Veering From Reagan
By Michael McFaul
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page A29
President Bush has tried to cast himself as the heir to Ronald Reagan's legacy. If he truly wants to pursue the objectives and strategies that Reagan embraced, then the wave of reflection on the late president's impact on foreign affairs should offer some important lessons about how to correct the current course.
Thousands of commentators last week credited Reagan with ending the Cold War. Reagan most certainly contributed to this outcome. But his real goal for the communist world, stated repeatedly and consistently throughout his two terms, was to foster the ideas of liberty and democracy within the Soviet empire. He understood the spread of these ideas to be the best outcome for both the people living under tyranny and the countries in the West that were threatened by these dictatorships. As he said in his final year in office, "There is no true international security without respect for human rights. . . . The greatest creative and moral force in this new world, the greatest hope for survival and success, for peace and happiness, is human freedom."
Reagan's vision for the post-communist world has not been completed. Liberal democracy has been consolidated in Eastern and Central Europe, the Baltic states and parts of the Balkans. But dictators still rule in Belarus, Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus, while the battle between dictatorship and democracy continues in Russia, Ukraine, and parts of the Balkans and Caucasus. Nowhere is this battle more important than in Russia, because if that country eventually returns to autocratic rule, the rest of the region will once again be threatened by an imperial Moscow.
Bush shows little concern for Reagan's chief goal of 20 years ago. Reagan, even while praising Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for introducing political reforms in the Soviet Union, warned in a speech to students at Moscow State University in 1988: "We should remember that reform that is not institutionalized will always be insecure. Such freedom will always be looking over its shoulder. A bird on a tether, no matter how long the rope, can always be pulled back." Even at the height of goodwill between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1988, Reagan was not afraid to encourage Gorbachev to do more to help secure freedom.
Reagan was prophetic. Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of poorly institutionalized reforms to roll back Russian democracy. Yet Bush seems indifferent. Over the past four years, Putin has closed down all the independent press of national significance, harassed and arrested human rights activists, rigged elections, and continued to wage an inhumane war in Chechnya. Yet Bush praises Putin as an ally in the fight against terrorism and a man with a vision for Russia "in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive." Rather than speak the truth about Russia's autocratic drift, Bush seems content to maintain his personal relationship with Putin, even if it comes at the expense of his principles -- not exactly Reagan's approach to foreign policy.
Reagan never changed his principles. But he did change strategies when he decided that his current course was not working. In his first years in office, Reagan shunned all contacts with the evil communists in the Kremlin, believing that total confrontation was the best strategy for pursuing his objective of regime change inside the Soviet Union. Soon after George Shultz became secretary of state in 1982, however, Reagan changed course and opted for a strategy of engagement. After Reagan discerned that Gorbachev was a new kind of leader, he stepped up these efforts.
In contrast, Bush seems incapable of changing course and seizing opportunities. Sept. 11 offered such an opportunity, yet ironically, the agenda of engagement between the United States and Russia today is much smaller and less ambitious than the one Reagan pursued with Gorbachev. Together with Gorbachev, Reagan pushed for radical reductions in nuclear weapons; Bush seems intent on developing new kinds of nuclear weapons and therefore seeks no new agreement with the Russians. Reagan called for more exchanges between Russians and Americans; Bush's budget cuts support for such contact. Bush has even failed to retire some Cold War remnants such as the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act (which rightly linked Russia's trade status to Jewish emigration, a problem that no longer exists), all because of disagreements with the Russians about chicken exports.
In short, there's not a lot of vision in Bush's Russia policy. A final and most important lesson to remember from Reagan was that he and his administration eventually engaged the Soviets on arms control, but never at the cost of abandoning his agenda of human rights and democracy. Reagan understood that the supposed trade-off between pursuing arms control (or, if he were alive today, cooperating in the war on terrorism) and pushing for human rights and democracy was false. As Shultz writes in his memoirs: "We were determined not to allow the Soviets to focus our negotiations simply on matters of arms control. So we continuously adhered to a broad agenda: human rights, regional issues, arms control, and bilateral issues."
If Bush wants to cast his foreign policy as the continuation of Reagan's legacy, he too must pursue a strategy of dual-track diplomacy. The United States has strategic interests that require the Kremlin's cooperation, such as the dismantling and control of Russia's nuclear arsenal, the integration of Russia and Eurasia in international economic and security institutions, and the development of energy resources and multiple pipelines in Eurasia to reduce the West's dependence on oil from the Middle East. Yet a president committed to advancing Reagan's legacy would pursue these interests while promoting democracy and human rights in Russia and the consolidation of sovereignty and democracy in the states bordering Russia.
The writer is the Peter and Helen Bing senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of political science at Stanford University. He is co-author of "Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War."
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