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.”
In 1982, in what became known as his Westminster address, Reagan offered a more diplomatic articulation of his conviction that the Soviet Union could — and should — be rolled back. The right policies, he made clear, could hasten a more ambitious goal: regime change.
In 1983, in Florida, in a speech arguing against nuclear-freeze proposals, he sparked a furious controversy when he warned of “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire. . . . They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Those who helped develop the Reagan Doctrine — including George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Ed Meese — understood that they were advocating a sharp break with the foreign-policy establishment, academia, and the mainstream media, whose leading lights were proponents of containment, détente, and arms-control agreements. And not one of them would be so morally judgmental as to call the Soviet Union an evil empire!
“[T]he truce with communism was over,” recalled former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, adding that from then on, “we would give material support to those who fought to recover their nations from tyranny.” She said those words in 1997, six years after the Cold War had ended in the victory for the West that Reagan had envisioned — but had not expected to come about so quickly.
Those who hoped and even predicted that the shredding of the Iron Curtain would lead to universal acceptance of Western values were to be proven wrong. Instead, the forces that fought for global domination by an economic class led by commissars were soon replaced by forces fighting for global domination by a religion led by ayatollahs, mullahs, and sheikhs.
What else would it mean to adapt the Reagan Doctrine to the present? Iran’s rulers, for years the world’s leading supporters of terrorism, have become the greatest single threat to our liberties. They must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace. Support for Iranian dissidents and rebels should be seen as self-defense.
It goes without saying that Reagan would favor comprehensive missile defense. His Strategic Defense Initiative was denigrated by critics as “Star Wars,” as science fiction. But Reagan was right to believe in scientific progress. Today, we have the technology to make offensive missiles obsolete. What’s lacking is the Reaganite will to build the shield.
The Soviets espoused the Brezhnev Doctrine, the 1968 proclamation that the communist sphere only expands, never recedes. The jihadis have proclaimed a similar rule. Today, most of the lands with Muslim rulers are persecuting, if not “cleansing,” their religious and ethnic minorities, even while Islamists increase their numbers and influence in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. An updated Reagan Doctrine would not passively accept that.
Like every great statesman, Reagan made his share of mistakes. In 1983, four years after Iran’s revolution, the Khomeinist regime deployed Hezbollah, its Lebanese-based terrorist proxy, to slaughter U.S. Marines and diplomats in Beirut. Focused as he was on the Soviets, Reagan decided to withdraw from Lebanon and not make anyone pay for those crimes.
Think of that as an experiment: There are those on both the far left and the far right who believe that Americans can make themselves inoffensive to fanatics sworn to our destruction. But the retreat from Lebanon, like President Clinton’s retreat from Somalia ten years later, merely served to convince Islamists that the time to challenge the Great Satan had arrived.
Krauthammer concluded his essay by calling the Reagan Doctrine “more radical than it pretends to be. . . . [T]he West, of late, has taken to hiding behind parchment barriers as an excuse for inaction. . . . ”
More than a generation later, that habit persists. That’s why the Reagan Doctrine ought to be revived, renewed, and applied by the next occupant of the Oval Office to the clear and present dangers of the 21st century.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.