Reaganism And Foreign Affairs

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 16, 2009

I enjoyed reading this appreciation of Ronald Reagan by William Inboden, but what he terms as “the limits of realism,” I would term as realpolitik’s ultimate triumph.

First of all, let’s bear in mind that there is no monolithic school of realism or realpolitik (the terms are used interchangeably, but realpolitik would be better here, since it is a set of policy principles that we are discussing, and not an international relations theory that seeks to explain past and present nation-state behavior and then tries to predict future nation-state behavior). As such, it really matters quite little whether Ronald Reagan had squabbles with Kissinger, Nixon, Scowcroft or the elder Bush. Practitioners of realpolitik can disagree, after all.

What was salient here is that Reagan surveyed the international landscape, got a sense of the balance of power, came to the belief that the Soviet Union was headed towards the ash heap of history if the United States kicked it a few times, and then acted on his findings. Values drove Reagan the person and the President, but the ship of state does not respond quickly–if at all–to the value system of the President of the United States. What it responds to in the foreign policy field is a rational perception of interests–music to the ears of mandarins that really moves policy. To the mandarins, Reagan spoke in the language of national interests and the rational perception of interests and the balance of power overseas, which is how he got the ship of state to respond to his wishes and commands.

There were a lot of people who laughed at Reagan’s claim that the Soviet Union was a failing state. Some of them were practitioners of realpolitik. Others, not. The conflict was never between Reagan and the practitioners of realpolitik. Rather, it was between Reagan and those comfortably ensconced in a Cold War status quo. There is a difference. Whatever the President’s values, a rational perception of interests drove Reagan to get short and medium range missiles into Western Europe. A rational perception of interests drove Reagan to get the Soviets into an arms race they simply could not win. A rational perception of interests allowed Reagan to use SDI as a bargaining chip to get concessions on arms control from the Soviets. Reagan out-realpolitiked Nixon, Kissinger, the elder Bush, Scowcroft, and all the others whose disagreement with the 40th President stemmed from their apparent inability to see the contours and flow of power the way Reagan saw it. He used power politics to bring the Soviets to their knees in a way that his opponents on the supposedly “realist” right never did and never dreamed of doing.

No one doubts the values that drove the President, but those values were implemented through means that only a true practitioner and devotee of realpolitik could appreciate, and achieved the very supremacy that practitioners of realpolitik seek for their respective countries. Ronald Reagan did not signify the limits of realism or realpolitik. Rather, he took realpolitik to a whole new level. Bismarck, Metternich, Castlereagh and Talleyrand would have been impressed, I daresay.

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