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Reassessing the Gipper's legacy

The tenth anniversary of the passing of America’s 40th president is a timely moment to examine the Reagan myth

By Christine Gallagher

In the years after his presidency, Ronald Reagan became a conservative idol: a status marked by an outpouring of adulation after his death in 2004 and an upswing of memorialisation during the centenary of his birth in 2011. Various factions have come to stake a claim to Reagan but an enduring strand of Reaganism is the neo-conservative evocation of him in foreign policy debates, which emerged in the immediate post–Cold War years of the 1990s. It was this initial manifestation of Reaganism that influenced the George W. Bush Doctrine and informed its tenets of democracy-promotion and pre-emptive strikes. Although it is a period of American foreign policy that has been heavily critiqued, there has been less emphasis on evaluating the use of Reagan as a model for foreign policy during this period. Now, with the passing of the tenth anniversary of his death, comes a timely moment to reassess Reagan’s neo-conservative reputation and to recognise it as the reification of a neo- conservative grand strategy.

Ronald Reagan served two terms as president between 1981 and 1989. Given how recently he was a public figure, it might be reasonable to think that Reagan’s legacy could not be disputed. Surely there are far too many people who remember his presidency for his reputation to have been distorted? And yet that is exactly what has happened. Within a decade of his presidency, Reagan became immortalised as a victorious Cold Warrior, a myth which was used in foreign policy debates to shape the role of the United States in the world at the turn of the century.

The Reagan myth goes something like this:

The United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War because of President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to accept the limits of American power. Unlike his predecessors, who favoured policies of détente and rapprochement, Reagan refused to appease the Soviets. His pursuit of victory in the Cold War was in the name of democracy and to this end he vigorously pursued a rollback of dictatorships in foreign lands, a feat for which he did not rely on the whimsy of the United Nations. Reagan knew that the United States had to be self-reliant, which is why he increased military spending and had a bold vision of a Strategic Defense Initiative, which ultimately led the Soviet Union to overstretch in the arms race, sending it broke. It was with ideological resolve and military might that President Reagan took on the “evil empire” and won. That iconic moment when he publicly challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” ushered the demise of the Soviet Union and a new world order of American primacy.

Call it “neo-Reaganism,” a campaign to introduce neo- conservative grand strategy in the White House, which was forged amidst debate about what should be the role of the United States in a post-Cold War world. There was a view that the end of US–Soviet bipolarity was an opportunity for the United States to step back its leadership in world affairs and an opposing view that global security was dependent on the United States maintaining its primacy.

The latter was manifest in a neo-conservative push to introduce so-called “Reaganite” foreign policy in the White House. Robert Kagan and William Kristol led the way by spruiking Reagan as the epitome of a president who understood America’s proper place in the world and as a leader who knew how to achieve it. Others followed suit with praise of Reagan in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, as well as through the output of the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century.

This adulation of Reagan overlooked the complexities of his foreign policy record to frame his legacy as a model of neo- conservatism. Neo-conservative grand strategy is based on the notion that America’s role in the world is to maintain strategic and military primacy so it can enable and protect global democracy. Despite the nuances in his foreign policy record, Reagan was used as an historical precedent for the success of neo-conservatism.

For example, the neo-conservative narrative overlooks Reagan’s engagement with the Soviet Union. Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric in his first term was tempered by his negotiations with the Soviets at numerous arms reduction summits and in private talks with Gorbachev. In alternative historical accounts, it is this series of friendly negotiations that is credited with ushering the end of the Cold War and not Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall!” stance in 1987. Far from being a watershed moment, Reagan’s remarks at the Brandenburg Gate are said to have attracted little press at the time, with the footage being resurrected and trotted out only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The depiction of Reagan as a relentless Cold Warrior is not reflected in his military conduct either. The relatively moderate operations, limited in time and scope, in Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya are not exactly the record of a hardened hawk. Reagan is said to have “won the Cold War without firing a shot,” a sentiment attributed to his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher. The image of Reagan as a staunch militarist, intent on bolstering America’s weapons arsenal, can also be contrasted with his vision of a nuclear-free world, pursued initially via his Zero Option proposal and with the subsequent Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Reagan’s resolve to fight terrorism and aid democracy was also diminished by his apparent pragmatism when it came to selecting which resistance movements to aid based on US strategic interests, most notably in his hesitation to support the Mozambican National Resistance movement, which was fighting to oust a Soviet-backed socialist state. Then there was the Iran–Contra scandal; while it is unclear to what extent Reagan was complicit in the affair, it is still part of his foreign policy legacy and an example of his administration dealing with a regime that was not ideologically compatible with America’s supposed moral mission.

Neo-conservative idolisation of Reagan in the years after his presidency is also contradicted by neo-conservative judgements of Reagan during his presidency. In the eighties, Reagan was criticised by high profile neo-conservatives who, having supported his election, were subsequently dissatisfied with his foreign policy agenda. Reagan’s rhetoric had suggested he had a deeply held conviction about the need for American primacy but his strategies, they complained, looked more like détente. It was not until after his presidency that neo- conservatives began re-associating themselves with Reagan, calling for a renewal of what was by then deemed his “moral clarity” and “military supremacy.”

With this more nuanced picture in mind, it is fitting to ask just how is it that the Reagan myth was so successfully constructed. The method was simple but effective: Reagan’s legacy was articulated using a neo-conservative discourse which had the effect of reifying neo-conservative grand strategy. In other words, by describing Reagan’s legacy in neo-conservative terms it transformed what was a foreign policy outlook into an historical precedent.

By identifying the neo-conservative discourse we can begin to recognise it in the Reagan myth. There are at least six interrelated ideas that constitute the neo-conservative discourse:

    1. Moralism: a place for value judgments in foreign affairs.
    2. Democracy: a conviction in the international spread of democracy.
    3. Primacy: a perceived need for hegemonic American power in order to realise this conviction.
    4. Internationalism: moral and strategic justification for foreign intervention.
    5. Unilateralism: the ability to act alone and not be restrained by multilateral institutions or international law. 
    6. Militarism: a belief in the need for a dominant military capacity, and the will to use it, in order to maintain primacy.

What proponents of neo-conservatism did very cleverly from the 1990s was to articulate these concepts as historical precedents using Reagan as a model. If we revisit the narrative of the Reagan myth we can recognise that neo-Reaganism is the discourse of neo-conservatism but naturalised by a substitution of terms. Moralism becomes Reagan’s value judgments about the Soviet Union as an evil empire; democracy becomes Reagan’s pursuit of victory for democracy over socialism; primacy becomes Reagan’s refusal to accept the limits of American power; internationalism becomes Reagan’s rollback of foreign dictatorships; unilateralism becomes his skepticism about the United Nations; and militarism becomes Reagan’s large increases in defence spending.

Reagan can be used as a model for neo-conservatism not because of his precise foreign policy activities but because of the symbolism of the end of the Cold War, at which time the United States achieved the ideological and strategic dominance so central to neo-conservatism. The outcome of the Cold War — that is, US ideological and strategic primacy — made it legitimate for Reagan to be retrospectively credited with implementing neo-conservative grand strategy through a selective interpretation of his legacy.

This demonstrates how even events in living memory can be skewed for political purposes. The Reagan myth influenced those in power at the turn of the century to pursue foreign policies on the basis that the proper role of the United States in the world is to be a missionary and military guardian of democracy. The post-9/11 Bush Doctrine included policies of pre-emptive militarism, interventionism, unilateralism, and democracy-promotion in pursuit of a strategic and moral “War On Terror”: an approach that resulted in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The terror attacks on the United States in 2001 were a catalyst for the adoption of these policies, but it was the Reagan myth which made this strategy seem not only viable but also essential.

Reagan has become so mythologised by neo-conservatives that the Republican Party has institutionalised his legacy. Reagan is referenced in the official National Defense statement of the GOP:

President Ronald Reagan’s approach to America’s national defense, which successfully confronted the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, is as essential today as it was then: Peace through strength — an enduring peace, based on freedom and the will to defend it.

But even within the Republican Party there are conflicting interpretations of precisely what is meant by “peace through strength” and whether Reagan pursued it as an offensive or defensive strategy. In Republican circles there exist several interpretations of the Reagan legacy with varying emphases to support particular foreign policy approaches. The image of Reagan the Cold War crusader is challenged by contesting claims to the Gipper, which variously depict him as Reagan the conservative realist and Reagan the libertarian. It is this battle for the Reagan legacy that will inform the Republican foreign policy agenda ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The very notion that a presidential legacy could be contested within foreign policy debates and even within a single political party is a reminder that we should assess, and reassess, even the most contemporary of historical precedents with a critical eye.