U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev have a few final words after a marathon meeting to conclude their mini-summit in Reykjavik, October 12, 1986.
Denis Paquin / Reuters

Any attempt to form a judgment on an administration's record in foreign policy must at least begin by comparing the circumstances in which it entered and left office. Certainly in the case of the Reagan Administration the comparison appears striking, more so, indeed, than in the case of any administration since Harry Truman's.

The past year was characterized by a virtually unbroken series of auspicious developments in foreign policy, developments that few observers would have forecast in 1981. In marked contrast, the last year of the Carter Administration had been almost unrelievedly bleak. It had begun with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and had ended with an escalating war in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Iraq. Both conflicts were widely seen as inaugurating a new and more dangerous phase of the continuing oil crisis.

What made the deepening crisis in the Persian Gulf all the more disturbing was its occurrence within the context of a global balance of military power that appeared to be shifting steadily in favor of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1970s the growth of Soviet arms, strategic and conventional, proceeded at a rate that could eventually call into serious question the effectiveness of Western deterrent and defense arrangements. This impressive Soviet arms buildup was attended by a persistent and unprecedented effort by Moscow to expand its influence in the developing world. What gave this effort a more menacing character than it otherwise would have had was the fact that much of it was centered in regions proximate to the Gulf. To the alarm that in any case would have registered in the West, there was added a measure of nervousness over the threat to the indispensable source of energy for the states of Western Europe and Japan.

The great questions posed in 1980 were: What did these several developments add up to, and where were they likely to end? Clearly, the Soviet Union was making a serious bid to expand its global position and influence. But how far and at what cost and risk was it determined to press? Although the answers could only be guessed at, none appeared reassuring. Even if Moscow could be expected to observe its past caution, it was now in a more advantageous military position relative to the West than it had ever been. The awareness that this advantage might prove short-lived could impel even the normally cautious Soviet leadership to pursue an increasingly dangerous course. At the very least, a period of sharply increased tension between the superpowers seemed all but inevitable. The détente of the 1970s had clearly collapsed; a new cold war was in the making.

Eight years later this picture had not only changed, in many respects it resembled a movie run in reverse. The storm center of 1980, the Persian Gulf, was no longer the object of anxious attention. The oil crisis, in all its successive manifestations, had virtually disappeared. Its last major manifestation was in the closing phase of the Iran-Iraq War, when first the American government and then the governments of France and Great Britain sent naval forces into the Gulf, ostensibly to protect freedom of navigation there. But this move, though it gave rise to several armed encounters with Iran, did not provoke anything close to the fears that had been so pervasive eight years earlier. In the interim, the world oil market had been transformed.

Nor was this all. What had once been seen as serious threats to the security of Western access to the oil of the Gulf became far less pressing. In 1980 almost all of the oil transported from the Gulf passed through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. In 1988 more oil was moved by pipeline over land than by water and a still greater portion would go by pipeline in the future. By 1988 earlier fears of shortages had given way to a substantial surplus production capacity that sharply limited the impact of any sudden cutoff of Gulf supplies. That prospect, in any event, had to be rated as very low, for the threats to access that were feared in 1980, whether from an outside force or from a force within the Gulf, had receded to a point where they could be all but discounted. The outside force had met with defeat in Afghanistan and was instead intent on maintaining rather than expanding its empire, while the principal inside force had also met with something close to defeat in its war with Iraq and, perhaps more important, in its attempt to further the cause of Muslim fundamentalism in the Arab world. Taken collectively, the states of the Gulf had never seemed more intent on preserving Western access to their oil.

No such comparable reversal in Western fortunes occurred with respect to the military balance between the Soviet Union and the Western nations. Instead, many of the worries over the balance that marked an earlier period persisted in 1988. Thus the problem of the imbalance of conventional forces in Europe not only remained unredressed, many believed that it had been aggravated by the Soviet-American treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces. Nor had the threat to American land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) posed by Soviet SS-18 missiles ever been adequately addressed. Still, concern over an eroding military balance of power had eased substantially by 1988, in part because of the improvement since 1980 in this nation's military posture and in part because of developments in the Soviet Union that made Moscow's military power appear less imposing and less threatening than before.

Anxieties over American decline persist, but they are now focused on the prospect of a long-term erosion of our economic position rather than on an imminent threat to the nation's security. And the major beneficiaries of this decline are thought to be, not the Soviet Union, but our principal allies and perhaps China as well. The great fear of 1980-that Moscow would continue to make substantial inroads on the American position in the world-had all but disappeared. In its place was the belief that the Soviet threat had markedly diminished, that Soviet-American relations had taken a decided turn for the better and that the future held out the prospect for still further improvement in these relations.

Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly the most important representative of this changed view, not only because of his position but because of the seemingly unshakable conviction he had always entertained of Soviet governments and more generally of the Soviet system. According to this conviction, the Soviet Union could no more change its malevolent character in any essential respects than the tiger could change its stripes. The sources of Soviet conduct defined the essence of the system and its eternal and implacable hostility to the West. The outgoing president had long accepted this as an article of faith, and he expressed it as recently as the beginning of his second term. Yet by 1988 Mr. Reagan declared that he had altered his deeply held views about the Soviet system in the light of the institutional and doctrinal changes introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev. The president drew no explicit connection between domestic change in the Soviet Union and Soviet foreign policy. Still, it was apparent that the optimism with which he viewed future prospects for Soviet-American relations was based largely on the belief that a greater liberalization in domestic institutions would lead to a greater moderation in foreign policy.

Whether or not the connection thus drawn between Soviet domestic and foreign policy was well founded, one thing was clear. The Soviet Union's behavior in the world did continue to moderate in 1988. It did so in a number of respects, though most significantly in its disposition to cooperate in the negotiated settlement of several regional conflicts. Some observers noted that this moderation might not prove an unalloyed blessing if attended, as it was, by a more supple diplomacy. In fact, there were growing signs that the new flexibility was serving Moscow's interests. Even so, these interests did not point to a new expansionist design. However innovative tactically, Soviet foreign policy appeared to resemble much more a holding operation than anything else. The question in 1988 was not, as in 1980, where might Soviet power next expand, but where in the empire might a line be drawn and defended with force if necessary.

Despite the failure to conclude a strategic arms agreement in 1988, the year ended with the United States and the Soviet Union enjoying a better relationship than they had since the early 1970s, and arguably since World War II. The détente in all but name that they had now entered into already showed more promise than its ill-fated predecessor ever did. On the Soviet side the incentives were far greater. In the 1970s the imperatives of an expansionist foreign policy asserted their primacy over Soviet domestic economic policy. In the late 1980s it was the imperatives of domestic policy that increasingly subordinated the goals-certainly the expansionist goals-of foreign policy. If the efforts at domestic reform were to have a solid prospect of succeeding, moreover, there would have to be a substantial reduction sooner or later in defense expenditures. In 1988 and for the indefinite future, an ambitious foreign policy would have to be put off if Moscow were to achieve even partial success in the domestic reforms on which it was now embarked.

In consequence, the concern of American policymakers in 1988 with respect to what remained the nation's major diplomatic problem, the Soviet relationship, was almost the reverse of what it had been in 1980. Then the issue was how to respond to Soviet expansion and to handle the growing tensions that signaled a renewed cold war. In 1988 it was how to respond to a growing détente with the Soviet Union. The dramatic change in the American-Soviet relationship was the development that dominated U.S. foreign policy in the last year of the Reagan Administration.


Given the improvement over eight years in the nation's strategic position with respect to its principal adversary, the negative judgment many have nevertheless made of the Reagan record in foreign policy cannot but seem unusual. This is not the judgment of the general public but of the experts. While conceding that Reagan restored America's pride and self-confidence, the prevailing view of the experts is that his foreign policy has been mediocre at best. Not a few consider this assessment too charitable.

By contrast, the public appears on the whole quite satisfied. It is aware that mistakes were made. It is not uncritical of the relative neglect with which certain issues were treated. Even so, the public has been generally approving of the Reagan performance in foreign policy, and this was made apparent by the virtual absence of any serious discussion of foreign policy in the 1988 presidential elections.

In part, the case made against the outgoing administration rests on matters of outlook and diplomatic style. The Reagan Administration, it is regularly contended, was more nationalist in outlook than any of its postwar predecessors. In consequence, it is said to have been more insistent on the rightness both of American objectives and of the means employed to achieve those objectives. It also entertained a more hostile view of the world than its predecessors did, a view that extended not only to the states of the developing world and to the institution these states had come to control, the United Nations, but not infrequently to allies as well. In turn, this outlook sanctioned a diplomatic style that had a marked propensity for unilateralism.

There is some merit to this criticism, though it is often overdone and marked by cant. But even if the criticism of outlook and diplomatic style is once granted, it does not really respond to the issue in question here. That issue is not whether the Reagan Administration, in contrast to earlier administrations, entertained a hostile view of the world and had a marked penchant for unilateral action, but whether its foreign policy is to be judged, on balance, a success or failure.

The same must be said of the criticism, undoubtedly well taken, that the policymaking process of the outgoing administration was flawed. Only the most devoted of Reagan supporters would by this time seriously defend the manner in which this president has presided over the formulation and implementation of policy. The Iran-contra affair stands as the great monument to the absence of any clear system of foreign policy management in the Reagan Administration; it prompted the investigating Tower Commission to conclude that the policy process of the administration was not only flawed but, worse, that it allowed for no clear allocation of responsibility. Still, a distinction must be made between the policy process and the substance of policy. Clearly, a flawed process, particularly when presided over by a president given to maintaining an extraordinary detachment from the "details" of policy implementation, does not contribute to a successful policy. At the same time it does not ensure failure, else the Reagan record would appear, even for critics, other than it does.

It may still be argued, of course, that the contrast drawn here between 1980 and 1988 is misleading. For with the advantage of hindsight, it is now clear that the gravity of developments in 1980 was exaggerated by many (including this writer). A more balanced view would have seen in 1980 that alongside the threatening prospects there were promising ones as well. In the course of the 1980s not only did some of the latter materialize, almost all of them did. At the same time, none of the former came to pass. This happy outcome ought not to obscure the simple point, however, that the events of 1980 were, on the whole, very sobering. The administration of the day clearly thought so, as did a number of allied governments. Perceptions of an emerging balance threatening to Western interests were everywhere apparent. These perceptions, the "futures" in which present political capital is invested, were not yet fixed. But the very fact that they had become fluid and uncertain was indication enough that an ominous juncture might be close at hand.

The disparity between 1980 and 1988 cannot be called into question simply by noting what did not happen in 1980. Nor can it be dismissed by pointing out that the apparent improvement of the succeeding eight years was not attended by a resolution of the persisting imbalance between power and commitments. Clearly, that imbalance was not resolved; nevertheless, it eased considerably. A reassertion of American power did occur in the 1980s, and it had a profound impact in changing perceptions of the balance of power evident at the beginning of the decade. The question assuredly remains whether the real and substantial accomplishments of this administration in foreign policy have been achieved at the longer-term price of worsening other elements in the American strategic predicament. Here the unease of the experts appears more plausible than the satisfaction of the public. The accumulation of federal and other forms of indebtedness, the declining propensity of Americans to save, and, more generally, Mr. Reagan's stubborn refusal to break the gridlock that developed over taxes, defense and social spending, does in fact point to a legacy of failure, though the consequences of this failure are not immediately apparent. That they hold out the prospect of undoing a number of the foreign policy successes of the past eight years is a serious danger as this president leaves office.

Still, these considerations cannot obscure the point that the nation's security position has changed markedly for the better during the Reagan years. The improvement is too evident to be denied. This is why critics have generally fallen back on the element of luck, not to deny improvement but to explain how it came about. But the major Reagan successes in foreign policy cannot simply be passed off by pointing to the president's good fortune. That he has been favored by circumstances in his dealings with the Soviet Union is notorious. Does it follow that the outcome of those dealings when successful may be rightly seen as little more than dumb luck? If it does, the same must be said of any and all successes in foreign policy that have plainly been conditioned by favorable circumstances.

The remarkable persistence critics have shown in dismissing the Reagan record in foreign policy cannot be laid simply to ordinary partisan considerations. There is something more at work here than normal garden-variety political bias. In some measure, the refusal to acknowledge the outgoing president's achievements reflects the persuasion that effectiveness in foreign policy requires high intellectual attainment and unremitting attention. Since Mr. Reagan has seldom been charged with either attribute, even by his supporters, his critics have approached the task of assessment with a built-in bias that at least suggests, if it does not clearly point to, a directed (and negative) verdict.

In still greater measure, however, that verdict has followed from the conviction that Ronald Reagan has represented the great obstacle that prevented the nation in the 1980s from making the necessary adjustments to a changed, and more modest, status in the world. This conviction has generally withstood the unexpected turns marking the final two years of the Reagan Administration. Even when it has not, it has only been modified to show this: that Ronald Reagan was a president whose view of the world alternated between an unachievable future and an irrecoverable past. Could a foreign policy that reflected this outlook possibly succeed?

Yet that foreign policy plainly has enjoyed considerable success. The persisting efforts to deny this success must raise once again the questions: What has Mr. Reagan stood for in foreign policy? What did he come to office wanting to do and how much of what he wanted to do has he done?


In the beginning, there was a lost war. Prior to that war America's dominant position in the world went unquestioned at home and abroad. The historic tasks the nation had taken on in defense of freedom-first by intervening in World War II against the fascist onslaught and then by organizing a great coalition of free states to resist communist aggression-were sustained by a domestic consensus that was both broad and deep.

The war in Vietnam shattered that consensus. Although undertaken in defense of a free people resisting communist aggression, the war led to corrosive doubt and debilitating division at home. It was this doubt and division, provoked and led by the anti-war movement, and not the arms and determination of the enemy that above all other considerations must account for our defeat. America fought more with itself than with the adversary, and in the end managed to defeat itself. The consequences of defeat proved very serious, and nowhere more so than in the view we came to entertain of ourselves. Indeed, in the prevailing view that was taken of defeat can be found the principal explanation for the subsequent decline in America's power and world position. There arose a pervasive skepticism not only of the effectiveness of the nation's power but of the purposes to which this power might be put. Where the utility of American power was not discredited, its legitimacy was. The results of this skepticism became apparent in the course of the 1970s when the nation's position seemed more vulnerable than at any time in the post-World War II period.

This is the view of Vietnam and its consequences that Ronald Reagan held before becoming president, a view reflected in his declaration in the 1980 presidential campaign that Vietnam had been a "noble cause." It is a faithful expression of a conviction long and consistently held. There is no reason to question the importance of Vietnam for Mr. Reagan, just as there is no reason to question his conviction that until the nation overcame its Vietnam syndrome the erosion of America's power and position would continue. For that syndrome made impossible the reconstitution of the domestic consensus required for the reassertion of the nation's power. The history of the foreign policies of three administrations in the 1970s had presumably demonstrated this; all three had been attempts somehow to conduct a foreign policy that preserved American interests but that did so within the narrow limits imposed by Vietnam. These efforts of necessity had resulted largely in failure.

It was the domestic base, then, that first had to be addressed, and in coming to office Reagan put the need for a renewed vision of and faith in the nation and its role in the world above all other considerations, even the need to rearm. The nation's pride and confidence had to be restored, a restoration that was impossible so long as the prevailing view of Vietnam continued to dominate the public's consciousness. Beyond this, a revived economy that drew its strength from a rededication to the principles of a free market had to be achieved. Finally, on such a renewed economic base, the indispensable task of rearmament would be undertaken.

The great foreign policy ends for which this reconstituted domestic base was sought seemed clear enough. To stop and even to reverse the decline in America's global role and position, to restore the nation's credibility for power and its use, to stop the steady expansion of Soviet influence that had occurred in the 1970s, and perhaps in time even to put Moscow on the defensive-these were the foreign policy ends to which Mr. Reagan dedicated his administration.

Did they imply a return to the policy that had characterized the years preceding Vietnam and that had led to the intervention? Reagan gave no clear answer. Still, in more ways than one the logic of global containment appeared to be the logic of his position as well. The advocacy of a resurgent America, committed to oppose not only Soviet expansion but the coming to power of communist regimes generally, suggested a position indistinguishable from one of global containment. At the outset, though, the issue could be left in abeyance. The restoration Reagan was intent on achieving began at home.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can now also appreciate that beyond these broad objectives was another-and grander-goal that was implicit in the convictions with which Mr. Reagan came to office. This goal was nothing less than the alteration of the essential conditions that had come to define American security in the postwar world. One such condition had resulted from the acquisition by the Soviet Union of a strategic nuclear missile force capable of striking the United States. The other condition had followed from the development by the Soviet Union of the capability for global intervention.

Mutual deterrence had been the American government's response to the first condition. Given formal sanction in the 1972 strategic arms agreements with the Soviet Union, mutual deterrence meant that this nation was now in the most literal sense a hostage to the power and intentions of the Soviet Union just as the Soviet Union was a hostage to the power and intentions of the United States. Nothing that had happened since World War II was comparable in significance to this development. Mutual deterrence implied a radical change in the nation's security. It constituted a novel and significant constraint on the scope of the nation's former freedom of action. It tied our fate to the fate of our great adversary and in a way that was unprecedented. And it measurably worsened a strategic position dependent in large measure on the credibility of the protection afforded to major allies.

On more than one occasion in the 1970s Reagan had expressed hostility to mutual deterrence. His views were, by and large, similar to those generally entertained on the political right. For many years the right had expressed skepticism over mutual deterrence, attacking it not only on strategic grounds but on moral and political grounds as well. Time and intervening developments only served to sharpen this criticism. By the time Mr. Reagan came to office, these developments-technological, strategic and political-appeared to lend greater persuasiveness to the critique. Technological developments, in particular, had this effect. From the outset, there were indications that the new administration was by no means resigned to the fate decreed by mutual deterrence. But how it might rebel against this fate was not clear.

Similarly, it was unclear how the Reagan Administration might attempt to break the other condition that had come to define American security. Soviet development of a global interventionary capability had been seen by many as a serious blow to the promise initially held out by the policy of containment. In the view of the right, of course, the policy had never been promising. At best, it was considered as too defensive and as failing to hold out the solid prospect of bringing the great conflict to a satisfactory end. At worst, it was seen as simply defeatist. Reagan had frequently voiced both criticisms and particularly of a policy of containment that was, in application, anything less than global.

However, the very development that enabled the Soviets to challenge containment as never before, their ability to intervene in political developments around the world, had created the opportunity for challenging Soviet expansion. If the Soviets could be successfully challenged at the periphery of their empire, might not the effects be felt throughout that empire? It would be an ironic and altogether unexpected reversal of fortunes if the instruments of Soviet expansion inspired the circumstances of their own undoing.

At the outset of the Reagan Administration these were still little more than inchoate aspirations that were subsequently to emerge in the form of the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Reagan Doctrine. Even when they are put aside, it is apparent that the policy objectives entertained by Mr. Reagan in coming to office were very ambitious-indeed, far more ambitious than any administration's since that of Kennedy. How were they to be achieved?

Clearly these objectives would remain unrealized without a reconstitution of the domestic base. But this in turn implied more than a revived economy and a refurbished defense. Above all, it implied a new domestic consensus on the use of American power-particularly, the use of the nation's military power-that could be invoked to support the Reagan objectives. In the absence of such consensus all else would necessarily remain in doubt.

Yet there is little to support the view that Reagan ever believed he could restore the old cold-war consensus that had broken down over Vietnam. Despite all the pre-1981 talk about the need to rid the nation of its Vietnam syndrome, the record shows that from the outset of his tenure as president, Mr. Reagan appreciated that at least a significant part of this outlook could not be readily overcome, if overcome at all. The doubt, uncertainty and guilt bred by Vietnam might be effectively removed, but the principal constraints on the use of American power that had emerged from the war were likely to remain. More generally, the public's disinclination since Vietnam to entertain substantial sacrifice on behalf of foreign policy objectives was likely to persist, and Reagan seemed quite aware of this as well.

Nor did he ask for sacrifice by the nation. The themes of pride and confidence that he struck in coming to office were very different. Reagan had never been identified with the austere appeal to sacrifice. Although he gained the presidency by promising to stop, and even to reverse, America's decline, he did not do so in the spirit of the famous message of John Kennedy. On the contrary, nothing seemed further from the outlook of the president and his administration than a willingness "to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty."

How, then, did Mr. Reagan think he would achieve his ambitious goals? Unless they were merely words, he would somehow have to resolve the issue of means. Yet the great constraints on foreign policy that were likely to remain even when the nation had largely forgotten Vietnam appeared to pose an insurmountable obstacle. Reagan's dilemma was essentially unchanged from that which had confronted his predecessors in the 1970s. But at least their objectives had all been more modest. Even so, in varying degree they had failed while by comparison Reagan has been largely successful.


Even with the considerable good fortune he enjoyed, Reagan's success could not have come about had he been the rigid ideologue he was so regularly depicted as being. It did come, however, because Mr. Reagan has been an extraordinary combination of the ideologue and the realist, and because his statecraft normally reflected that fact. Not only did he manage to live at once in two quite different worlds, he seemed to have experienced little difficulty in doing so. The tensions, even contradictions, between his vision of the world and the world with which he had somehow to deal appear to have troubled him very little. Only infrequently did he persist in the attempt to impose his vision upon a reality that gave evidence of being quite recalcitrant. Instead, with rare exception, he adjusted his vision to the circumstances conditioning and limiting the conduct of the nation's foreign policy. Yet that adjustment seems not to have resulted in his perception of any real compromise, let alone abandonment, of his vision. At the end of his presidency, Reagan could say, and apparently believe, that he had been entirely faithful to that vision.

What came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine provides an instructive example of this ability to balance two quite different worlds. The Reagan Doctrine, qua doctrine, proclaims a new international order in which the legitimacy of governments will no longer rest simply on their effectiveness, but on conformity with the democratic process. Governments that have come to power without fulfilling the requirements of that process are to be regarded as illegitimate. Against such illegitimate governments, and particularly against Marxist-Leninist governments, there is a right of intervention. The Reagan Doctrine asserts America's "moral responsibility" for aiding popular insurgencies against communist domination. Such support is also considered to express the vital security interests of the nation. Since freedom and democracy are, in Mr. Reagan's words, "the best guarantors of peace," support for popular insurgencies is no more than self-defense.

The obvious criticism to be made of the Reagan Doctrine is not unlike that made of its famous predecessor, the Truman Doctrine. Both doctrines proclaim an apparently unlimited and indiscriminate commitment while holding out the messianic hope of redeeming history. But, in its pretensions the Reagan Doctrine goes even further. The Truman Doctrine set forth a policy of containing the Soviet Union and other communist governments, not of overthrowing them. The great postwar pronouncement was directed to the defense of the status quo against certain kinds of change, not to overturning that part of the status quo regarded as illegitimate. By contrast, the inspiration of the Reagan Doctrine is offensive. Its intent is to show that communist revolutions are indeed reversible, thereby exploding a crucial myth.

Given the goals of the Reagan Doctrine it seems reasonable to conclude that, if seriously and consistently pursued as a policy, it risks a fate not unlike the fate of the Truman Doctrine. Once again, the reconciliation of interest and power must prove elusive, and for the reason that although power is always limited, the interest informing the Reagan Doctrine is not. Nor is this consideration turned aside by pointing to the modest means presumably required to implement the Reagan Doctrine or by noting that the goals are to be subordinated to the requirements of prudence.

In its inception, the Truman Doctrine also presumably required modest means; its goals were also to be subordinated to the requirements of prudence. Yet it quickly evolved into the policy of global containment, a policy that proved neither modest in means nor prudent in calculation. The same evolution may surely attend a doctrine that proclaims a new vision of international order and that makes democratic forms and processes the indispensable condition of order. A policy obedient to prudence and restrictive in means may readily appear as a betrayal of the new order and of the value-freedom-it enthrones. No less than global containment, with its insistence upon defending a seamless web of interests, the policy evolving from the Reagan Doctrine might prove unable to discriminate among interests, and to treat with equanimity the prospect of occasional failure to defend those interests. Equating, as it does, our interests with freedom, it might well prove even less able to do so.

This criticism of the Reagan Doctrine might one day have a direct relevance to policy. It does not have such relevance today. The outgoing administration did not employ the doctrine that constitutes its most distinctive foreign policy contribution in order to launch a crusade against communism. Instead, what was striking about the policy implementing the Reagan Doctrine was the caution and moderation that marked it. The means that were committed to policy scarcely betrayed the ideological determination that the rhetoric of the doctrine's architects suggested. This was true even in the case that had provided the immediate occasion and impetus for the Reagan Doctrine: Nicaragua.

The importance of Nicaragua for the Reagan Doctrine was apparent from the outset. It was made the litmus test of the doctrine by the president. If the promise of the doctrine could not be realized in Nicaragua, Mr. Reagan asked on more than one occasion, where could it be realized? This was why, the president insisted, the administration's efforts on behalf of the Nicaraguan contras could not be allowed to fail. It was also why the simple logic of the administration's commitment in Nicaragua seemed to require it to intervene directly with American forces rather than permit this commitment to fail.

Yet Mr. Reagan did permit it to fail. At the close of his administration, the virtual collapse of the contra effort was apparent. The state that had provided the geographical locus classicus of the Reagan Doctrine had in effect been lost without so much as a dramatic outburst from the man whose deep commitment to the contra cause was not to be doubted. That commitment had led Reagan to hold to a policy that rejected compromise with the government in Managua. Compromise necessarily implied leaving the Sandinistas in power, a result that was seen by the president as a betrayal of principle. Confronted with a choice between half a loaf and no loaf, Reagan the ideologue chose the latter. Confronted with a choice between accepting the consequences of no loaf and attempting to alter the circumstances that had imposed so disagreeable a choice, Reagan the realist chose the former.

This result can have come as no real surprise. Despite his earlier efforts to escape the constraints placed on his Nicaraguan policy by public opinion and Congress, Reagan was never disposed openly to override those constraints. When the Iran-contra affair blew up in his face and Congress directly challenged his covert policy, he retreated into the womb of the establishment.

Reagan accepted the limitations on the employment of American military power that were underscored by the Vietnam experience. The attractiveness of the Reagan Doctrine was, in large measure, its apparent compatibility with these limitations. In contrast to global containment, which led to Vietnam, this version of globalism would require very little treasure and, even more significant, no American blood at all.

In Nicaragua, however, the promise of the Reagan Doctrine seemed to founder almost from the start and not simply because of the obstructive role played by Congress. Even had the Congress been more accommodating, the administration's efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government would quite likely have failed. For that effort to have succeeded, the commitment of American ground forces (amounting by Pentagon estimates to three or four divisions) was required. The president was throughout determined to avoid taking this step.

This determination reflected Mr. Reagan's sensitivity to the domestic constraints on the use of military power that had emerged since Vietnam. Vietnam had taught that where the public did not perceive compelling security interests to be at stake, its support of military intervention was contingent on costs remaining modest and the duration of intervention being brief. An inexpensive and quick success, then, is the solvent of serious public disaffection. The record shows that Reagan had absorbed the great lesson of Vietnam only too well. Grenada and Libya met almost perfectly the prevailing domestic constraints on the use of force.

Moreover, while staying within the limits imposed by domestic opinion, these military actions effectively served the nation's diplomatic interests, if only by restoring a measure of prestige and credibility in the use of power. To be sure, as demonstrations of military might, Grenada and Libya were scarcely impressive. In the annals of warfare they are likely to be remembered as no more than inglorious little victories. But these considerations may be largely irrelevant to the real significance of the actions, which was demonstrative and symbolic. As such, their diplomatic utility must be found in whether they effectively conveyed the message intended by the actor.

Judged by the subsequent behavior of the more immediate recipients of the Reagan message-Cuba, Nicaragua and Libya-the results were no more than moderately successful. Of greater importance, however, were the effects these demonstrative actions had on the nation's principal adversary. Taken together with the harsh rhetoric of the "second cold war" of the early 1980s and the Reagan Administration's rearmament effort, the effects on the Soviet government appear to have been considerable. This experience, which included the highly stylized character of the second cold war, underlined the greatly heightened sensitivity of the superpowers to the risks attending any use of force that directly involved both of them, and their determination to find effective substitutes for accomplishing the same purposes force once served. Reagan appreciated that demonstrative uses of force had risen sharply in significance. In contrast to his predecessor, he was willing to act on this awareness well before a point of desperation had been reached.

At the same time, Mr. Reagan also appeared to know when to give up. In sending marines to Lebanon a second time in 1982, the president did so in the hope, possibly even the expectation, that the introduction of little more than a token marine contingent would be sufficient to establish the credibility of the American government's interest and determination to restore peace to Lebanon. When subsequent events had shown the utterly illusory character of this hope, Reagan withdrew what remained of the force. Despite the president's continued assertion of an American interest in Lebanon, the only alternative to withdrawal was a lengthy American commitment of very substantial ground forces. Once confronted with these alternatives, Reagan did not hesitate. Lebanon was a classic instance of an almost complete lack of proportion between means the administration had no intention of employing and ends which should never have been entertained in the first place. Even so, when confronted with the consequences of a mistaken policy, Reagan knew when to abandon it.


The realism with which the outgoing president accepted and adjusted to the constraints on military power was also apparent in alliance policy. Reagan came to office at a time of considerable tension and disarray in the Western alliance. Within a period of two years-a period bounded by the invasion of Afghanistan and the imposition of military rule in Poland-almost every possible challenge to the cohesiveness of the alliance had been made. Criticism, often bitter, of the state of the alliance had become the staple fare of editorial pages. Although this criticism was not limited to one part of the political spectrum, its strongest expressions clearly came from the right.

The principal charge brought by American conservatives against the European allies was, quite simply, one of bad faith. While continuing to accept the benefits of the alliance, the indictment ran, the nations of Western Europe were increasingly unwilling to pay the price entailed by those benefits. For the right, that price was not so much a greater contribution to the common defense as it was a greater acceptance of American policy toward the Soviet Union and communist governments generally. In the course of a generation, America's allies had progressively succumbed to the fatal attractions of appeasement in the guise of détente. Accordingly, strong American leadership was needed to bring them back to a proper course. And if that still proved unachievable, a small but influential group urged a policy of progressive detachment from Europe attended by a policy of active involvement elsewhere. A vision of global unilateralism thus arose in which the center of our postwar policy would become the periphery, while the periphery would become the center.

Whether Reagan was ever seriously attracted to this vision may be doubted. Even so, he did appear to share the outlook that found the Europeans acting increasingly in bad faith, and he repeatedly asserted the need for stronger and more resolute American leadership of the alliance. Given the indisposition of Europe to surrender to a reassertive America, the Reagan years seemed to promise a chronic crisis in the alliance. Yet what came to pass was quite different. The Western alliance not only survived the Reagan Administration, but did so with possibly less wear and tear than it had experienced during the administrations of the 1970s. It did so despite the conflicts that marked the alliance in the past eight years and despite those occasions in which the Reagan Administration acted unilaterally.

The outcome was due in no small measure to Reagan's good fortune. The emergence of governments in the major Western European states that broadly shared the administration's view of dealing with the problems posed by Soviet arms-and particularly the SS-20 missiles-was of critical importance. But what turned out to be on balance an unexpectedly good relationship was also due to a willingness on Reagan's part to accommodate the European allies over issues of vital concern to them and to do so, as in the case of the Euro-Siberian gas pipeline, without leaving a residue of rancor and resentment. The fear of Europeans, that this administration would break from its predecessors in a determination to act unilaterally, did not materialize. When the administration did act unilaterally, it did so in matters that were peripheral to Europe's security.

The glaring exception, of course, was the abortive negotiation at Reykjavik. Whatever the real explanation of this curious, even bizarre, episode-and in all likelihood it is to be found in a combination of Reagan's lack of preparation, his failure to grasp the implications of extended deterrence and his strong desire to put an end to the period dominated by nuclear missile weapons-the administration quickly back-tracked before the objections of the allies to an agreement that, had it been consummated, would have eviscerated the credibility of the American security commitment to Western Europe. The subsequent intermediate-range nuclear forces agreement, one given momentum by Reykjavik, has been subject to the same criticism. But whatever the merit of the charge, in this instance the agreement was not one unilaterally entered into by the American government against the wishes of allies.

The Reagan record with respect to the Western alliance is as clear an example as one might have of the compelling force of vital interest and, in consequence, of the broad continuity in policy such interest entails. So long as the structure of the international system retains even approximately its present form, the United States and the Soviet Union are fated to be rivals. Their rivalry may vary considerably. Indeed it already has done so, though the future may find still greater change in the direction of moderation. But so long as structure is not essentially transformed, the rivalry will persist. And so long as it does, there is no reasonable alternative to a Eurocentric policy for the United States. That policy is so apparent a response to interests that it persists despite all the differences and the inequities that have come to mark the alliance. It persists because any of the suggested alternatives-whether they take the form of a Pacific orientation or of a global unilateralism or, more likely, of a hemispheric isolation-would inescapably result in a dispersion of the power that has been the foundation of postwar order. This is why even resolute critics of the Atlantic alliance rarely call for a change in policy that would in fact sacrifice the American interest in Europe. And it is why visions of an alternative to a Eurocentric policy appear either vague or confused when the infrequent attempt is made to translate them into coherent policy. Despite having presided over an administration that came to office entertaining a thinly veiled hostility toward the alliance, Mr. Reagan proved on the whole as clear-eyed and faithful to this core interest of American foreign policy as any president in the past generation.


The triumph of continuity over change and of interest over ideology is apparent as well in the departing administration's record in the Third World. The Carter Administration had come to office intent on emphasizing North-South relationships. These relationships appeared to fit its view of "world order" politics, whereas East-West relations were a reminder of "balance of power" politics and of a world that was thought to be of markedly diminishing significance. At the end of Carter's presidency, however, the old system had reasserted itself with a vengeance. The incoming Reagan Administration found this reassertion entirely congenial with its view of the world, a view that emphasized the transcendent importance of East-West relations. By contrast, North-South relations were considered significant only to the extent that they were a function of East-West relations.

The Reagan Administration not only downgraded the significance of the developing world; it came to office determined to confront that world in a way preceding administrations had been reluctant to do. The developing countries were on the whole anti-American in outlook and statist in orientation. The new administration would put an end to the futile attempt to accommodate them. It scorned the Carter Administration's obsession about getting "on the right side of change." Not accommodating, much less co-opting, but facing down and containing hostile Third World governments-Marxist-Leninist governments with the exception of Iran-was its priority. For the rest, although the administration declared its support for development assistance, it also emphasized that the developing states not continue to view aid transfers as a solution to their problems. Instead, as Reagan declared at the 1981 Cancún summit, they must choose a course based on market-oriented policies.

The advent of the Reagan Administration coincided with the deterioration of economic conditions in most of the Third World and the decline of hopes invested in the New International Economic Order. It also coincided with the leveling off of Soviet expansionist activities in the developing world, a leveling off that was the consequence primarily of Soviet overextension and only secondarily the result of the West's reaction. What had in the 1970s been a rising tide inimical to American interests was thus clearly arrested.

By comparison with these developments, the efforts of the Reagan Administration were more modest in their effects. Even so, the administration followed much the same path as its predecessors. Almost all foreign assistance has gone to governments rather than to the private sector. On a number of occasions, this assistance has supported projects antithetical to Reagan market-oriented policies. Sanctions have generally not been imposed on those refusing to accept market-oriented reforms.

On balance, the Reagan Administration, for all its promises to change America's policy toward the Third World, practiced accommodation far more than confrontation. In the end, it was Mr. Reagan who felt obliged to acknowledge a position he had earlier rejected: that many Third World problems had local roots and could not be usefully seen through East-West lenses. Nor was this the only unexpected denouement. Although the president had come to office contemptuous of his predecessor's human rights policy, he left office boasting a human rights policy of his own. Moreover, it was a human rights policy, he declared to Congress in 1986, that opposed "tyranny in any form, whether of the left or the right." Critics have rejected this claim to even-handedness, charging that human rights were subordinated throughout to geopolitical interest. But the same could be said of the Carter Administration's record in human rights. The difference between the two administrations was that although both subordinated human rights to geopolitics, the Carter Administration did not consciously use human rights as an instrument of geopolitics, while the Reagan Administration did. In the end, however, there were far more similarities than differences between the two administrations on the issue of human rights.

For Reagan, as for Carter, human rights have served to legitimize a part of the nation's post-Vietnam foreign policy and to give policy a sense of purpose that apparently has been needed to elicit public support. This need, however, should not obscure the simple truth that human rights is little more than a refurbished version of America's historic purpose of advancing the cause of freedom in the world, a purpose that also informed the postwar containment policy that led to Vietnam. If the post-Vietnam period teaches any lesson, it is that, try as it may, the nation cannot seem to find a satisfactory substitute for its historic purpose, just as it cannot be shaken from its Wilsonian belief that a world made up of liberal-democratic states is a world-indeed, the only world-congenial to American interests. Reagan's human rights policy no less than Carter's faithfully reflected these assumptions.


This is one side of the Reagan record in foreign policy. There is another, and less successful, side.

Mr. Reagan came to office apparently intent on altering the postwar conditions of American security. To this end, he launched the great effort to which he gave so much support, the Strategic Defense Initiative. The president's commitment to SDI cannot be seen simply as an attempt to restore a lost security. It expressed as well his deep animus toward nuclear weapons and the deterrent arrangements to which these weapons have given rise. The mutual deterrence under which we live, he has observed, forms "a sad commentary on the human condition." It is not unlikely that this will be the judgment for which this president is best remembered.

Antinuclear sentiments had been expressed by previous presidents. Reagan's immediate predecessor had voiced such sentiments, to the ridicule of the right. The depth of Mr. Reagan's antinuclear disposition nevertheless appears unprecedented. It has been one of the great surprises of his long tenure. Having come to office condemning the arms control efforts of his predecessors and committed to a military buildup; having taken, once in office, what appeared to be a casual attitude toward nuclear weapons; and having appointed to office men who had never been known to utter a word about the moral enormity of ever using nuclear weapons, the sudden discovery that the president was not only deeply offended by the arrangement (mutual deterrence) that forms the limiting condition of all our lives, but intent on taking measures to alleviate this condition, if not to escape entirely from it, was clearly startling-so much so that many refused to credit what they viewed as too sudden, and suspect, a conversion.

And yet Reagan's antinuclear outlook was genuine. Indeed, in retrospect, it has become increasingly apparent that on strategic matters generally there was a profound gulf separating the president from his administration. Mr. Reagan seems to have had little if any regard for the finer points of nuclear strategy and he has shown little awareness of the developments in the evolution of nuclear strategy. Apart from an occasional lapse, he persisted in entertaining the view that prevailed in the 1950s to the effect that if a nuclear war between the superpowers were to start it would not be subject to meaningful limits. This view made him relatively indifferent to the strategic issues that occupied his administration in its early years, and above all the credibility issue. While he did lobby hard in the beginning for the MX missile, he showed little awareness of or concern for the interests that were presumably at stake here. That he understood the difference between the Carter Administration's "countervailing" strategy and his own administration's strategy of "prevailing" seems doubtful (a distinction that is, in any event, very thin). Nor, as Reykjavik indicated, did he appear to grasp the logic of extended deterrence and the requirements this logic imposes.

What the president clearly did understand was his deep antipathy to nuclear weapons and to the strategic arrangements of mutual deterrence these weapons had generated. This had significant implications for the positions he ultimately took and defended on arms control.

Reagan came to office condemning the arms control efforts of the 1970s. Since most of his political associates were deeply skeptical of any and all arms control agreements that might be entered into with the Soviet Union, it was generally assumed that Reagan shared this position. Arms control agreements, it held, will be entered into by the Soviet Union only if consistent with Moscow's political objectives, which are to extend Soviet power and influence at the expense of the West. Unfortunately, however, public hopes and expectations require that a receptivity, in principle, to arms control agreements be shown. Accordingly, the Reagan Administration fashioned a strategic arms control position, though one designed to reflect the conservative position with its insistence on deep cuts and intrusive verification procedures-features, it was confidently expected, the Soviets would not accept. The initial Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) proposal of the Reagan Administration incorporated these features.

Whatever the motivation of Reagan Administration officials, it is now reasonably clear that the president's motives were quite straightforward. If the Soviets were to accept deep cuts and intrusive verification, he was ready to move toward an agreement. The president took his negotiating position seriously and at face value. He did the same with respect to the zero option, initially put forth as a basis for an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces. When several years later the Soviet government did the unexpected and accepted, in principle, the negotiating positions of the administration, Reagan's positive response was, to the deep distress of many supporters within and without his administration, simple and straightforward. He concluded an INF agreement in December 1987 and moved quite far toward concluding a START agreement.

A similar straightforward motivation explains the consistency of his attachment to strategic defense. Mr. Reagan introduced SDI at a time of great tension between this country and the Soviet Union, a time when the prospects for arms control agreements between the two countries seemed very modest. Against this background, as well as against the background of the conservative indictment of both arms control and mutual deterrence, SDI appeared as an effort to redress a pervasive political pessimism about the future by holding out the prospect that technology would enable us to escape the consequences of pessimism. The long-term promise of SDI was to enable us to transcend altogether the detested system of mutual deterrence and to do so by our own unilateral efforts.

In the years that followed, however, the prospects for arms control steadily and unexpectedly improved. Yet the president's commitment to SDI remained constant, probably because it was never primarily dependent on these changes, and because Reagan's technological optimism was not simply a reflection of what earlier seemed to be his political pessimism. Although he subsequently developed into a political optimist about Soviet-American relations, his faith in and enthusiasm for SDI remained unchanged. It did so because he viewed nuclear weapons as a great threat and evil in and of themselves.1

At the close of Mr. Reagan's second term SDI remained uncertain in promise. Undertaken in order to escape mutual deterrence and to recapture a historical security position, SDI may have the effect of further eroding the faith that was once placed in deterrence, but without providing a reliable alternative in which to believe. It may well be, as many contend, that we are still only at the beginning of a lengthy defensive transition which at the end will be found to have paid off. But if the end result nevertheless falls far short of the initial promise and finds us very much in the same world of mutual deterrence, what effect will this have on a faith that was called into question by SDI?

In the interim SDI may not only constitute one of the principal obstacles to progress in arms control but a continuing source of strategic instability. There is no assurance that what appears today as a more relaxed attitude toward SDI by the Soviet government will persist. That attitude rests on no firmer foundation than a set of Soviet expectations about the behavior of the incoming administration and the Congress.


If the Reagan legacy with respect to nuclear weapons and deterrence is an ambiguous one, the same cannot be said of his attempt to reconstitute the domestic base of foreign policy. Here he has clearly failed. This failure appears in striking contrast to the success he generally enjoyed in foreign policy, and it merits particular censure because it represents an evasion of the reconstitution that might have been successfully sought yet was not. While leaving the nation in a security position that was much improved over what it had been at the outset of his tenure, he did not change for the better the underlying conditions sustaining foreign policy. Instead, the result of his presidency has been to weaken further those conditions.

Although Mr. Reagan came to office intent on making the reconstitution of the domestic base his highest priority, he did not restore the pre-Vietnam consensus and indeed made no serious attempt to do so. That consensus rested on a generally shared understanding of the security interests for which force might be employed. But what is more important, it also rested on the assumption that the executive was the ultimate authority in determining when a threat to vital interests, justifying force, had arisen. Deference to the judgment of the president was the critical element of the old consensus. On this principle that the president must be deferred to in matters of national security the entire postwar structure had been built. Finally, a third element followed from the first two. The pre-Vietnam consensus had rested on a notion of sacrifice, a notion that was given operational meaning by the same institution that enjoyed the deference of the public and Congress in deciding when a threat to vital interests had arisen.

The cold-war consensus in foreign policy has been regularly idealized in the years since Vietnam. It seldom operated with the smoothness and efficiency that so many now imagine. What is more important, it did not consistently produce a foreign policy that by comparison with what has followed we can only envy. The policy successes of this earlier period were surely due in large measure to other advantages we no longer enjoy, above all our relative power position. Nor did the old consensus always issue in success. It could also lead to failure, as it did in Vietnam. What is relevant here, though, is not the merit of the old consensus, or the desirability of its restoration, but the fact that Mr. Reagan made no real effort to restore it. On the contrary, apart from a few notorious-and largely unsuccessful-exceptions, he respected the constraints on presidential power that emerged in the post-Vietnam period. Rather than attempt a restoration, he sought to reconstitute a domestic base that, while staying within the post-Vietnam limits, would nevertheless serve in the 1980s as roughly the functional equivalent of the cold-war consensus.

The principal feature of this reconstitution was, of course, the re-creation of a dominant public outlook that once again viewed the use of American power with neither suspicion nor guilt. What Reagan succeeded in doing was to treat the nation's psychic malaise resulting from Vietnam, to evoke a new sense of collective self-respect and to restore the conviction that America was a force for good in the world. If this was no small achievement, it is still not to be confused with the earlier cold-war consensus.

A new spirit of "feeling good" about America otherwise implied slight resemblance to the nation of yesterday. That the nation once again felt good about itself did not mean that the divisions which had arisen since Vietnam over what justified the use of force had now been overcome. They had not, as the bitter and continuing controversy over the administration's Central American policy all too clearly indicated. Nor was there a revival of a disposition to see the president as the ultimate authority in matters of national security and, accordingly, entitled to the deference of the Congress and public alike. Despite Mr. Reagan's great personal popularity, he was not shown the deference on such matters that his cold-war predecessors had received. Here again, Central America is an instructive example.

In these respects the cold-war consensus remains a thing of the past. So, too, the spirit of sacrifice it evoked remains a thing of the past. Reagan certainly made no effort to recapture this spirit. Instead, his message was that sacrifice was unnecessary and that the nation might aspire to great ends without having to endure arduous means. This president was not the first to carry such a message to the nation. There is perhaps no more venerable a tradition in American foreign policy than that of willing ambitious ends while refusing to entertain the necessary means. What distinguished Mr. Reagan in this respect was that he carried a very old tradition to new heights. To an extent that is probably without precedent, he has severed the connection between ends and means in foreign policy. What is more, it is this very disjuncture that has formed the essential element of his reconstituted domestic base. From the outset, the great appeal of the president's policies was that they demanded so little of the public while promising so much. Mr. Reagan appeared almost to have reversed the lesson that in foreign policy, even more than elsewhere, great achievement can only be undertaken at great sacrifice. In foreign policy, the promise of the past eight years has been one of an inverse proportion between benefit and cost. More than anything else, it is on this promise that the new public consensus, such as it is, appears to rest.

Thus the principal Reagan legacy in foreign policy may well be just this: that the nation's 40th president transformed what had been a disposition not to pay for the American position in the world into something close to a fixed resolve not to do so. If there is a consensus today in foreign policy, this must be regarded as its central tenet. A disposition to want more than the nation was willing to pay for has of course characterized American policy since the beginning of the postwar period. It may be seen, for example, in the recurring assumption that economic growth rather than increased taxation would provide the means for meeting increased military expenditures. Even so, a marked reluctance of governments to propose, and the public to accept, sacrifice had limits. Mr. Reagan, principally by his recurring budget deficits, clearly broke from the constraints that had previously governed American security policy. In doing so, he did away with what was at least the qualified realism that had characterized the compromises of the past. In its place, he put the wants of the public, which have been to keep but not to pay. The most unfortunate feature of the Reagan presidency, as it relates to foreign policy, has been the president's persistent refusal-or perhaps his inability-to confront the public with the simple truths governing the nation's position. In his relationship to democracy, in his responsibility to tell the public what it does not wish to hear but should hear, Mr. Reagan visibly failed. It is with the consequences of this failure that the new administration will find its greatest challenge.

1 This, at least, was the primary reason. He also continued to insist on the need for SDI as an insurance policy against the possibility that an agreement eliminating all nuclear weapons might one day be broken. Without SDI, we would then be at the mercy of the lawbreaker.

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  • Robert W. Tucker is professor of American diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and co-editor of The National Interest. He wishes to thank David C. Hendrickson and Robert B. Shepard for their help in preparing this essay.
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