The limits of realism
By William Inboden A decade ago I attended a talk that Suzanne Massie gave at Yale, in which she described her curious relationship with President Reagan as a regular informal advisor and back-channel interlocutor on Soviet affairs. At the time of her talk, the conventional academic wisdom on Reagan’s presidency mostly ranged from bemused dismissal ...
A decade ago I attended a talk that Suzanne Massie gave at Yale, in which she described her curious relationship with President Reagan as a regular informal advisor and back-channel interlocutor on Soviet affairs. At the time of her talk, the conventional academic wisdom on Reagan’s presidency mostly ranged from bemused dismissal to scathing derision — polite scholars did not take him seriously, and impolite scholars vilified his presidency as disastrous. Perhaps revealingly, the most balanced and authoritative book on Reagan’s presidency then available was written not by a historian or a political scientist, but by the journalist Lou Cannon, who had covered Reagan since his days as California governor. Academic scholars had not yet been able to overcome their ideologically-charged biases and general disdain to give Reagan a fair treatment.
So Massie’s talk was striking and memorable, especially in how she violated two academic taboos. First, she described a Reagan who took ideas seriously and who displayed acute vision in perceiving the moral bankruptcy and fragility of the Soviet system, the genuine potential for change under Gorbachev, and the chance to chart a new course in U.S.-Soviet relations. Second, she spoke candidly about the importance of God and religious faith in the lives of both Reagan and the Russian people, and suggested that religion was an underappreciated factor in Reagan’s approach to the Cold War.
Massie was ahead of her time. In the ten years since her talk, numerous respected scholars (not all of whom are politically conservative) have published a refreshing series of reappraisals of Reagan. Books by Sean Wilentz, John Patrick Diggins, Paul Lettow, and John Lewis Gaddis, among others, have in various ways presented Reagan as a consequential president with elements of greatness.
Add to that list James Mann’s splendid new book. Mann uses Massie as one of four themes to illustrate what he provocatively calls Reagan’s “rebellion.” Though he never quite spells out his meaning, by “rebellion” Mann seems to be describing Reagan’s rejection of the conventional wisdom on the Soviet Union held by three somewhat disparate camps: the U.S. intelligence community, arch-realists, and Reagan’s own conservative political base. Along with an intriguing profile of Massie, the other themes highlighted by Mann include Reagan’s complex relationship with fellow Californian Richard Nixon, the bureaucratic bloodbath waged over the “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall” speech, and Reagan’s own series of negotiations with Gorbachev.
Mann makes a persuasive case for Reagan’s singular vision and idiosyncratic genius in several ways. First, Reagan conceived of the Cold War as an ideological contest between two worldviews and values systems, one of which was superior and the other of which was destined to fail. The latter point is especially salient, as it rejected the prevailing consensus and put Reagan in an adversarial posture against the prominent “realists” in his own party — such as Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and even at times his own Vice President George H.W. Bush. All of whom instead saw the Cold War as a static power contest between two rival states that was destined to continue in perpetuity and thus could only be managed, not won. As realism today seems to be enjoying a popular and not entirely unwarranted resurgence, Reagan’s Cold War doctrine is also a helpful reminder of realism’s limits and past errors.
Second, Reagan understood not only the need but also the most effective ways to maintain popular domestic support for his national security policies, both in Congress and among the American people. This again led to the use of speech language and symbolic gestures that often put him at odds with the received foreign policy wisdom, including among his own State Department and National Security Council staff. Depending on the course that Reagan was trying to chart, sometimes this meant using more forceful rhetoric (e.g. the “evil empire,” “tear down this wall”), while other times it meant conciliatory measures such as the reciprocal Washington and Moscow summit meetings in 1987 and 1988.
Third, Reagan displayed acute perception in assessing Gorbachev, and embracing him as a genuine reformer much sooner and much more eagerly than either the realist camp or Reagan’s own conservative base. This was not just a matter of personal opinion but carried serious policy implications. Reagan’s belief in Gorbachev’s sincerity and reformist trajectory led Reagan in turn to support far-reaching proposals — most substantively the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty that eliminated an entire class of nuclear missiles — which outpaced any of the arms control measures from the previous decade of detente. It also led Reagan to forge a peculiar personal bond with Gorbachev, even to the extent of trying earnestly to disabuse Gorbachev of his atheism and persuade him to believe in God.
Fourth, ahead of their time Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz both recognized the emergence of globalization as a seismic new force shaping the international system. They described in detail to an anguished Gorbachev how the already decrepit Soviet economy, seemingly mired twenty years behind the economies of the free world, would soon be an entire century behind if the USSR did not liberalize and enter the looming new era of global information, capital, and trade flows.
This book is not a hagiography. Mann includes an abundance of less flattering facts, such as Reagan’s dozing off (twice) during meetings with the Pope, his deference to Nancy Reagan’s astrologer for scheduling significant events such as the INF treaty signing ceremony, his general inattention to policy details and government management, and his troubling detachment from presidential duties during his last year in office.
Nor is everything in Mann’s book is persuasive. For one, the first section overemphasizes Nixon’s role and importance in the 1980s, and has the feel of treating Nixon and Reagan’s differences over Soviet policy in that decade more as a contrived literary device than as a consequential driver of history. More significantly (and here I echo some of Grover Norquist’s critique below), Mann’s conclusion that “Reagan didn’t win the Cold War; Gorbachev abandoned it” gives Gorbachev too much credit and depicts Reagan as a mere facilitator. It also belies many of the facts that Mann himself details. Reagan’s policies, especially the military build-up, the domestic economic revival, the Strategic Defense Initiative, active support for anticommunist forces such as the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, human rights initiatives, and forceful rhetoric all created the context in which the Soviet system had little chance of succeeding. In short, Reagan created new “facts on the ground” which altered the international reality that Gorbachev inherited. The Soviet Union, illegitimate and bankrupt at home, and overstretched abroad, could not keep pace. For all of his laudable reforms, Gorbachev could not control the tides he unleashed — tides which Reagan helped engineer.
Finally, it is interesting to reflect on the turns of history. Mann reminds readers of how Reagan in his last three years as president faced stiff criticism on Soviet policy from querulous realists and disgruntled conservatives. Even when Reagan left office in January 1989, no one knew that before the year was out the Berlin Wall would indeed be torn down, and just two years later the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist. In that sense Reagan passed history’s ultimate tests: he was right, and his policies worked. That may also serve as a caution to not be too hasty in pronouncing categorical verdicts in the immediate aftermath of a presidency, when we do not yet know how the story will end.
This review is one in a collection of reviews on James Mann’s latest book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan featured on FP‘s In Other Words blog.
The White House/Getty Images
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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