Rebuilding, Reaching Out, and Other Lessons from Ronald Reagan


Ronald Reagan never shied away from criticizing the Soviet Union, especially early in his presidency. At his first press conference, he called its leaders fundamentally immoral liars. Before the British parliament, he lumped its ideology in with other vanquished forms of totalitarianism, an allusion to Nazism that cannot have escaped his audience. And, most famously, the fortieth president dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Then something changed. In May 1988, in the heart of Moscow, Reagan described that earlier war of words as something long since abandoned — “another time, another era.” Confrontation, it appeared, had given way to cooperation between the superpowers. What can policymakers today learn from Reagan’s seeming ability to transform the Cold War as they confront the challenges of great-power competition?

On the one hand, there are those who answer: nothing. Reagan was no grand strategist, they maintain, but rather an improviser. His ostensible reversal in 1984 further proves the “ad-hocery” of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s. And then there is the fact that, to some, the fortieth president simply was not intellectually up to anything akin to strategic thinking. On the other hand are those who maintain that Reagan had one big, key idea: Go on the offensive, and never relent. This doctrine of “maximum pressure” is credited with having brought down the Soviet Union and enjoyed traction in the White House of Donald Trump for a spell, albeit with little success. Whether critiquing him from the left or lauding him from the right, Reagan has become synonymous with inflexible, ideological foreign policy.



There is another story about Reagan’s grand strategy. The fortieth president blended cooperation and competition to manage relations with the Soviet Union from the very beginning.

Reagan came into office, in many ways, a pessimist. “The evidence mounts,” he declared in 1976, challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, “that we are number two in a world where it is dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best.” Finally accepting the party’s nomination in 1980, he warned of “three grave threats to [the United States’] very existence, any one of which could destroy [it]” — the weak economy, energy scarcity, and the Soviet Union. As president, he felt that he had inherited “the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.” This was not the Reagan of popular lore, the avatar — for better or worse — of American exceptionalism. Reagan’s early years in office were characterized by a sense of weakness, of having been overtaken by others — be it the Soviet Union militarily or Japan economically — and needing to rally.

In office and to that end, Reagan employed a dual-track grand strategy. The first pillar, “quiet diplomacy,” was the proverbial carrot. Reagan viewed negotiations with the Soviet Union as important not only to keep Cold War tensions under control, but also (and arguably more importantly) to cement U.S. advantage through diplomatic agreements that would constrain the Soviet Union. The second pillar, “peace through strength,” was the corresponding stick. Reagan believed that the United States needed to rebuild its military strength in order to secure these advantageous agreements, steel its allies in the struggle with communism, and exploit opportunities to best the Kremlin economically and diplomatically, as well as militarily and ideologically.

Most histories of the Reagan presidency present these two elements as oppositional: the first term being characterized by conflict, and the second by cooperation. But this is not the full story. And at a time when the incoming president-elect, Joe Biden, will be at the helm of a country in decline once more according to many, and still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, managing the carrots and sticks at the United States’ disposal is especially important. Rather than an incomplete myth of “maximum pressure,” this is the history which should be discussed and learned from in the West Wing.

Reagan’s was a grand strategy designed to apply pressure to the Soviet Union — diplomatic, economic, ideological, and military — while keeping in place an escape valve (negotiations) to not only prevent those tensions from boiling over, but also secure gains for the United States when the time came. His sense of when that time might come depended on the perceived balance of power between the superpowers, which evolved along similar trajectories in the White House and the Kremlin. The sense of weakness dominated Reagan’s and his advisers’ thinking about the position of the United States in the world. To them, it discouraged overt diplomatic engagement with the Kremlin that at best promised to bear no fruit, and at worst might lead to bargains that further undercut U.S. strength. Furthermore, this approach preserved administration bandwidth for reinvigorating the U.S. economy, a key component of engaging the Soviet Union from a position of strength. And, over time, the administration’s outlook brightened. The U.S. economy recovered as the Soviet Union’s faltered. The military balance between the two also appeared to shift in the United States’ favor. Emboldened, Washington began to engage the Kremlin, but only once Reagan was confident that he — and the United States — enjoyed a strategic margin of error in so doing.

Though it generated payoffs for the Soviets, this diplomatic engagement was not altruistic. The White House saw engagement as a means of mitigating Soviet concerns over the growth of U.S. power while fostering diplomatic deals that reinforced U.S. advantages and reduced tensions. Soviet leaders had a similar perception of this shift in power. Given the Soviet Union’s relative decline and its leaders’ worries over their long-term survival unless Cold War competition slackened, Kremlin policymakers understood that they would have to engage diplomatically with the West and ultimately accept less advantageous agreements. On different sides of the same phenomenon — decline — both Washington and Moscow came to see engagement as their best option going forward.

Quiet diplomacy began almost immediately after Reagan’s inauguration. The president waited barely two months to make it clear to the Kremlin that his administration wanted to reduce Cold War tensions, albeit covertly. Arthur Burns, U.S. ambassador to West Germany, kept an important back channel to the Kremlin open throughout his time in Bonn in regular meetings with the successive Soviet ambassadors to East Germany, Petr Abrasimov and Vyacheslav Kochemasov. Their conversations show a very different side to the so-called Second Cold War of the early 1980s. Complaints about Reagan’s aggressive, anti-Soviet rhetoric (which did not match the tone of their conversations in Berlin) yielded a remarkable response from Burns: “[Reagan’s] behavior towards the [Soviet Union] is comparable to parents getting carried away by anger and using insulting language towards their own children.” Even as harsh rhetoric flew between Washington and Moscow, the two superpowers were able to manage crises such as the downing of Korean Air Lines flight 007 in September 1983. A growing body of archival evidence from the Eastern bloc shows that other crises, like NATO’s Able Archer 83 command post exercise, never rose to the level of danger.

Keeping the lines of communication open mattered, but so too did the concrete progress that both superpowers made early in the Reagan administration on human rights, made possible by Reagan’s commitment to doing so through quiet diplomacy. First, the two superpowers tackled the issue of the Siberian Seven, a group of Pentecostal Soviet citizens who had taken refuge in the basement of the U.S. embassy in Moscow after the Soviet government refused to let them emigrate in June 1978. For Reagan, they came to personify the whole issue of human rights in the Soviet Union. For Moscow, they were an unnecessary irritant. The conversation began in Madrid, on the fringes of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, between the head of the U.S. delegation, Max Kampelman, and a Soviet delegate (and KGB general), Sergeĭ Kondrashev. Progress there led to an unsuspecting Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, being spirited to the White House and a final agreement being hammered out — contingent, in large part, on Reagan’s personal assurances that the United States would not make political hay out of the concession.

Of course, this quiet diplomacy is not the whole story of the early Reagan years: The president’s pursuit of peace through strength with, for example, the Strategic Defense Initiative, dominated the headlines. A missile defense shield redolent of science fiction, to the Kremlin the initiative was deadly serious — if realized, it would give the United States unquestioned military superiority and the ability to launch a nuclear first strike on the East with impunity. Elsewhere, the White House’s efforts to prevent Moscow from tapping new natural gas reserves in Siberia through sanctions, efforts to impose costs on Soviet activities worldwide (especially in Afghanistan, already a quagmire), and Reagan’s public statements about communism left little doubt in the minds of Soviet leaders about the president’s ultimate goal in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union: to speed the latter’s demise.

These efforts to back-foot the Soviets worked hand-in-glove with diplomatic outreach to form an effective grand strategy. But to many, the former is the sum total of Reagan’s grand strategy. Indeed, even in sympathetic treatments of Reagan as grand strategist, U.S.-Soviet engagement remains largely absent. The core issue, as Reagan wrote to his friend Jack Kohler, is inevitable when conducting quiet diplomacy: “you can’t talk about it afterward or then you can’t do it again.” What Reagan did talk about only obscured matters further. Aggressive rhetoric focusing on rebuilding U.S. strength captivated (and alarmed) audiences, while simultaneous calls for overtures to the Kremlin barely registered. Take, for example, Reagan’s infamous denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”: That line, inserted at the last minute by a speechwriter, made the headlines — while in just the next paragraph, Reagan committed to “negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.” Reagan’s longstanding nuclear abolitionism, key to his approach to the Soviet Union, was drowned out.

Implementing Reagan’s carrot-and-stick grand strategy toward the Soviet Union was not perfect. Rhetoric aside, the president’s commitment to “not break faith with those who are risking their lives … to defy Soviet-supported aggression” led the United States to put its faith in — and resources behind — brutal actors in the name of fighting communism, with disastrous consequences for El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and others. And the expenditures underwriting peace through strength left the United States in debt, an undeniably weaker position. In those regards, the Reagan grand strategy is a cautionary tale, and a reminder of the dangers of subordinating everything to foreign policy concerns.

What, then, can we learn from Reagan today? Four lessons stand out. First, at a time when the United States was beleaguered, the fortieth president focused on recovery, and then engaged from a position of strength. The transformation of the U.S. economy under his watch was far from painless. At the end of the process, however, the United States was enjoying a period of growth while the Soviet economy stumbled.

Second, Reagan did not engage in negotiations for the sake of negotiating. Between 1981 and 1985, he rebuffed efforts by Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko to meet because he did not believe that anything would come of it that benefitted the United States — Washington still played too weak a hand — and a meeting would only generate political capital for the Kremlin.

Third, Reagan took steps that directly focused on Soviet weakness to increase American leverage, especially in the context of the military buildup. U.S. naval strategy, for example, flexed Washington’s global power-projection capabilities and gave Reagan significant bargaining power. The Strategic Defense Initiative too, however far-fetched, put pressure on Moscow exactly in the field of high-technology weapons systems that Kremlin leaders knew was their area of acute weakness. And Reagan’s human rights rhetoric lent support to the forces within the Soviet Union that would ultimately play so important a role in bringing it down.

Fourth, Reagan did not wait for a Mikhail Gorbachev. He began to reach out to the Soviet Union early, albeit covertly. Hostile rhetoric was moderated by calm engagement. And the Soviet leadership understood it. In a meeting with George H. W. Bush at his predecessor Brezhnev’s funeral, Andropov downplayed the superpowers’ harsh criticisms of one another and pledged his interest in improved bilateral relations, which “would be in the interests of not only our two countries, but in fact of all mankind.”

Reagan recognized that U.S. foreign policy goals were served not just by building strength, but also by creating diplomatic opportunities to turn that strength into concrete gains, and both peace through strength and quiet diplomacy characterized his approach to Moscow from 1981 to 1989. He helped improve U.S.-Soviet relations and steer the Cold War towards its dénouement — contemporary policymakers would do well to remember that it took both carrot and stick to manage that process.



Simon Miles is assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War.

Image: White House Photographic Office