Near the end of his column on Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, Daniel Henninger wrote:
It is not possible to revisit Thatcher’s Cold War legacy without touching the troubled present.
President Obama has said that his foreign policy should be seen as a turning away from George W. Bush’s foreign policy. That is incomplete. It is about reversing Reagan and Thatcher, once and for all.
A case study: North Korea has moved into launch position a ballistic missile with a range of 1,900 to 2,500 miles. With the technology available today, Reagan or Thatcher would surely shoot down that missile on launch, to deter Kim Jong Eun. Barack Obama will not, leaving the reasons why to his spokespersons. These are two worldviews at odds over pretty much everything, from the U.S. role in the world to human nature.
What would “reversing Reagan and Thatcher” mean in 2013? To ask the question is to realize what an empty statement this is. Most of the problems that Reagan and Thatcher faced in the 1980s have limited relevance for today, and to the extent that they were successful there is no real chance now of “reversing” what they did. In practical terms, “reversing Reagan and Thatcher” is impossible on so many issues because the controversies of their day are now over or have no bearing on contemporary problems. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher disagreed on some issues, as the leaders in any two countries will and should because of divergent national interests, so there is no single “Reagan and Thatcher foreign policy.” If we look at Reagan and Obama, we don’t see that many radical differences in the conduct of foreign policy. For example, “reversing” the foreign policy of Reagan would mean rejecting arms reduction and doubting the wisdom of missile defense. Obama has pursued arms reduction and supported missile defense in both the U.S. and Europe. If he is trying to “reverse” what Reagan did on these issues, he is doing a very bad job of it. One could make a plausible case that Obama has conducted a far more aggressive and activist foreign policy than either Reagan or Thatcher did while in office, but of course that isn’t the “reversal” Henninger thinks has been happening.
The point here isn’t that Obama’s foreign policy is identical to Reagan’s or Thatcher’s. It isn’t, and it couldn’t be because of the different contexts and different issues of the 1980s and 2010s. Indeed, post-Cold War leaders in America and Britain have been able to act much more freely and aggressively overseas because there was no longer a need to worry about a possible Soviet response. The invocation of “Reagan and Thatcher” here is deliberately divorced from the content of their actual foreign policy records, just as so many of Henninger’s complaints about administration policy are divorced from the reality of what Obama has done. The “Reagan and Thatcher” Henninger is referring to is an imaginary thing that represents whatever it is that Henninger thinks should be done in the present. It’s just the latest in a tiresome series of arguments by hard-liners that they carry on the tradition of Reagan in foreign policy, and anything in Reagan’s record that doesn’t fit this picture is conveniently forgotten.
This is why Henninger is so certain that Reagan and Thatcher would both take the same aggressive action in response to a hypothetical North Korean missile test when it is far from certain that they would do this. All of this is essential to the final claim that Obama’s views are “at odds over pretty much everything” with both Reagan and Thatcher on foreign policy, when a fair assessment of the records of all three would show that they are generally in agreement on a remarkably wide range of issues. Part of that has to do with the influence Reagan and Thatcher had on forcing Democrats and Labour to be more hawkish and aggressive on foreign policy, but a lot of it is due to the fact that all three of them accepted a lot of the foreign policy consensus of their times. Reagan and Thatcher were occasionally “dissenters” from conventional wisdom, but on foreign policy they frequently accepted consensus assumptions and beliefs. Indeed, it is doubtful that they would have ever been elected to the positions they held if they had regularly been dissenters.