By John F. Di Leo
Ronald Reagan was not always “conservative,” and for this, conservatives love him.
The modern conservative mind thinks in a certain box – a good box, not a bad one, but a box, nevertheless. We have an ideology: government can do these specific things, and no more. Tax something and you’ll get less of it, subsidize a thing and you’ll get more of it… etc. We have a host of such pronouncements, and we are usually right. We advocate the limited government of the Constitution, and the free economy of Hayek and Hazlitt, because we believe in free minds and free markets, and we know this is the way to a prosperous, thriving, and happy society.
Ronald Reagan knew this, and could explain it so that non-conservatives could understand it as well. This was his gift in domestic policy.
These approaches, however, don’t work in the international arena; people united on the domestic front can splinter on foreign policy issues.
The simple box of laissez faire capitalism just doesn’t quite take into account the great struggles of nuclear superpowers and the threat of global communist aggression. So when Ronald Reagan arrived on the scene, there was no single “conservative” approach for foreign policy. There were isolationists, detentists, even warmongers who thought, like Macchiavelli, that “there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to your enemy’s advantage,” so let’s just get to it!
Reagan agreed with his fellow conservatives on the goal, of course – remain free; defeat the Soviets in every proxy war; aim for rollback – but he disagreed on, and totally redefined, what was possible. Virtually alone among political thinkers of the time, Ronald Reagan believed we could not only roll back the huge losses of the 1970s, he believed we could defeat the Soviet Union, maybe even in the short term, without another war.
Unrealistic. Dreams and nonsense. Impossible.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened.
For some fifty years, Ronald Reagan kept his eye on the goal: freeing his beloved land from the threat of expansionist Soviet communism, perhaps even freeing the Soviets’ own poor subjects from the jackboot of the commissars. Even when nobody else thought it possible, because he dismissed the “conservative” approaches when his instincts told him that bolder measures would better serve his plans.
A classic example was the failed summit at Reykjavik, often credited as “the failure that won the cold war.”
The modern superpower summit is one of the cleverer ruses promulgated by the establishment. Portrayed as a great moment of deliberation between two machers, no actual deliberation really occurs.
Summits are like weddings – you know in advance who’s getting hitched, who’s standing up, the songs, the readings, and the vows. You know what’s planned for dinner, and what songs the dance band will play. About the only opportunity for surprise is the invitation for objections from the floor, but even if anyone has them, nobody ever speaks up. The event is totally choreographed. Not to say it isn’t worth doing, just that it’s not worth covering as a news story.
Similarly, in preparation for a summit, the foreign ministers of the countries involved meet for weeks or months in advance. They work out the major themes, the minor subplots, who shall sit in which chair, even who speaks first or gets to make the wrap-up speech at the end. No surprises.
Well, that wasn’t good enough for Ronald Reagan in 1986. Sixty years of traditional diplomacy hadn’t ended expansionist Soviet communism; diplomacy hadn’t even slowed it down, and he had only two more years at the helm.
First Russia and Ukraine, then all of Eastern Europe… then one by one, dominos fell all over Asia, Africa, Central America, our very doorstep. By the time Reagan assumed the mantle of leader of the free world, the free world was a much smaller place than it had been in his boyhood.
So when he finally got a chance to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Reagan told George Schultz and the rest of his foreign policy staff to throw out the script; he’d be ad-libbing this one.
The Foggy Bottom crowd was nervous. This wasn’t how it was done; it wasn’t the “conservative” way. Without planning in advance, we might reach too far and fall short, or give up too much in compromise. With a politician on his own in the arena of policy wonks, the boss might go for the photo ops and the signing ceremony without proper regard for the volumes of research and position papers that State had brought along.
They need not have worried. Reagan was in his element.
Reagan’s goals were to minimize the nuclear threat over the head of America, and to defeat the Soviets once and for all. So he was there to propose reductions in offensive arms… and so were the Soviets. But their capitulation came with a cost, one that Foggy Bottom might well have granted, but Reagan would never accept: the Soviets wanted us to give up on our defensive plans.
In the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD – Reagan recognized an error that the world had long since accepted as a given. MAD meant that world peace depended on both the USA and the USSR having the capacity to destroy each other utterly if they used their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)… and in recognition of that danger, resisting the temptation forever. Such a capacity naturally made both sides fear a nuclear conflict, so they wouldn’t attack each other at all. That’s the theory, and, frankly, he thought it was nuts.
Regan knew that no other weapon had ever been treated this way. When the ancients fought with swords, they carried shields. When enemies threw spears, the defenders raised up walls. When one side built towers with archers’ turrets, the other side brought catapults to fire back. The drawbridge and battlements were met with siege engines and ladders. Poisoned gas was met with gas masks, bullets with Kevlar vests.
But the foreign policy apparatus of the 20th century had decided that the nuclear weapon was the one class of weapon that one must not defend against. Richard Nixon – a Republican, yet! – had signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, agreeing to limit the number of defenses we would raise against the Soviets. Such unforgivable irresponsibity.
Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan responded with a new emphasis on defense. To the pitifully few Nike sites, we would add Patriot missiles to stop incoming ICBMs in the air, and even better still, we would launch a research and development program to build space-based defenses.
Project High Frontier and its related causes terrified the Soviets and their fellow travelers in Congress and Manhattan. The chattering class nicknamed it Star Wars, as if it were nothing but science fiction.
But we had been flying in outer space for decades; we’d put whole laboratories in orbit and sent people to the moon. We launched satellites into the atmosphere with peaceful precision. The idea that we would be unable to build a space-based system to launch defensive missiles was ridiculous.
They said it couldn’t be 100% successful. But who cares, no weapon or defense has ever been fully impenetrable. You just need to stop enough of the incoming ammo to keep fighting until you win. Reagan understood this; the chattering class did not.
Reagan’s commitment to defenses against ballistic missiles would have been the easiest chip for Foggy Bottom to negotiate away, so he knew he would have to manage the negotiations himself. He and Gorbachev each drew a line on the sand; to reduce the number of missiles, Reagan would have to give up on missile defense, and that was the one thing Reagan would not do.
He considered it a crime that America was so undefended all these years, and he would not give up the right to rectify the situation while he had it in his power. America left Reykjavik without an agreement; the meeting was therefore a failure, as summits go, and branded as such by the pundits.
But what constitutes a failure in foreign policy is not that easy to judge. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back on the 1980s and see that Reagan’s strategy was brilliant. Alone in the circles of power, Reagan had determined that the solution of our sixty-year impasse was an American commitment to build a solid defense – one that would just add enough uncertainty to the Russians’ plans (would 10% of their missiles get through? 20%? How many do the Russians really have to fire, now that we know the USA would defend themselves against them?) that they would have greater fear of losing than the fear provided by MAD.
From our vantage point of today, we see that Reykjavik was actually a shining moment for Reagan and his administration. It was the moment at which Gorbachev finally, truly understood that the USA would not back down, that they would have to spend countless billions – money Russia did not have – just to keep up, let alone to surpass us. It was the moment when Gorbachev and the Soviet Union finally began to buckle, all because Reagan allowed himself to leave a summit without an agreement, to make one crucial point.
Within four years, the USSR had ceased to exist; the captive nations of Eastern Europe were free and their client states around the globe suddenly found themselves without the long arm of the Bear to fund their mischief. Communism didn’t end, but it took one heck of a hit, thanks to Ronald Reagan’s decision to handle the summit his way instead of the usual way. (read Peter Schweizer’s wonderful history of Reagan’s lifelong crusade against the Soviets, “Reagan’s War,” 2002.)
With hindsight, we do see that Reagan wasn’t being inconsistent after all, in his handling of the issue. In fact, he was the one being consistent! Those of us who subscribe to Austrian economics like to point out that the study of economics really isn’t about numbers and formulas; it’s about human nature. Tax rates, red tape and bureaucratic control affect the way that people work, produce, and spend. Getting economics right depends on understanding that human aspect.
What Reagan knew, better than the old hands of the State Department, was that foreign policy is about human nature as well. The specific missile counts, the number of ICBMs that the USA and the Soviet Union each possessed, wasn’t as important, in the end, as the question of how we viewed each other, whether with respect or with disdain, and how that view would affect our thinking and our choices.
At Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan didn’t fear a delighted press berating him for a failed summit. He did what he knew was right, with the confidence that history would vindicate him. And not only did America grow more secure as a result, so did the entire world.
He didn’t think like a politician; he didn’t think like a policy wonk. Those classes didn’t understand him at all. But the American people did.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to take his career path to get there. No legislator or military man, he had an entire career in Hollywood before seeking political office. His resume – a sports broadcaster and lifeguard, an actor and president of a trade union – appeared to his detractors to be an outrageous path to executive office. But that didn’t hold him back.
Ronald Reagan had a vision for America’s future, because he understood the way that our Framers thought, and the way that today’s Americans think, better than any other politician of his age. With a brilliant comprehension of foreign policy that virtually nobody else shared, he ended the cold war without firing a shot.
And for eight glorious years, we were proud to enjoy his service as the mayor of his beloved “City upon a Hill.”
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. In the timeframe discussed above, Di Leo was honored to serve a term as president of the Ethnic American Council, one of the many civic groups across the country that joined in President Reagan’s defense of the Captive Nations, supporting the cause of freedom fighters all over the world.
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