forecast the end of the bipolar era, with Soviet and American power towering above all the rest. Anticipating the emergence of global and regional multipolarity, they believed that regional surrogates could substitute for American power to maintain equilibrium in key geopolitical regions. The “Nixon Doctrine,” as the strategy came to be known, reflected the Administration’s effort to transform the American role in resisting Soviet aggression from primary to supporting.
Rapprochement with China was a prime example of the Nixon Doctrine in action. Nixon and Kissinger hoped to enlist China’s assistance in containing the Soviet Union, pressuring North Vietnam to accept a peace compatible with U.S. honor, and maintaining geopolitical equilibrium in Asia. In the Middle East, Nixon and Kissinger designated the Shah of Iran as the primary U.S. surrogate. The United States would supply the arms, while the Shah would provide the ground troops and actual military presence to preserve regional equilibrium.
Through arms control, Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger hoped to curb the Soviet Union’s military buildup. Through economic benefits and trade, they hoped to engage the Soviet Union in building a stable international equilibrium in which the Soviets had a stake in maintaining international order rather than undermining it. Through negotiations and agreement, they hoped to change Moscow’s approach to international relations by convincing Soviet leaders that it was in their interest to cooperate rather than compete with the West. Their conception of détente reflected not only their optimism about Soviet intentions, but also their pessimism about American prospects: By their reckoning, the Soviet Union was on the rise, and the United States was in decline, so increasing cooperation with Moscow was a necessity as well as a virtue.
Not all of détente was conciliation. When the Soviet Union encouraged Arab countries to attack Israel in 1973, the United States responded vigorously. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy worked deftly to isolate the Soviet Union in the Middle East. As even Kissinger confessed, however, détente did not stem the dangerous erosion of American power.
Major responsibility for this failure lay in Nixon’s, Ford’s, and Kissinger’s own conception. Their unrealistic realism neglected—to America’s peril—the fundamental importance of ideology, ideals, and regime type as well as power in international politics. International agreements could not tame Soviet ambitions or generate pressure to liberalize so long as the Soviet Union remained a totalitarian state committed to a revolutionary, brutal Marxist–Leninist ideology that called for unremitting struggle against the United States as leader of the free world.
Ronald Reagan’s grand strategy rested on a conception of enlightened self-interest that respects the decent opinions of mankind without making international institutions or the fickle mistress of often indecent international opinion the polestar for American action. Six enduring principles emerge from the disciplined study of his foreign and national security policies.
1. There is no substitute for American power.
Great statesmen and decent states can reduce and mitigate but never eliminate the danger of war, even in the best of times, because of the irredeemable imperfections of human nature. The anarchical system of international politics, where there is no monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, compounds the severity and frequency of violence and strife. In these ineluctable circumstances, the vindication of America’s national interest depends mainly on the capability and credibility of American power. Coalitions of the willing can supplement but can never substitute for American power.
As Reagan and his intrepid ambassador to the U.N., Dr. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, warned indefatigably, multilateral institutions in general and the U.N. in particular can inhibit the necessary exercise of American power if American statesmen are unwise enough to make them the arbiters of international legitimacy for using force. No nation, no alliance, no international organization can have a veto on American action, particularly those that are organically hostile to American interest and values such as the United Nations or its constituent parts such as the Security Council. The Declaration of Independence calls on American statesmen to show a decent respect for the decent opinions of mankind, not a slavish deference to the indecent opinions routinely emanating from anti-American tyrannies regnant in the U.N. General Assembly.
2. A strong defense is the best deterrent.
The greatest dangers to the United States typically arise not from vigilance or the arrogance of American power, but from unpreparedness or an excessive reluctance to fight. Historically, retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament are a recipe for disaster. Consequently, the United States should strive for what Reagan’s hero Winston Churchill called “overwhelming power,” with plenty to spare for unforeseen contingencies. This posture will deter most aggressors most of the time and defeat them at the lowest possible cost and risk even when the best deterrent sometimes fails.
Confronted with a large budget deficit, Ronald Reagan gave priority to his military buildup, rightly envisaging it as freedom insurance. The restoration of American power during the 1980s not only hastened the Soviet Union’s demise, but facilitated what the great Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington called Democracy’s Third Wave: a vast global expansion of liberty, making the United States and the free world more prosperous and secure.
Indeed, Huntington identified a strong correlation between the rise and fall of stable liberal democracy and the rise and fall of American power: Though the greater or lesser prevalence of such regimes was “not exclusively a product of American policy and power, the latter certainly played a role.” A similar relationship between American power and stable liberal democracy will likely prevail during the 21st century. American retrenchment and decline will not conduce to stability, but instead will precipitate the spread of various forms of tyranny, imperiling American ideals and self-interest.
Today, the United States must replenish the military capital that Ronald Reagan bequeathed to the nation. For the sake of freedom and security, the United States must remain on the cutting edge of military innovation, deployment, research, and development, keeping well ahead of dangerous rivals waiting in the wings even in times of comparative tranquility.
As Ronald Reagan well knew, the problem is not defense spending, but domestic spending, particularly entitlement programs. The United States now spends on defense only 16 cents of every federal dollar and 4.7 percent of GDP, compared to 52 cents of every dollar and 8.5 percent of GDP during the Administration of President John F. Kennedy. If current trends continue, defense spending will fall to less than 4 percent of GDP—the level of US spending on the eve of Pearl Harbor with the United States isolationist and perilously unprepared.
This is perilous. The United States can well afford to spend 5 percent to 6 percent of GDP on defense to sustain American military preeminence. This will suffice to deter most threats to America’s vital interest most of the time, with ample surplus of power so that we can defeat aggressors at the lowest possible cost and risk when even the best deterrent inevitably fails.
3.Regime types matter.
A prudent grand strategy accords great weight to regime type and ideology in discerning friends, foes, opportunities, and perils. Not all regimes behave alike. Some are more aggressive or more benign than others. Ronald Reagan distinguished sharply between stable, liberal, democratic regimes on one hand and totalitarian regimes, often animated by messianic, malevolent ideology, on the other. He rightly considered stable liberal democracies more reliable allies, more likely to cooperate, and less likely to fight with one another than with other types of regimes—a conviction consistent with the historical record affirming it.
For Reagan, too, pernicious regime types and ideologies accounted historically for the most menacing threats to the United States, such as the Soviet Union. He thus aimed to transform and liberalize a totalitarian Soviet tyranny responsible for initiating, intensifying, and perpetuating the Cold War.
Today, a neo-Reaganite grand strategy would confront, not deny, the gathering danger of Islamic Fascism, particularly a fanatical Iranian regime determined to develop and deploy nuclear weapons.
Today, a neo-Reaganite foreign policy would envisage a still dangerously authoritarian China as a competitor requiring containment as well as engagement.
Today, a neo-Reaganite foreign policy would give precedence to defending our decent, democratic friends in Eastern Europe, Great Britain, Colombia, Israel, Japan, and India rather than appeasing an increasingly authoritarian Vladimir Putin in Russia, a brutally repressive and expansionist China, or dictatorships in the Islamic world that loath the United States for its very essence.
This does not mean that the United States should court enormous risks to establish democracies everywhere, on any pretext. Ronald Reagan did not do that. Like Jeane Kirkpatrick, his ambassador to the United Nations, Reagan sometimes considered the prospects for stable liberal democracy too bleak, America’s geopolitical stake in the outcome too limited, to justify active American involvement. Sometimes an authoritarian regime that is less anti-American is the lesser evil if the more likely alternative is a totalitarian regime that is intrinsically anti-American and more difficult to reform.
Typically, Ronald Reagan found much congenial in neoconservatism. Reagan, too, always preferred a stable liberal democratic outcome when the United States could achieve it. Yet a neo-Reaganite approach wisely strikes a prudential balance, recoiling from the reflexive interventionism of some less sober neoconservatives who sometimes underrate the obstacles to establishing stable liberal democracy, just as unrealistic realists more frequently overestimate them.
4. Think geopolitically.
A prudential grand strategy ranks threats, interests, and opportunities based on the imperatives of geopolitics rather than abstract, vague, and unenforceable principles of cosmic justice. Many realists and liberal internationalists still fail to grasp that American decline is by no means inevitable. Whether the unipolar era is enduring or evanescent depends on how the United States decides to govern itself and defines its role in the world. No nation will dethrone the United States as the world’s preeminent military power any time soon. For all nations, however—even a nation as powerful as the United States—resources are finite. So the United States must establish its priorities wisely.
The geopolitical logic that Ronald Reagan employed dictates that containing a still authoritarian China from dominating East Asia has become the greatest long-term challenge for the United States. Eventually, China will face the same reckoning as the Soviet Union did during the 1980s—reform the political system, collapse, or expand—because it will become impossible to reconcile the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance with economic dynamism. When that happens, the United States must have in place a credible democratic alliance system and a formidable military deterrent, the way Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union, to induce the Chinese leadership to make the same decision as Gorbachev: Give up rather than fight. This strategic logic wisely impelled President George W. Bush to engage a democratic India that shares many American core values and geopolitical interests.
The neoconservative disposition that Ronald Reagan found so congenial in many respects is more right than wrong in its diagnosis of the threats the United States faces and in its policy prescriptions for dealing with those threats. For his entire political life, Ronald Reagan also assailed isolationism, declinism, global retrenchment, American withdrawal, and the fallacy of moral equivalence as geopolitically reckless and morally bankrupt. Yet he recoiled at the unbridled democratic globalism of some less prudent neoconservatives because it risks squandering American resources and morale imprudently on peripheral goals.
As Charles Krauthammer warns presciently, mirroring Reagan’s dispositions, the United States could not do everything but must do the most important things: first, prevent hegemons from emerging in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; then, to the extent possible, consolidate a democratic zone of peace in these major power centers where the absence of liberty could prove most perilous. Elsewhere, the United States should vigorously support extending freedom and stable liberal democracy, but not by threat, employment, or commitment of American military power, except in rare instances such as Rwanda where minimal force with minimal risk, with a prompt and certain exit strategy, can avert mass murder or genocide.
5. Embrace American exceptionalism.
A prudent grand strategy depends on a synergistic combination of economic prosperity at home, the robustness of American military power, and the vitality of the American way of life. Whereas President Barack Obama’s grand strategy calls for making government omnipotent at home while making the United States weaker, more humble, and more deferential abroad, Ronald Reagan derided such Carteresque strategy as a recipe for moral, economic, and geopolitical catastrophe. He restored American preeminence not by vastly expanding the public sector, but by constraining it: by unleashing private enterprise, deregulating the economy, lowering taxes, limiting the growth of government, spurring innovation in the private sector, embarking on and persevering with a major military buildup, and unabashedly asserting American ideals and self-interest in a way that clearly distinguished between freedom’s friends and foes.
Ronald Reagan did not consider the United States a perfect nation, but a great, good, and indispensable one. For his entire political life, he championed the traditional notions of American exceptionalism that many today—realists and multilateralists in particular—find so troubling. He emphatically rejected the fallacy of moral equivalence or, even worse, the tendency to blame America first that President Obama frequently has exhibited, most infamously in his Cairo speech of 2009 where he placated Middle Eastern dictators by exponentially exaggerating Islamic virtues and American vices. Or, as Reagan put it himself, summing up his record: “we should stop apologizing for America’s legitimate national interests and start asserting them.” He infused his conception of the national interest with moral as well as practical content.
Like the greatest of American statesmen, Ronald Reagan recognized that the United States must wage war and conduct peace in a way that is consistent with American society and the principles of well-ordered liberty. The seminal expression of his grand strategy toward the Soviet Union (NSDD-75), stipulated accordingly: “US policy must have an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of US and western values of individual dignity, and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy.” This is no less true for our times.
6. Different times call for different strategies.
The mark of prudential statesmanship is the capacity to discern when changing times require different measures to achieve the same goals. Strategies appropriate for one set of circumstances are often inappropriate for others. Reagan exemplified a standard of prudence that any effective grand strategy must incorporate.
As Reagan frequently observed, the United States could prudently pursue a policy of armed neutrality, avoiding the cost or risk of war outside the Western Hemisphere, when it was weak in the world of the strong and could take the effective operation of the European balance of power for granted; yet the conditions the United faced in the 20th century called for a more vigilant, interventionist, foreign policy. Even before World War II, Reagan opposed the policy of appeasement, and during the Cold War, he considered it imperative vigilantly to contain the Soviet Union while prudently adjusting his tactics (though not his goals) by engaging Gorbachev when the opportunity arose.
Nor did Reagan consider a strategy of containment and deterrence appropriate in all circumstances. On the contrary, he defended the moral and practical wisdom of preemptively using force against certain types of gathering dangers, such as Nazi Germany for reasons his hero Churchill’s words convey best:
If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed: if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all odds against you and only a precarious chance for survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves.
Similarly, the events of September 2001 rudely exposed the inadequacy of deterrence, containment, or ex post facto responses when dealing with the insidious interaction of radicalism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Accordingly, the Bush Doctrine, or any sound grand strategy in Reagan’s tradition, treats military preemption as a prudential rather than categorical judgment: weighing the gravity of the danger, the probability of its realization, the availability of alternative means, and the prospects for success.
A neo-Reaganite grand strategy offers the surest guide for restoring and sustaining American greatness in the 21st century.
It incorporates the importance of the principles of the Founding without slighting the perennial imperatives of power and geopolitics.
It inoculates us from the pessimism of unrealistic realists, who underestimate the possibility of provisional justice, and the dangerous illusions of idealists, who underrate the obstacles to achieving it in international politics.
It can facilitate the expansion of stable liberal democracy and economic prosperity, thereby minimizing the number and gravity of the threats the United States faces.
Its commitment to American exceptionalism and American military preeminence not only enhances deterrence, but reduces the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the wars that the United States must fight.
Finally, a neo-Reaganite grand strategy contrasts favorably with any other plausible alternative, be it unrealistic realism, liberal internationalism, isolationism, or utopian versions of neoconservatism unconstrained by geopolitical imperatives.
—Robert G. Kaufman is a Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the author of three books, including In Defense of the Bush Doctrine (2007). He is in the research phase of a book titled A Tale of Two Americas: Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and the Future of American Politics.