Back in 1985, Charles Krauthammer, writing in Time magazine, called President Ronald Reagan “the master of the new idea.” Among the then-novel notions he was championing: limited government, supply-side economics, and developing the technological means to defend America against missile attacks.
But it was Reagan’s approach to foreign policy that really caught the young pundit’s eye. In the 40th president’s State of the Union address that year, Krauthammer discerned what he dubbed the Reagan Doctrine. Anyone who aspires to the American presidency — and, indeed, the man who hopes to remain in that office — would do well to recall Reagan’s principles and consider how they might be applied to contemporary challenges.
The two central pillars of the Reagan Doctrine were “peace through strength” and robust opposition to totalitarianism. In Reagan’s day, of course, the Soviet Union and the ideology of communism posed the most serious threat to liberty. Today, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran and the ideology of jihadism. A quarter century ago, “peace through strength” implied not weakening America’s military at a time when the Kremlin was seeking to expand its sphere of influence. What it means today is not weakening America’s military at a time when Islamists are waging an unconventional war against America and its allies.
Reagan was committed to the idea of American exceptionalism. “The Reagan [D]octrine,” wrote centrist scholar Walter Russell Mead, “was rooted in an unshakable belief in America as the indispensable nation.” Today, there are those who are pushing the United States to “share sovereignty” and accept the authority of the “international community,” especially such institutions as the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice. Reagan would have just said no.
Though Reagan did not call for exporting democracy, he did believe in supporting democrats. “We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent . . . [to] secure rights which have been ours from birth,” Reagan asserted in that State of the Union. “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”
In fact, though he did support democratic groups whenever possible, Reagan also assisted groups that were merely anti-communist (e.g. the Nicaraguan contras and the Afghan mujahedeen). He believed it was possible to defend both American ideals and American interests — though not necessarily simultaneously.
The Reagan Doctrine drew on many sources. In 1960, at the inaugural meeting of Young Americans for Freedom at the Connecticut home of William F. Buckley Jr., who would become Reagan’s friend and mentor, the Sharon Statement was adopted. It proclaimed “that we will be free only so long as the national sovereignty of the United States is secure; that history shows periods of freedom are rare, and can exist only when free citizens concertedly defend their rights against all enemies . . . that forces of international communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties; that the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace. . . . ”
Along these lines, in 1977, four years before reaching the White House, Reagan told adviser Richard V. Allen that his “idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”
Upon becoming president in 1981, Reagan predicted: “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. . . . It will dismiss [communism] as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”