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Reagan: a savvy realist

About the author
John C Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim scholar-in-residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.
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“The most remarkable thing about him was his constant ability to surprise.”

This is how Howard Baker, former Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, and as consummate a Washington insider as there is, remembers Ronald Reagan. The passing of the President at the age of 93, after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s, is a reminder of many things – a different age, a different voice, a different policy. For beneath his undoubted conservative fervour, Ronald Reagan was one thing more: one of the most savvy realists of the 20th century.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those conservatives who idolises the 40th President. My formative intellectual experiences were in St. Andrews University in Scotland, at the height of the Thatcher revolution. Viewed from there, Reagan seemed a faraway figure, less in command than the Iron Lady, less steeped in the intellectualism of the conservative movement, perhaps well-meaning but a decidedly inferior exemplar of the rise of the market that occurred in the 1980s.

I met the President early on, when I was 16. I had been awarded the Hearst Scholarship, given to two people in each state per year who showed promise in public policy. This is the same award that President Clinton won, enabling him to have his famous signature moment with JFK. My handshake was with President Reagan, and I went into the White House excited, but more about the place than the man.

Here we come to the first lesson President Bush could learn from our 40th President – he was utterly charming, little caring when my decidedly liberal friends peppered him with tough questions about Latin America. He calmly and with humour answered every one. As it was a Friday, he made a joke of looking at his watch every time a testing question came his way, saying he couldn’t wait to get away from us ingrates and enjoy his helicopter ride to Camp David. He was supposed to see us for 30 minutes … he stayed over an hour. He enjoyed the cut and thrust of the marketplace of ideas, and while holding to firm positions, remained genuinely open to other points of view. This was one of two great secrets to his success – to stand for something while remaining open to the ideas of others. It explains his ability to get along with Francois Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl (something practically no one else could have managed).

And then there was his relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. It is easy in the academy (or in coffee houses on either side of the Atlantic) to talk about structures, world movements, impersonal forces that condition the world that we live in. Undoubtedly, all these things exist. Yet the very Reagan-Gorbachev collaboration proves that Reagan was more right than Lenin – at critical moments in history, people, with their unique qualities, matter, matter enormously. Only President Reagan, with his impeccable cold war conservative credentials could have politically moved so far, so fast to grasp the call to partnership that Gorbachev offered. Reagan rightly never stopped believing (unlike the last leader of the USSR) that communism was evil, was unreformable, that there could be no “socialism with a human face”. However, his instincts also were right on about something even more remarkable. This system, one that has murdered more people than any other, at last, through some glorious accident, had a humane leader at its head, one unlikely to resort to the gun when his communist reformist dream died. Calmly certain in these few fundamental points, everything else that President Reagan did makes perfect sense.

No doubt Harry Truman and the most remarkable foreign policy team of the 20th century (Marshall, Acheson, Bohlen, Lovett, Kennan) deserve great credit for the west’s ultimate victory in the cold war. But while the men around Truman set the intellectual framework in place that proved so stunningly on target, it took human beings decades removed to actually end the cold war. Here is the second great secret to understanding President Reagan – his tactical suppleness. Like his first hero Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan stayed one step ahead of public opinion (unlike the political failure Woodrow Wilson, who in his prophet-like guise was ten unreasonable steps beyond anyone else), pushing it along, mollifying worried cold warriors on both sides of the aisle, giving Gorbachev both vital support and breathing room to attempt his ultimately doomed project.

These polices laid the blueprint for the world we presently inhabit in so uncertain a way. Gone are the comfortable verities of bipolarity, to be replaced by a more confusing world where the US is first among equals, but other major players have to be engaged if anything is to be done. Come to think of it, Reagan’s two great strengths: remaining principled while open-minded, sticking to one’s strategic guns while remaining tactically flexible, are exactly what is lacking in the present administration. President Bush reveres Ronald Reagan. It is time he learned from him.


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