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Foreign Policy and Reagan Nostalgia

Jim Antle lists some of the ways that Reagan nostalgia warps conservative arguments. One of these is the tendency to remember Reagan only in terms of his most confrontational rhetoric and actions:

“We win, they lose.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are fond of employing those Cold War Reagan catchphrases in the service of confrontation and conflict abroad.

Along with generic appeals to military power, these lines can go a long way toward dressing up hawkishness as a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy.” Negotiations with Iran? We win, they lose. War isn’t going well? Tough, we win, they lose.

If conservatives misremember Reagan as a hard-liner, that definitely has a number of harmful distorting effects on foreign policy debate on the right, but there is a related danger in thinking that many of Reagan’s policies are still reliable guides for what should be done decades after the Cold War ended. I touched on this in my article on Reagan and foreign policy from last year:

At its best, Reagan’s foreign policy was a response to contemporary realities and problems, and most of these no longer exist. Conservatives who fail to take these changes into account are substituting nostalgia for sound analysis. Instead of worrying about what Reagan would do today, conservatives should devise a foreign policy that advances U.S. security and interests in the world as it is. Rather than trying to relive the Reagan years, conservatives would do well to scrutinize which of Reagan’s decisions still make sense with the advantage of more than two decades of hindsight.

His most hawkish decisions as president make sense only in the context of the Cold War and have little or no application to contemporary issues. The U.S. has no superpower rival to contain any longer, and it faces no coherent ideological challenge on par with that of Soviet Communism. A military build-up comparable to Reagan’s today would serve no purpose except to bloat the Pentagon’s budget—and defense contractors’ wallets—to the detriment of America’s fiscal health. To the extent that Reagan-era increases in military spending contributed to Soviet collapse, they had some value, but it makes no sense to maintain military spending that exceeds even that of the Reagan era when no comparable foreign threat exists.

There is no longer anything to be gained by supporting insurgents against weak dictatorships, and no reason for the U.S. to embroil itself in the internal conflicts of other nations. Whatever value the Reagan Doctrine may have had in the 1980s, it now stands mostly as a cautionary tale about the damage that arming foreign insurgencies can do to the countries affected and the abuses that may come from waging such proxy wars.

During the Libya and Syria debates, Republican hawksinvoked the Reagan Doctrine as a precedent for their arguments to arm anti-regime forces in both countries. They inevitably treated past U.S. support for insurgents around the world as something that had been both wise and successful when it was frequently neither, but these problems could be brushed aside by virtue of the fact that “Reagan did it.” The appeal to the example of Reagan is often enough just an attempt to evade and ignore the huge flaws in the policy being promoted, so it is no coincidence that the people today that tend to wrap themselves in the “Reaganite” label most often are the ones calling for the most foolish and reckless policies.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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