Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy through both his terms can be characterized by a strategy of achieving “peace through strength.” He believed in the protection of US interests through competent intelligence and armed forces and did not shy away from interventionist policies. His policies were supported by most conservatives, who also despised Communism in all its forms, but the approach also faced criticism for its aggression and imperialism. Reagan believed that the Cold War was a life or death struggle for America as a nation.
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In his first term, Reagan took an aggressive stance, turning away from the established status quo of détente and had the full intention of challenging the Soviet Union on the global arena. One of the first policies was the Reagan Doctrine which announced military and financial support to any anti-Communist resistance movements around the world. Reagan also unleashed the CIA, beginning covert intelligence and paramilitary operations to help overthrow Communist-friendly regimes. In the early 1980s, the CIA began arms shipment to the mujahidin in Afghanistan in order to maintain resistance through guerilla war against the Soviet Union (Moss and Thomas 2012, 248).
With the help of his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Reagan began a tremendous arms build-up, almost doubling US military spending to $360 billion in 1986. Furthermore, Reagan began placing US missiles in Western Europe which led to angry responses from the Soviets but forced both sides into a nuclear arms deal known as START which began the process of denuclearization in Europe. Meanwhile, Reagan ordered the development of anti-missile shield called a Strategic Defense Initiative which would protect the US in case of a nuclear attack.
Reagan’s second term foreign policy is characterized by a diplomatic approach, attempting to reduce the arms race and begin negotiations with Gorbachev, despite numerous critics doubting the sincerity of the Soviet restructuring initiatives. A further nuclear arms deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed along with START I. Furthermore, the Soviet Union made a pledge to not intervene in Eastern Europe and withdrew from Afghanistan. Reagan is largely credit with his foreign policy helping to end the Cold War and lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The strong approach followed by a diplomatic resolution was vital to his strategy.
Reagan held a relatively hostile view of the Soviet Union, labeling it as the “evil empire.” The primary objective of his foreign policy is considered to initiate the defeat of the Soviet Union through a multilateral approach including diplomatic and economic sanctions. Reagan also provided arms and training for anti-communist oppositions and invested heavily into military buildup, an arms race where the Soviet Union could not compete with its struggling economy.
In his address at the Berlin Wall, Reagan noted that freedom has prevailed, and Communism has demonstrated to the world technological and social backwardness. Towards the end of his term, Reagan did demonstrate some compassion and cooperation, particularly with Gorbachev, in the attempt to re-establish peace and unity to Europe (“Ronald Reagan, Speech at the Brandenburg Gate” 1987).
Ronald Reagan got elected President on a conservative platform, which was gradually rising in popularity through the 1970s. He was a true American, a symbol which represented many aspects of the American dream, charm, and values. In his speech to an Evangelical group, he stated “we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God” (“Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals” 1983). Reagan’s moral standing and passion for re-establishing American greatness and hegemony in the post-Vietnam era strongly contributed to his political rise.
The 1970s saw the United States experience a number of political, social, and economic crises. Politically, America was still recovering from Watergate which significantly compromised public trust in the government and caused. President Ford and Carter which came after Nixon did little to establish stability to American politics. Socially, the US experienced a rise of liberal movements which split the country into different camps.
Conservatism was on the rise amongst white, suburban families and those in power. They saw certain social trends such as the hippies or non-traditional sexual orientations as morally derogatory to America. Finally, the economy was in shatters after almost a decade of mismanagement and erratic economic policies of Ford and Carter attempting to reform the country after Vietnam and during the energy crises. Inherently, Reagan was able to capitalize on these aspects and significant conservative support which sought to re-establish the country as a global power.
Foreign policy was struggling as well after Carter’s failure in Iran which made America more secluded globally. The Soviet Union was expanding its outreach in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Furthermore, the Soviet Union began placing missiles within striking range of key American allies in Europe without significant retaliation. Reagan’s anti-Communist rhetoric was appealing to many conservatives and Americans as a whole who felt that the US has taken a relatively passive approach in the 1970s. Reagan had concrete plans for implementation of foreign policy to resist Communist expansion and attempt to win the Cold War.
Moss, George D., and Evan A. Thomas. 2012. Moving on: The American People Since 1945 (5th ed.). London: Pearson.
“Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals.” 1983. Pearson Myhistorylab. Web.
“Ronald Reagan, Speech at the Brandenburg Gate.” 1987. Pearson Myhistorylab. Web.