Can the U.S. take inspiration from Reagan in its approach to the new Cold War with China?
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R onald Reagan’s statesmanship was far more complex and contradictory than is often portrayed by both his supporters and his detractors. On the one hand, he pushed for a U.S. rearmament program, including the modernization of the U.S. nuclear “triad” of bombers, nuclear submarines, and survivable ballistic and cruise missiles. On the other hand, he abhorred nuclear weapons and sought real arms-control agreements that would abolish them. He negotiated one of the most successful nuclear-reduction treaties during the Cold War.
Reagan attacked Jimmy Carter for undermining allies in the name of human rights, but he also jettisoned Cold War allies such as Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos to push Manila toward democracy. Though a staunch anti-communist, Reagan embraced the Communist Chinese, whom he saw both as an ally against the Soviet Union and as a country committed to capitalist reform. Though committed to free markets and free trade, Reagan supported government intervention to guard against high-tech competition from Japan.
University of Texas scholar William Inboden makes sense of these contradictions in his masterful account of Reagan’s diplomatic strategy: The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. According to Inboden, Reagan’s grand strategic objective was the “negotiated surrender” of the Soviet Union. This artful term helps explain Reagan’s sometimes internally inconsistent policies. A onetime Democrat, Reagan was inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and sought the equivalent of the unconditional surrender of his Soviet adversary. However, he wanted to achieve this without going to war. Reagan’s strategy was founded on a unique insight for cold warriors like himself: What appeared to be overwhelming Soviet military, political, and economic power was built upon weak foundations that could collapse. In developing a grand strategy grounded in this perspective, he broke away from both hawks and doves. Inboden argues that Reagan was not just a peacemaker but an iconoclast. His strategy called for negotiation when necessary. His erstwhile hawkish allies believed that any compromise with Moscow would only encourage more aggression. But the goal of “surrender” required both a massive military buildup and serious risk-taking to press the Soviet system. Doves believed this approach would lead to World War III.
Soviet strength and longevity made no intuitive sense to Reagan. “How could a system that produced constant shortages of basic consumer goods sustain a costly competition with the US?” he wrote in his diary.
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As Inboden writes: “The ideological bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism, the economic sclerosis of a command economy, the unsustainable military spending, the fragility of the Soviet empire, the moral rot of totalitarianism had all combined to make the Soviet Union a decrepit colossus.”
Reagan was determined to exploit these problems through a strategy of comprehensive military, economic, political, and ideological pressure. The strategy also had a diplomatic component with a twofold purpose: First, Team Reagan would negotiate reductions in nuclear arms and, where possible, an easing of other tensions. Second, Reagan would work to find true reformers inside the system, dedicated to more economic and political pluralism. He eventually found a willing partner in Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempts at reforming the system eventually led to its collapse. Inboden unearths exchanges between the two, illustrating a very human and very American Reagan trying to persuade a befuddled Gorbachev that he should move farther and faster with reform, and include the protection of religious and other civil liberties. Though Reagan was ridiculed for stating that the U.S. would not learn to live with communism, but rather would transcend it, that is what he believed to the end. In the Cold War’s twilight, Reagan evangelized on behalf of Western ideals, believing that he could persuade the hardened communist leaders to accept them.
Inboden demonstrates the extent to which Reagan followed his well-informed intuition and ignored the often condescending criticisms he received from both right and left. Reagan’s theory of victory was that once Soviet leaders saw that America was ready to bring the system down, they would negotiate their own surrender, which would end its imperial rule over Eastern Europe. Inboden marshals evidence to show how Reagan succeeded, thereby ending a great-power rivalry that had brought the world to the brink of destruction.
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Like all bold strategies, Reagan’s plans suffered setbacks, were tested by intense incidents that almost led to war and resulted in unforeseeable geopolitical consequences. Reagan’s fixation on a U.S. victory over the Soviets was a necessity at the time. But contrary to what Americans often imagine, history never ends, and old solutions beget new strategic challenges. His widening of the anti-Soviet coalition to include the People’s Republic of China (PRC) validated the Nixon–Carter strategy of building up Chinese power to check the Soviets and solidified a U.S. strategy of integrating Beijing into the community of nations. He was charmed by Mao Zedong’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, and saw him not only as a ready anti-Soviet partner, willing to arm the mujahadeen to inflict pain on Soviet soldiers, but also as only a “so-called communist.” Reagan signed off on the 1982 joint communiqué between Beijing and Washington that committed the U.S. to an eventual end to arms sales to Taiwan. Reagan addressed his discomfort with this policy by instructing the legendary Asia hand Jim Lilley to give the Republic of China’s (ROC) president Chiang Ching Kuo the famous “Six Assurances.” These assurances essentially contradicted the just-inked communiqué, which predicated arms sales to Taiwan on the threat the PRC posed to the island. Since Beijing refused to renounce the use of force against Taipei, Reagan’s assurances guaranteed continued arms sales. He thus left the ROC government confident in Washington’s continued strong, if unofficial, support. In what Inboden correctly portrays as a uniquely odd incident in American foreign policy, Reagan went even further by writing a codicil to the communiqué, meant for internal consumption, that further negated the agreement with China.
We now know that the destruction of the Soviet Union, a policy the Chinese cheered, would quickly change Beijing’s attitude toward its American ally. As the communist empire was falling, Beijing faced a student-led series of national protests against autocratic rule that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the CCP brutally killed thousands of protesters. Deng was convinced that the U.S. was behind this democratic movement and shifted Chinese strategy to deal with a U.S. that had become its No. 1 enemy. It took another three decades for the U.S. to realize that China had weaponized the goodwill and support that Reagan had accelerated to take advantage of the U.S., bleeding it of its technology and capital to build up China’s own political and military power.
Fortunately, engagement with China was not Reagan’s only legacy in Asia. Inboden skillfully portrays Reagan’s emphasis on the importance of the Japan alliance. Reagan came to see Tokyo as the U.S.’s most important global ally, which, in contrast to NATO, stood alone as a democracy in Asia partnering against Communist power. The Reagan administration was able to put the many trade disputes with Japan that threatened the relationship into the proper strategic context, never allowing them to undermine the security partnership. In addition, the administration’s willingness to challenge a South Korean dictatorship that was losing popular legitimacy encouraged the development of democracy in the country and thus placed the alliance on a surer foundation. By the end of his administration, Reagan exerted subtle pressure on his friends in Taipei to democratize as well. Today’s Asia strategists have the Reagan administration to thank for the web of democracies in the region willing to confront Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior.
Can the U.S. take inspiration from Reagan in its approach to the new Cold War with China? Many of the debates the Reagan administration had about the nature of Soviet power echo today in debates about China. Is China strong or weak? Should the U.S. seek regime change or behavior modification? What is the proper mix of diplomacy and pressure? The negotiated surrender of the CCP is a worthy aspiration. To be sure, the Chinese economy is stronger and more dynamic than its Soviet cousin, but Inboden’s book reminds us that the Soviets looked unstoppable in the late 1970s. Chinese vulnerabilities and cracks are beginning to show as well, such as its devastating failures on Covid, a demographic nightmare, and a regime that has abandoned a strategy of high economic growth. A strategy of comprehensive pressure that holds open the possibility of diplomacy has not yet been attempted. But what Inboden really shows is how much presidential leadership matters. The group of creative scholars and foreign-policy experts who broke from the conventional wisdom on Russia had been around for years before they finally got a hearing from Reagan. In the end, it was his political judgment combined with what French president François Mitterrand termed a “primal” will and resolve in the face of unimaginable tests that prevailed. Inboden’s book teaches that Reagan would have faith that such a leader will eventually emerge again.