Asked what kind of generals he preferred to have leading his armies, Napoleon is said to have replied "lucky ones." Ronald Reagan has been a lucky president, especially in relations with the rest of the world.

During the five years of his stewardship American foreign policy has been largely successful. One test of success for any sovereign state is the level of its power and prestige, its general standing in the international community. America’s standing has improved since 1981. Another important measure of success is the avoidance of war; this, too, Mr. Reagan has managed. The interest of a great power committed to the international status quo, like the United States, is served by averting geopolitical setbacks. On this score as well, Mr. Reagan’s record is a good one. There has been no Vietnam or Iran during the past five years. By these standards, the President has conducted what is perhaps the most successful American foreign policy of the last 25 years.

The success that the United States has enjoyed since 1981 has been due in large part to circumstances having little direct connection with the efforts of the Reagan Administration. It has been the result of forces and trends outside the control of the United States and of measures undertaken by others and occasionally even opposed by Mr. Reagan. He owes his success abroad at least as much to good fortune as to good policies.


America’s chief adversary has been disadvantaged in its leadership for most of Mr. Reagan’s term of office. Until Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of power in March 1985, the leaders of the Soviet Union were in poor health and unable to exercise decisive leadership for all but a few months of Mr. Reagan’s presidency. At the same time, the Soviet Union has been in the grip of a severe economic downturn, limiting to some degree its taste for contesting American interests abroad. The first half of the 1980s also turned out to be a time of significant resistance at the extremities of the Soviet empire. Soviet imperial reach extended to places where the tanks of the Soviet army were of little use in imposing order. In Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and southern Africa, Soviet clients and even Soviet troops came under fire. These outbreaks of resistance handicapped the Soviet Union in its rivalry with the United States—and they arose independently of American policies.

In the ongoing nuclear competition with the Soviets, the Reagan Administration benefited from the work of others. The previous administration had negotiated a series of limits on offensive weapons that were encoded in the second Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT II) treaty. As presidential candidate and as President, Mr. Reagan opposed the treaty. The Senate has not ratified it. But early in 1981, the Reagan Administration declared that it would abide by the relevant limitations of the SALT II treaty as long as the Soviet Union did so. Without these restrictions the Soviet Union might have fielded many more weapons than it has since 1981. If it had done so the United States would have had to decide how to respond. The decision would not have been an easy one: matching the Soviets would have been difficult and expensive; doing nothing would have been controversial. SALT II has spared the President having to make such a decision.

SALT II has conditioned the Reagan Administration’s conduct of arms control negotiations as well. The two sides have not come close to reaching agreement on a new treaty, but there has been little urgency to do so because the SALT II restraints have remained safely in place. The United States and the Soviet Union could each afford to make proposals unlikely to meet with the other’s approval, secure in the knowledge that neither party’s position would deteriorate in the absence of a new accord. Mr. Reagan has enjoyed both the benefits of limits negotiated by others and the luxury of criticizing these limits for not being sweeping enough.

The foreign policies of recent administrations have encountered greatest difficulty in the Middle East. It is the most treacherous part of the world, one that is politically unstable and where, unlike other equally volatile regions, the two great powers both have important interests. The 1973 Middle East war began the undoing of the relationship that President Nixon was trying to forge with the Soviet Union. The Iranian revolution left a blight on Mr. Carter’s presidency. Here, too, Mr. Reagan has enjoyed great good fortune.

The war between Iraq and Iran continued throughout the first five years of Mr. Reagan’s term in office. If either country had overcome the other it would have dominated the region and threatened the neighboring oil states that are important to the West. Indeed, if there had been no war at all, both would have been free to seek influence at the expense of the United States. But the bloody stalemate along the Iran-Iraq border continued through 1985. This state of affairs nicely, if perversely, served American interests.

The Iran-Iraq war reduced the oil available from both countries. In the 1970s this would have harmed the Western economies. The oil shocks of 1973-74 and 1979 had their origins in a drop in production in the Middle East; in each case this led to a sharp rise in price that caused enormous economic damage in the rest of the world and gave the oil-producing countries potential influence over Western policies. At the end of the 1970s it seemed that the price of oil was destined to rise steadily and that the members of OPEC would acquire an ever-tighter grip on the foreign policy of the United States.

Neither development occurred. Mr. Reagan had the good luck to enter office at a moment when the world oil market was undergoing a historic shift: for the first time in the postwar period, overall oil consumption decreased. Production outside the OPEC countries increased. OPEC’s share of oil consumption in the West dropped sharply and the worldwide price of oil fell. These trends shielded the United States and its allies from economic damage and political blackmail.

This happy outcome was the result not so much of national policies as of the impersonal operation of market forces. When the price of something rises consumers use less and producers provide more: the combination of reduced demand and increased supply lowers the price. So it was with oil during the first half of the 1980s, to the great benefit of the United States.

The chronic problem for American policy in the Middle East has been the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was the 1973 war that led to the first oil shock and briefly threatened to draw the United States and the Soviet Union into a military confrontation with each other as well. The Reagan Administration did not have to contend with the prospect of another major round of that conflict, again thanks to the work of others. The efforts of the three previous administrations helped to produce the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country. As long as that treaty holds, Egypt will not take part in a war against Israel. Without Egypt, other Arab states are not likely to go to war. Without the threat of war, American policy in the Middle East since 1979 has enjoyed an unfamiliar and welcome margin of safety.

During its first term, the Reagan Administration conducted an active Middle East policy, sponsoring two major initiatives. In September 1982, the President proposed the "Reagan Plan," calling for Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank of the Jordan River in association with the kingdom of Jordan. It also committed troops and diplomatic capital to an effort to reconstruct a peaceful, united Lebanon favorably disposed to the West. Both initiatives failed decisively. Jordan and Israel rejected the Reagan Plan. American forces were withdrawn from Lebanon, the country remained in a state of ongoing civil war, and it is Syria, not the United States, that has emerged as the most influential foreign presence there. Neither failure had a drastic effect on American interests in the region, however, which were protected by the changes in the oil market and by the Camp David accords.

In historical perspective, the most momentous international event of the Reagan years may turn out to be the dramatic passage of the People’s Republic of China from a planned, centralized economic system toward an economy operated according to market principles. The sweeping changes that China inaugurated at the end of the 1970s constitute a cultural and political, as well as an economic, revolution. They were endorsed in an official economic blueprint unveiled in Beijing in September of 1985. They had nothing to do with American foreign policies; they were undertaken by the Chinese for their own reasons. Their ultimate consequences cannot be known and may not even be favorable for the United States. Nonetheless, in the short term they have an unmistakable symbolic significance that favors the West. They show that the world’s oldest and most populous nation has decided that its interests are served by becoming more like the United States and less like the Soviet Union.

The essence of luck is good timing. Mr. Reagan has been in the right place at the right time. He has profited from political capital accumulated by others. He has drawn particular benefit from the labors of his immediate predecessor. It was Mr. Carter, after all, whose administration negotiated the SALT II treaty and the Camp David accords. It was he who took the politically difficult decision to begin the decontrol of U.S. energy prices, which reinforced the trends in international markets that have proved so favorable to the United States. It was he who started what became a substantial increase in defense spending and who began to send assistance to the Afghan resistance in 1980. History will be grateful to Mr. Carter, although his contemporaries were not.

Luck, both good and bad, is an underappreciated element in public affairs. Those who enjoy good fortune naturally impute their success to their own talents. Those who are unlucky risk sounding churlish and sour if they invoke fate to account for their failures. Modern historians and commentators without partisan interests usually resist using luck as an analytical category for fear of seeming frivolous. It was not always so. Machiavelli, as clear-eyed an analyst of politics as ever addressed the subject, placed great emphasis on the role of fortune in shaping human affairs. But even he did not consider it all important. "Luck is the residue of design," said an authority in a very different field, Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who was assembling winning teams in St. Louis at about the time that young "Dutch" Reagan was broadcasting the games of his archrivals, the Chicago Cubs. Napoleon, although impressed with the role of forces beyond human control in warfare, also observed that God is almost invariably on the side with the bigger battalions. The Reagan foreign policy owes its success to good luck, but not to good luck alone.


At the very least, the favorable trends in international politics vindicate the President’s view of the world. If the Soviet Union’s economy has faltered, if its efforts to spread its influence have provoked resistance, this bears out Mr. Reagan’s understanding of the direction in which history is moving. If energy supplies are safer and cheaper, thanks to the magic of the market, and if China has discovered the value of free enterprise, few figures in American public life in the last half century have been as devoted to the virtues of the laws of supply and demand as the President. This has been one of the principal themes of his public career. Whatever his responsibility for them, the favorable developments of the last five years can have come as no surprise to Mr. Reagan. But even this gives him too little credit for the success of American foreign policy since he took office.

It was once put to the great physicist Ernest Rutherford that he had been fortunate to "ride the wave" of discoveries in his field in the early part of the century. "But I made the wave, didn’t I?" he replied. Mr. Reagan did not make the wave himself; the tides of history, like those in the natural world, cannot be summoned by politicians. But he has helped the wave along. His Administration has provided assistance to rebels against Soviet clients in the Third World. It has presided over most of the increase in defense spending of the last six years. It has carried through the process of decontrolling energy prices that the Carter Administration began.

Not least important for the promotion of the nation’s purposes abroad, the Reagan Administration has demonstrated, in limited but significant ways, that it is willing to send American armed forces into action as part of its foreign policy. The shooting down of two Libyan jets in 1981, the eviction of a government friendly to Cuba from the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, the launching of an air attack on Syrian positions in Lebanon in the same year, and the capture of the hijackers of the Italian liner Achille Lauro in 1985 were all minor military operations. Collectively, however, they helped to create the impression of a President prepared to use force in support of American interests. Although it cannot be proven, it is not unreasonable to suppose that this impression has entered the calculations of others from time to time over the last five years, to the advantage of the United States.

Each of Mr. Reagan’s contributions to the favorable tides in international affairs has been a measured one; this is another way in which he himself has had some responsibility for America’s success abroad since 1981. His policies have been informed by a sense of proportion, of limits, of how far they could be pressed without taxing the prudence of other countries and exhausting the goodwill of the American public. This sense of limits was on vivid display on those occasions when Mr. Reagan changed course or retreated from positions previously staked out, in order to adjust to international realities or to the shape of public opinion at home, or both.

For all his hostility to the Soviet Union (and his Administration’s reservations about summit conferences), he arranged the Geneva meeting with Mr. Gorbachev in November 1985. In 1982 Mr. Reagan imposed sanctions on European companies participating in the Siberian gas pipeline under American license. The European governments protested and he removed the sanctions. In the first year of the Administration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that the way to set things right in Central America was to "go to the source" of the trouble, that is, to Cuba. The Administration has, of course, done no such thing.

Mr. Reagan entered office with a long-held affection for Taiwan. This did not sit well with Beijing, which made restrictions on arms sales to the island a test of the Sino-American relationship that three administrations had worked to create. Mr. Reagan chose a policy that the People’s Republic could tolerate. Despite principled opposition to government interference in economic affairs, the Administration has acted to help prevent Third World countries from defaulting on their loans and to bring down the international value of the dollar. Most recently, after declaring his opposition to the idea several times, Mr. Reagan reversed himself in September 1985, under pressure from the Congress, and imposed limited economic sanctions on South Africa as a mark of American disapproval of the continuing system of apartheid.

The President has demonstrated an unerring sense of just how far to go. This is an invaluable, indeed an essential, political skill. A leader in a democracy must present himself as a person of firm principles. He or she must, however, compromise those principles in order to govern. A leader without any guiding precepts is spineless and aimless; one who will never bend them is a fanatic. The successful statesman is the one who can navigate between the two extremes, earning a reputation for being principled but not bullheaded. Mr. Reagan has that reputation. His predecessor did not. That difference is not just a matter of luck.


The mixture of good luck and adept statecraft that has characterized the Reagan foreign policy was in evidence in one of the most dramatic episodes of 1985, the hijacking of an American commercial airliner to Beirut and the holding hostage of a number of its passengers for 17 days in the second half of June. After leaving Athens the plane was seized by two members of a shadowy group of Lebanese Shia Muslims. They ordered it flown to Beirut, then to Algiers, then back to Beirut. Early on they murdered an American navy diver who was traveling on the flight. The majority of the passengers and crew were released, but 40 were held captive. Most of them were taken off the aircraft and moved to hiding places around Beirut. The largest Lebanese Shia organization, Amal, took control of the plane and of most of the American prisoners. Its leader, Nabih Berri, became the focal point of efforts to release the hostages. He gave a number of interviews on American television. The hostages also made several appearances. Finally, they were taken across the Syrian border to Damascus and flown home.

The outcome of the hijacking was an undoubted success for the Reagan Administration. The Americans were released in a reasonable period of time without any obvious concessions being made to their captors by the United States or indeed by Israel, which was the object of their original demands.

The Beirut hijacking was an instance of the President’s luck. While it has some claim to being the worst crisis of the first five years of his Administration, by the standards of the past 25 years it was scarcely a crisis at all. The stakes were not remotely as high as they had been in Berlin in 1961, or in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, or in the Middle East in 1973. Nor were they as high as they had been when American personnel were held hostage in Teheran. As in Lebanon, the American captives in Iran from 1979 to 1981 became caught up in an internal struggle for power. But the Iranian struggle was consequential for American interests. Iran has both oil and a strategic location, bordering on the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union; it is important for the United States. Lebanon is not.

Even so, the hijacking could have damaged the Administration had it dragged on as the Iranian affair did, paralyzing the highest levels of the American government. Mr. Reagan tried to keep his distance from the events as they unfolded. He could not have stood apart indefinitely, but he did not have to. In contrast with the episode in Teheran, the parties in control of events in Beirut—the leadership of Amal, the government of Syria, and perhaps also Syria’s patron, the Soviet Union—found it in their respective interests to end the affair promptly rather than to prolong it. The factions in control of the American hostages in Teheran apparently came to the opposite conclusion.

The release of the Americans in Beirut was probably not, however, merely a matter of luck. Amal, Syria and perhaps the Soviets may well have reckoned that the Administration’s patience might at some point wear thin, that it would be moved to take military action, and that this would make life more difficult for all of them. Mr. Reagan had, after all, sent marines once to Lebanon. Those in control of the hostages certainly did not want American troops to return. They obviously decided that whatever benefit they drew from holding the hostages would be outweighed by the costs of confronting an angry American President. It is possible that their deliberations were shadowed by the fear that the United States would not be restrained indefinitely. If such a concern did hover at the back of their minds, it was Ronald Reagan who, by his deeds, helped to put it there.

Another of Mr. Reagan’s skills was in evidence in the hijacking episode: his sense of just how far to go in doing what he has said he is willing to do. Before June 1985 he had said, more than once, that he would act forcefully against terrorists. He entered office promising "swift and effective retribution." He and his secretary of state repeated the pledge on several occasions afterward. In response to the Beirut hijacking, as to the bombing of the American embassy and the destruction of the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1982, the American government did nothing.

The Administration might have done what Israel has long made it national policy to do in response to terrorism: it could have punished, if not the terrorists themselves, then those in a position to control them. It could have attacked selected targets in Lebanon or Syria or even Iran. It could thereby have put pressure on the governments involved or, in the case of Lebanon, the military and political organizations, to police their own territory. Swift and effective retribution is a way of holding people in authority responsible for activities that originate where their writ runs.

Such a response would have been costly. If it had been undertaken while the hostages were still being held, it would no doubt have forfeited their lives. If reprisal raids had been conducted after their release, people having no connection with terrorism probably would have been killed. American reprisals would likely have set off a renewed cycle of violence as those injured sought to retaliate against the United States. The American government would then have had to be ready to respond once more. To carry out a strategy of swift and effective retribution requires following the cycle to its end, no matter how much blood is shed along the way. The capture of the four hijackers of the Achille Lauro was the exception that proved the rule. The perpetrators themselves were caught. No harm came to anybody else. The hijackers will be brought to trial in a Western judicial system. These circumstances had not been present in previous episodes of terror and are not likely to recur often.

The attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports over the Christmas season that killed several Americans raised anew the question of how to respond to terrorism. The Administration publicly charged Libya with assisting those responsible, and once again hinted at some kind of retaliation. In response to the Beirut hijacking, however, the Reagan Administration chose not to retaliate. Despite the outcry in the United States, this decision was in keeping with the basic sentiments of the American public. This is not because Americans’ moral scruples are more refined than those of Israelis. The American people were willing to have their armed forces kill thousands of civilians in military operations undertaken in Germany and Japan in 1944 and 1945. For the United States then and for Israel now, however, the stakes were supremely high. The operations in each case were undertaken in response to what were seen as mortal threats.

Americans do not see terrorism that way. In the public mind it has something like the same status as crime in the United States. It provokes outrage. It is reprehensible. It is taken as a sign of the decline in civic standards, and precautions to prevent it are regarded as necessary. More serious measures, however, are not considered to be in order. Three centuries ago thieves were hanged in Europe. No one suggests that this practice be resumed or that civil liberties be suspended and the nation turned into a police state to stop crime. Similarly, there is no real consensus in favor of serious military reprisals against the agents and sponsors of terrorism that will kill others as well. No doubt this makes the United States a more attractive target than countries that are less reticent about shedding blood. It is perhaps the price to be paid for living in a nation whose citizens do not like to kill innocent people.

In 1985 enduring terrorism abroad was, for the United States, like suffering crime at home. It was the cost of being a liberal great power, just as putting up with a certain crime rate is the by-product of maintaining an open society.

The President might not put it in quite that way, but he plainly understood the country’s feelings on the matter and acted in deference to them. His well-developed sense of the public’s wishes has also contributed to his success. No one can have a successful foreign policy without the opportunity to conduct it, which in the United States requires the authorization of the electorate. Mr. Reagan has received it twice.


President Reagan has not been as popular in the rest of the world as at home. He has been particularly unpopular in the Soviet Union. A campaign of personal vilification of Mr. Reagan in the Soviet press reached a crescendo with a series of pointed comparisons to Hitler. Still, the Soviet leaders’ disenchantment with him did not keep them away from the November summit meeting, which was held despite the lack of any serious business to transact or ratify.

There is a point beyond which United States relations with the Soviet Union cannot be allowed to deteriorate. The first duty of any American President is to keep the ongoing rivalry between the two great powers from sliding into nuclear disaster. But the success of a leader’s foreign policy cannot fairly be judged by the extent to which he is warmly regarded by those whose designs it is a central object of that policy to resist. If the low esteem in which Mr. Reagan was held in Moscow for most of his term was not necessarily a badge of honor, it was not exactly a mark of disgrace either.

The President has also been unpopular in friendlier capitals. The West Europeans, while not of one mind in this as in other matters, did not, on the whole, think well of him during his first five years in office. The American President, after all, has the ultimate say over Europe’s destiny, but Europeans have no constitutional voice in his policies. Their nervousness deriving from this fact takes two particular forms, which are inherent in all alliances but are especially pronounced in NATO. They fear that the alliance will not work and that they will be abandoned by the United States in their hour of need, and they fear that it will work too well and they will be entrapped in a conflict they wish to avoid.

The issue that preoccupied the Atlantic alliance for much of Mr. Reagan’s first term, the stationing of American-controlled intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, illustrates both concerns. The plan for deploying them had its origins in the European fear during the 1970s that the growing Soviet advantage in this category of weaponry would "decouple" the United States from the continent, weaken the deterrent power of American forces, and raise the chances that the United States would abandon its allies in a crisis. The sharp Soviet denunciation of the plan aroused the Europeans’ other fear: a superpower confrontation involving them. The Europeans were unhappy at risking the improved relations with the Eastern bloc that they had nurtured. First they wanted the missiles to avoid being abandoned; then they did not want them for fear of being entrapped in a new cold war. These fears did not begin with the Reagan presidency. They are perennial, arising from the basic structure of the alliance.

Not all the President’s difficulties with the allies, however, are reruns of NATO’s chronic internal disputes. He has had to contend with a widening divergence of views on the most important issue of all, the question of the proper policies toward the Soviet Union. For West Europeans, especially the Germans, the détente of the 1970s is the ideal. Trade between East and West expanded then; human contacts across the political and military divisions of the continent multiplied. Relations with the Soviets were cordial, in comparison with the first quarter century after 1945. The United States’ European allies would like to keep them cordial.

For the United States the period of détente was also the time when the Soviet Union steadily expanded its military forces, repressed efforts at liberalization within its domain and energetically extended its influence in places such as Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. A firmer policy toward the Soviets than the Europeans wanted has therefore seemed necessary to Americans.

The difference in outlook between the two wings of the Atlantic alliance goes deeper than the personalities of the national leaders at any particular moment. It stems from different interests that are based on differing national roles and, ultimately, on the critical difference in geography. The Europeans are unavoidably concerned, above all, with what happens in Europe. The last decade and a half has been a peaceful period there. They want it to continue. The United States concerns itself not only with Europe but also the rest of the world, which has been less peaceful. The Soviets have been pushing outward. Americans have been disposed to resist them.

These differences are likely to be a continuing source of friction within NATO. The task of the American President is not to avoid contention—that is not possible—but to manage it so as to limit the damage to the alliance. From this perspective the Reagan record is not at all bad.

European discomfort with the President, however, goes beyond the political differences that preceded and will outlast his presidency. It has, as well, a personal basis. He appears to Europeans to be ill equipped for the responsibility that he bears, a kind of cowboy figure, bellicose, ignorant, with a simplistic view of the world pieced together from journals of right-wing opinion and old Hollywood movies.

By the standards of the postwar presidencies, Mr. Reagan’s has not been bellicose. He has, however, regularly appeared to be ill informed about things he ought to know. In 1985 he defended his decision to visit a German military cemetery at Bitburg, where members of the notorious SS were buried, with the explanation that these men were as much victims of the war as those who had perished in the death camps. He also expressed the view that segregation in South Africa had been eliminated. These misstatements were at best dismaying. Perhaps more alarming was the evidence that, at least during his first term, the President’s grasp of the main principles of nuclear strategy and arms control was shaky.

As for his picture of the world, it is evidently simple, but it is not patently wrong. The President attracted unfavorable comment in both Europe and the United States for calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." This phrase may have been impolitic; it was surely not inaccurate. The Bolshevik holdings in Europe and central Asia are as much an empire as were those of the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs and the Ottoman Turks before them. If the Soviet Union and its satellites do not constitute an empire, the term has no meaning. And while the use of the word "evil" to describe it is perhaps debatable, were the Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Armenians and others who live involuntarily within its boundaries asked to select a more appropriate term it is unlikely that they would choose to call it "benign." Mr. Reagan’s view of the world is like a caricature. It is a picture that is neither rich nor detailed, that emphasizes a few salient features, but that is nonetheless a universally recognizable version of the original.

His elementary sense of the rest of the world and ignorance in important areas are not the fatal handicaps for the President that they would be for European leaders. His job is different from theirs. It is not to defend a detailed program of legislation in give-and-take with the political opposition from the commanding heights of a clear parliamentary majority. It is rather to muster ad hoc coalitions on behalf of a few major issues in a political system where power is constitutionally divided and has been further fragmented by the decline in importance of the two major political parties. The American President must arouse popular enthusiasm for his program in order to get his way. This requires not mastery of legislative detail but the capacity to make broad themes compelling to a mass audience. Presidential power, in Richard Neustadt’s famous phrase, is the power to persuade. It has become the power to command several hours of prime-time television each year to try to persuade the American public of the wisdom of a few selected initiatives. At this Mr. Reagan is adept. His simple, clear approach to complex matters is essential to his success.


The success of the Reagan foreign policy is provisional, as success in public affairs always is. Policies have consequences—often unforeseen and unwanted—long after their creators have departed. Even when the consequences are fully apparent they are not easy to judge. Then it is the judgment of history that matters, and those who write it are seldom of one mind. Was Woodrow Wilson a thwarted, unappreciated visionary or a naïve bumbler? Even now there is no consensus. Still, the success of the Reagan foreign policy is unusually provisional; it rests less on the President’s having mastered great challenges to American interests than on his having been spared any such tests.

Challenges can appear suddenly, however, sometimes in the form of an unwelcome change of government somewhere in the world. Discontent and unrest gather force over many years, revolution erupts, people hostile to the United States take power. Whoever is President at the time must cope with them. Mr. Kennedy was not responsible for Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba but he became preoccupied with its consequences. Mr. Carter did not create the conditions in which the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran but found himself entangled in a painful and protracted conflict with the new Iranian regime. Other countries might follow the same course during the balance of Mr. Reagan’s term. The Philippines and South Africa are, perhaps, the leading candidates.

Mr. Reagan and his associates, moreover, have not been content simply to serve as passive caretakers of the nation’s relations with other countries. They have launched several major foreign policy initiatives. It is on the fate of these undertakings that the success of the Reagan foreign policy will ultimately depend. The outcome of the three most important of them—the Reagan Doctrine, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the arms buildup—remain quite uncertain.

The Reagan Doctrine goes beyond the long-standing American policy of resisting the spread of Soviet influence; it advocates providing assistance to groups fighting governments that have aligned themselves with the Soviet Union. The Administration has continued the assistance to the Afghan resistance begun by President Carter. It has broached the idea of sending aid to non-communist groups fighting the Vietnamese occupiers of Kampuchea. In 1985 Congress repealed the Clark Amendment prohibiting military involvement of any kind in Angola, thus clearing the way for assistance to forces opposing the Luanda government and its contingent of Cuban troops.

The most significant instance of the Reagan Doctrine has been in Nicaragua, where the United States has supported a sizable insurgency against the Sandinista regime. The Nicaraguan "contras" have mounted a visible challenge to the government without bringing it close to collapse—but without appreciable cost to the United States either. The future of the insurgency, and of the American role in it, are not at all clear. What the President and his officials have said does not add up to an unambiguous statement of their goals. Is the Reagan Administration seeking to overthrow the regime, or simply to force it to permit greater political freedom? Is its aim to affect Nicaraguan foreign policy—to compel the Sandinistas to leave neighboring countries alone, or to cut their ties with Cuba, or with the Soviet Union, or some combination of these? How far is the Administration prepared to go in pursuit of whatever goals it sets? At some point these questions will have to be addressed.

When they are, the Reagan Administration, or its successor, will confront the risk of the two principal American failures in Vietnam: making a commitment that is more costly than the public will sustain, and permitting the defeat of forces with which the United States is closely identified.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the effort to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" through the development of defenses against ballistic missile attack. The best imaginable result of the Strategic Defense Initiative would, of course, be the creation of a perfect system of defense, a kind of leakproof dome that would cover the United States and friendly countries as well. This would be a strategic revolution as profound as the one that the creation of the atomic bomb itself represented. It would give the United States military superiority over the Soviet Union, which is the reason the Soviets have not been shy about letting it be known that they do not like the scheme.

While a perfect defense would be a great thing for the United States and the West, almost nobody believes that it can be achieved in the foreseeable future. Less-than-perfect defensive systems might still be worth having. They could protect not cities and people but rather American missile silos against a preemptive attack. This, however, would not put an end to the mutual hostage relationship between the two great nuclear powers, as the President wishes. It would in fact reinforce that relationship.

It is conceivable that the Soviet Union will ultimately wish to expand the very modest system of defense against missiles that it now has and that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 permits. If, for example, the spread of nuclear weapons proceeds more swiftly over the next two decades than it has in the past two, if the new nuclear nations make Soviet territory their target, and if the Soviets fear that their existing systems of defense against missiles and manned aircraft provide inadequate protection, it is possible that they will agree to allow American defensive systems in return for American acceptance of larger defenses of their own. That is not, however, their present attitude. Adamant opposition to the American strategic defense program was apparently the burden of Mr. Gorbachev’s presentations at Geneva.

If the Soviets hold to this view, the Strategic Defense Initiative could in the end make Americans less rather than more secure. It might cause the Soviets to field many more nuclear weapons than they now have. Since defensive systems would be partly based in space, the immunity from attack that reconnaissance satellites have thus far enjoyed might end, to the great disadvantage of the West. The United States might be worse off having embarked on an effort to defend itself against missile attack than it would have been had it never tried to do so.

The most expensive foreign policy undertaking of the Reagan years has been the defense buildup. The defense budget has increased more since 1981 than in any comparable period in peacetime. The Reagan defense program has added to American strength in virtually every military category. But the completion of the program requires continuing high levels of appropriations. The passage of the Gramm-Rudman Bill to balance the federal budget by 1991 makes it highly unlikely that such sums will be available. Cuts in the program, perhaps drastic cuts, will then be necessary. There is no sign that the Administration has decided how to minimize damage to the nation’s military standing.

It is distinctly possible that the character of the program, especially the distribution of funds already allocated, will produce a defense posture skewed in ways inadvisable on purely strategic grounds. The direction of American defense spending into the 1990s may well emphasize naval and air forces rather than the army; but it is the army, after all, that will have to meet the brunt of a Soviet attack in the center of Europe, where for a generation it has been considered most likely. Over the next decade, limits on available resources may yield a military establishment rich in powerful, complicated, expensive weapons but poor in spare parts for them, short of the funds to exercise and maintain these armaments, and, because of insufficient pay scales, without skilled personnel to operate them. What Robert E. Osgood wrote in these pages four years ago about the sharp increase in defense spending remains true: "This tangible expression of national will might be the most important achievement of Reagan’s defense policy, but in the long run it would be an empty achievement if increased expenditures were not translated into increased capabilities related to a coherent strategy."

The amount of money the Congress will make available for defense in the years ahead will depend on the health of the American economy. That will turn on the fate of the President’s macroeconomic policies and their consequences, especially the large deficit in the federal budget. There are two schools of thought on this subject. One holds that, as the requirements rise for public borrowing and for paying back with interest what has already been borrowed, the country will have to accept large tax increases and severe reductions in spending of the sort that the Reagan Administration has so far conspicuously avoided. The Gramm-Rudman Bill suggests that this point of view has carried the day in Congress.

The other school considers drastic measures unnecessary and counts on continued economic growth, coupled with appropriate monetary policies, to keep the gap between income and expenditures at a manageable size. This is not the place to rehearse the arguments on both sides, but it is worth noting a parallel between the President’s economic and foreign policies. Each has brought appreciable benefits at little cost. The economist’s axiom states that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Both at home and abroad this Administration thus far has come close to providing just that.

The price of harassing the Soviet empire on its flanks, of aspiring to a revolutionary transformation of the strategic nuclear balance, and of building up American armed forces has been remarkably low by historical standards. What will happen if that price goes up? The question really has two parts. Will the cost of Reagan’s major initiatives rise appreciably during the next three years, forcing choices that the President has not yet had to make? If so, what will Mr. Reagan do? Will he press ahead to the point of either complete success or disaster? Or will he be disposed to compromise, cut his losses and accept less than what he has sought?

Will he be ready to strike a bargain with the Sandinistas, easing the pressure on them in exchange for concessions in their domestic and foreign policies that the United States desires? Will he agree to place limits on American programs of strategic defense in return for reduction in offensive weaponry on both sides, or, what is not necessarily the same thing, for a more stable balance of nuclear forces? Will he join with the Congress in adjusting the pace of the defense buildup in a way acceptable to both branches of government?

Mr. Reagan has compromised and retreated in the past. But his commitments to assuring American interests in Central America, to strategic defense and to large military investment are apparently powerful. Moreover, to change course too soon can be as costly as holding to it too long. If the Administration were to make concessions on Nicaragua, the Strategic Defense Initiative or the defense budget prematurely, it would forfeit leverage that persisting in the original policies could have brought. If political fortune, like the prices of stocks, bonds and commodities, is cyclical, the essence of statecraft is to sense when the market has reached a peak and act accordingly.

This requires both luck and political skill. Mr. Reagan has had a generous share of both for five years. The trend lines have gone up. Like most people, he has done well in a bull market. He has ridden the crest of the wave without slipping. That is the Reagan record of the last five years. What the record does not tell us is how he will fare if the tide goes out.

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  • Michael Mandelbaum is Research and Editorial Director of the Lehrman Institute in New York and author of several books on international politics, most recently The Nuclear Future, published in 1983.
  • More By Michael Mandelbaum