I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms. --Walt Whitman Ronald Reagan's vision of America's role in the world, especially as it was expressed in his presidential speeches, continues to resonate with many Americans. President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, for example, have celebrated Reagan both as a great man and as a great leader. Each has acknowledged drawing a high degree of inspiration for his foreign policy thinking and actions from Reagan's ideas. (1) Countless other politicians, including Presi-dent Barack Obama, as well as academics and ordinary citizens, are enthralled by this type of vision. Reagan's popularity might lead many to believe that his foreign policy ideas are well understood, are by now deeply embedded in the American mind, and require little by way of fresh explanation and analysis. Yet it may be that many who have heard his words have not really listened to them. They have taken away vague impressions of his rhetoric and have not fully understood the meaning and significance of what he actually said. This may be especially true of those who were captivated by Reagan's ideas and images during his presidency and the waning days of the Cold War.
Reagan's vision of U.S. foreign policy consisted of a complex mixture of ideas about America, politics, and human nature. That mixture was not without paradoxes and internal tensions. At times he even intimated that not very much should be expected of politics. He described human beings as ethically dual, that is, as capable of both good and evil, and he could describe government, including democracy, as a limited enterprise devoted primarily to minimizing disorder. Such opinions recommended relatively modest foreign policy objectives. In his presidential speeches, he often invoked important U.S. strategic, economic, and national security concerns in support of specific goals in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, but, despite his seeing serious disagreements with other nations, he sometimes stressed that a successful U.S. policy would need to include restraint, flexibility, realism, and openness to dialogue, especially with the Soviet Union. Comments like these suggested that he viewed politics and foreign policy as the art of the possible, not as an attempt to realize some great ideal.
Yet there was another and more prominent aspect of Reagan's foreign policy thinking that pointed in a much different, far more "idealistic" and ambitious direction. This part of his vision of America's role stemmed from a belief that human beings are basically good and entitled to individual liberty and democratic government. Unfortunately, a number of governments around the world were tyrannizing their citizens, depriving them of their rights and the ability to realize their goodness. They needed to be freed from the oppressive yokes of such regimes. Reagan held that the United States had a unique, moral responsibility to advance the global growth of democracy and freedom and that America had a long tradition of pursuing such a foreign policy. As president, he sought to reinvigorate the United States and its citizens with a fervent desire to continue this mission. With America at the forefront, the world would become a better place and might eventually even achieve lasting peace.
Although Reagan's foreign policy imagination contained a rich assortment of images, not all of which pointed in the same direction, it was this latter, more optimistic and "idealistic" vision that clearly predominated. It suffused virtually all of his major comments on foreign policy. It is this large and powerful dimension of Reagan's outlook that will be the subject of this article. A careful examination of his foreign policy vision, including a historical and philosophical analysis of its main components, will show that it had a strongly romantic, even Utopian cast. Reagan gave the impression that he was drawing on the views of America's Founders and probably believed that he did so, but his primary way of understanding America and its role in the world as well as human nature and politics in general differed significantly from that of leading figures in the early American republic. Reagan's understanding of America's past was in important ways incomplete and misleading. These shortcomings were not inconsequential. The insights of Irving Babbitt, Claes G. Ryn, and Eric Voegelin will help demonstrate that this dimension of Reagan's imagination contained dubious elements and serious dangers of which he seemed unaware and which his devotees have not questioned. A more modest and realistic notion of America's role in the world than the one envisioned by Ronald Reagan may be in the interest of both Americans and non-Americans.
A comprehensive account of the motivations and origins of Reagan's foreign policy thinking is beyond the scope of this article, but a few general remarks on the topic may be helpful. During his presidency, it was fashionable, particularly among his detractors, to claim that Reagan had little personal connection to the imagery and ideas in his speeches. On this view, he was an "amiable dunce" enjoying his latest acting role as President of the United States and the script which accompanied it. Scholarship over the last decade has refuted this claim. Another possible explanation--especially for the sentimental aspects of his vision--could be that of political necessity or convenience. Given the context of the Cold War and the conventions in American political rhetoric, Reagan might have felt compelled to use sentimental imagery in order to inspire the public and to be able to pursue foreign policy goals that were actually more realistic. He may, then, not have cared much for this part of his own rhetoric, but thought that only this kind of imagery would really appeal to Americans. A third possibility, the most plausible because so strongly supported by the evidence, is that Ronald Reagan came to the relevant ideas rather early and on his own and that he genuinely and deeply believed in them. This does not have to mean that each of his formulations perfectly expressed his innermost beliefs. Does any human being fully know his own mind? And who can fully articulate what he does believe? Still, a great deal can be learned about where Ronald Reagan really stood from the pervasive and salient themes and frequently repeated ideas and images in his spoken and written statements. Whatever its ultimate origins and motivations, his stated vision of America's role in the world has enduring appeal, and it urgently needs to be better understood. It is time to listen to Reagan's words with a more attentive and also more critical ear.
It should be stressed that this article is not intended to offer a general assessment of Reagan's achievements in foreign policy. The nature of his rhetoric is obviously an important part of his legacy and indispensable to trying to understand what he meant to do, but, because of the complexity and limited transparency of historical circumstances, successful statesmen seldom achieve just what they thought that they were attempting. What they really did becomes clear only in time. Sometimes statesmen of great wisdom and insight are defeated by historical circumstance. Sometimes statesmen of limited, muddled understanding are enabled by circumstance to accomplish great feats.
Ronald Reagan's Foreign Policy Vision: A Summary
In January of 1984, Reagan gave a televised address to the nation on the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. He claimed that underneath the various differences between the two countries was a stronger bond of common humanity. He said, "Just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, and there was no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted. Would they then debate the differences between their respective governments? Or would they find themselves comparing notes about their children and what each other [sic] did for a living?" (2) As far as Reagan was concerned, they would do the latter. The imagined amicable relationship between these two couples was one of his many ways of conveying his sense that all human beings are good and friendly; they all share the same nature, hopes, and dreams.
He also believed that all people both desired and deserved to live under liberty and democracy. In his Second Inaugural Address, Reagan argued, "Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People worldwide hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress." (3) Various governments around the world, however, were undermining global aspirations for human liberty and democratic government by ignoring the will and rights of their peoples. As far as he was concerned, this tension was at the heart of the civil strife and foreign conflicts around the world. On several occasions he claimed that such violence occurred because oppressive governments "got in the way of the dreams of the people." On others he claimed, "People do not make wars; governments do. ... A people free to choose will always choose peace." (4) This dichotomy between good people, such as Jim, Sally, Ivan, and Anya, and bad government, such as the Soviet Union and other tyrannical regimes, is one of the most important images in his imagination.
With this dichotomy in mind, Reagan dedicated himself to promoting freedom and democracy around the world. Perhaps most famously, during his 1982 Address to the British Parliament, he called for a global "campaign for democracy" and declared, "Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best--a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith...