How did it come to pass that the “conservative” position on foreign policy involves proclaiming the virtue of revolutionary upheaval around the world, worrying that the survival at freedom at home depends on the active spread of American-style democracy abroad, and arguing that the standard for determining whether a country is friendly to the United States is not what it does to affect U.S. interests but the extent to which its domestic political institutions conform to Washington’s preferences?
The answer, I have been told, has a lot to do with “Reaganism” and the flowering of the foreign policy vision of our 40th president.
Just as strange, it is now commonplace for many of the setbacks of U.S. foreign policy of the last seven years—including what is transpiring in the Middle East and the rising tensions with Russia and China—to be explained away as the Bush administration’s incompetent application of Ronald Reagan’s vision of spreading freedom abroad. Indeed, one of the underlying themes of Sen. John McCain’s bid for the presidency is that he will be much more capable and effective in implementing the so-called “freedom agenda” and the efforts to secure a “benevolent global hegemony”—and that this makes him Reagan’s heir.
Of course, there is a problem. Reagan did not employ terms like “regime change” and “creative destruction” in his rhetoric. He did not celebrate the onset of anarchy in another country as the birth-pangs of freedom. In his relations with a variety of authoritarian powers, he took seriously Thomas Jefferson’s dictum in the first part of the Declaration of Independence “that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” (The corollary to this was that bad, even tyrannical, government can sometimes be a lesser evil than what results from upheaval.)
Yes, he firmly believed that America could serve as guide and example to the rest of the world, but non-democratic states, especially those ruled by traditional forms of governance, were not treated as ipso facto enemies of the American republic if such countries were not actively hostile to U.S. interests.
Perhaps this is why in their famous Foreign Affairs article from 1996, Robert Kagan and William Kristol call their proposed foreign policy “Neo-Reaganite,” for many of the authors’ sentiments were neither expressed nor endorsed by the 40th president. And, when Senator McCain spoke at the Reagan Library two years ago, the quote he selected from the former president did not speak to the aggressive promotion of the American form of governance, but was decidedly more prudent: “Let us go to our strength. Let us offer hope. Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable.”
Neoconservatives like to play up—and in my opinion exaggerate—the differences between Reagan and his immediate Republican predecessors, especially Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. Jonah Goldberg’s shorthand comment, made in the latest issue of National Review and many times before, that “Reagan was put on this earth to kick a** and chew gum (and he ran out of gum a long time ago)” plays to the stereotype of the 40th president as a belligerent activist, in contrast to the more prudential, cautious, and pragmatic presidents who came before.
I find that a bit odd. It is true that, in comparison with Nixon, Reagan was more inclined to actively encourage the spread of American values. Yet both men were united in their view that as conservatives, the morality of results trumped any morality of intentions—and that the maintenance of the United States as a great power took priority. Indeed, their views are nearly identical.
After taking office, Nixon declared that the “power of the United States must be used more effectively, at home and abroad, or we go down the drain as a great power.” Upon leaving office, Ronald Reagan told students at the University of Virginia, “American power must be exercised morally, of course, but it must also be exercised, and exercised effectively.” I don’t know if that is a judgment President Reagan would bestow on the current administration.
Of course, this impression of Reagan as belligerent crusader is easier to maintain if one defines Reagan by selected soundbites—“evil empire,” “tear down this wall,” and so on. One might conclude that President Reagan would have been an avid supporter of the “freedom crusade.”
It is very true that Reagan belonged to a wing of the American conservative movement that sought to go beyond an America as a “city on the hill” serving as a passive example to others of a society grounded in ordered liberty in favor of more active encouragement.
But Reagan never let his rhetoric interfere with his understanding of reality and of the limitations faced by the United States. In his biography of Reagan, Lou Cannon, notes: “[Reagan] had placed a high premium on success throughout his various careers, and he often complained that some of his erstwhile conservative supporters wanted to “go off the cliff with all flags flying.” That was rarely Reagan’s way.” It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Reagan, were he alive today, would be very uncomfortable with some of the foreign policy propositions being advanced by some associated with the current presidential campaign of John McCain, a self-described “foot soldier of the Reagan Revolution.”
Let’s look closer at his famous Westminster Address in June 1982, which has often been cited as the foundational document for the current calls to promote democracy. What is striking is the cautious, prudential tone, as well as a humility about the task at hand:
No, democracy is not a fragile flower. Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.
… We ask only for a process, a direction, a basic code of decency, not for an instant transformation.
… While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them.
… The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure 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.
Yes, Reagan did use the term “crusade for freedom” in his remarks. But the tone and scope is anything but crusading. It is evolutionary in nature—and reflects what the president told then-Chinese prime minister Zhao Ziyang two years later, “If you ask our advice, we can only answer with truth as we see it.” It commits the United States not to democracy promotion but to democracy encouragement—and places a premium on stable development.
After re-reading the Westminster Address, somehow, I can’t see Reagan being all that enthusiastic about the approach taken in Iraq. How does what has transpired there fit in with what Reagan told Soviet students in Moscow in 1988? “[P]ositive change must be rooted in traditional values—in the land, in culture, in family and community … Such change will lead to new understandings, new opportunities, to a broader future in which the tradition is not supplanted but finds its full flowering.” Straight out of Edmund Burke!
Or take Reagan’s famous remarks in Berlin. He did not, after calling on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” say, “or I’ll do it myself!” He issued no blood-curling statements about how the United States would “bury” the Soviet Union. He concluded his address at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987 with a call for cooperative action: “We in the West stand ready to cooperate with the East to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a safer, freer world.”
Reagan, indeed, was quite a realist in the American tradition—that formerly hostile powers might, given the right incentives, develop a stake in working with the United States. This was the message he delivered to his former opponents the “Red Chinese” when he visited the People’s Republic in 1984. In his toast in the Great Hall of the People, Reagan, the long-time anti-communist, nonetheless was prepared to declare, “I see America and our Pacific neighbors going forward in a mighty enterprise to build strong economies and a safer world. … We can work together as equals in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”
I know that some today might dispute this interpretation of Reagan. But, 20 years ago, this was the mainstream approach and endorsed by anyone who considered himself to be a conservative. No less a figure than Irving Kristol, sometimes described as the “godfather of neoconservatism”, endorsed this perspective in a 1985 National Interest essay, writing:
The United States can coexist peacefully enough with non-capitalist, non-democratic nations, so long as these nations are willing to coexist with the United States. Such easy acceptance of coexistence is made possible by the firm assumption that, in time, these nations will discover for themselves the superiority of the American way of life. … The task of American foreign policy is … not so that the world can be made ‘safe for democracy’ but so that the nations of the world can have the opportunity to realize whatever potential for popular government and economic prosperity they may possess or come to possess.”
Three years later, Owen Harries’ provocative article, “Exporting Democracy—and Getting It Wrong,” acknowledged a long-standing American impulse to encourage the spread freedom and democracy around the world, but declared that conservatives had to balance this desire by “other interests that the United States must necessarily pursue, more mundane ones like security, order and prosperity. For these represent not merely legitimate competing claims but the preconditions for a lasting extension of democracy.” He concluded, “the attempt to force history in the direction of democracy by an exercise of will is likely to produce more unintended than intended consequences.”
Even neoconservatives who argued that the United States should place the promotion of democracy as one of the central organizing principles of its foreign policy recognized that “you do not blindly threaten or weaken regimes where there exists no democratic alternative” and contrasted a conservative, prudential approach with the “touching and grandiose belief” of liberals “in the power of the United States to redeem the politics of benighted lands.” (The words of Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, July 10, 1987)
If Reagan is held as the “gold standard” for defining a conservative approach to foreign policy, then one cannot escape his emphasis on prudent action. And while he firmly believed in the universality of American ideals, his departure point for policy was to create a world where countries would be able to make their own choices free from outside pressure. But he made the central organizing principle of his foreign policy the prosperity and stability of the United States and its allies. Non-democratic and non-capitalist states that did not threaten the U.S. were not his enemies, and he could make common cause with them to resist the efforts of the Soviet Union to spread its ideology around the globe.
This pragmatic, prudential approach is what enabled the president to reinvigorate the Atlantic alliance and form coalitions in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America that helped to contain the USSR and bring about the end of the Cold War.
So now the question is: what will it take for this prudential, Burkean approach to foreign affairs to once again become the mainstream view among U.S. conservatives? Reclaiming Reagan might be the first step.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of The National Interest.
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