1980 Election and American Foreign Policy

The election of 1980 took place in an atmosphere of considerable concern by Americans that the position of the United States in the world had dangerously slipped. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, at least ten countries had tumbled into the Soviet orbit. When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, it was the first time they had directly invaded a country outside of Eastern Europe. Soviet expansionism was undergirded by a massive arms buildup. In addition, the Iranian revolution had replaced a key U.S. ally with an Islamist regime that had countenanced the holding of U.S. diplomatic personnel as hostages. Election Day happened to fall on the one-year anniversary of the embassy takeover, and Ronald Reagan’s campaign promising a vigorous reassertion of American power and principles found a receptive audience.

In one sense, the election represented more continuity than is often admitted. Faced with the Soviet buildup, Afghanistan, and Iran, Jimmy Carter had already started taking a tougher foreign policy line. Carter endorsed a boost in defense spending, renewed Selective Service registration, boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, and initiated a covert program of arms shipments to resistance fighters in Afghanistan. To this extent, Reagan’s 1980 victory reaffirmed, though perhaps also accelerated, the direction of foreign policy forged in the crucible of 1979.

However, Reagan went well beyond where Carter had gone. The 40th president redoubled the defense buildup, launched an ambitious missile defense research program, invaded Grenada to topple a communist dictatorship, pushed back hard at Libya’s Muammar Khadafy, established the National Endowment for Democracy, and expanded the Afghan supply program and stretched it to other anti-communist guerrillas in Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. Overall, in documents such as NSDD-75, Reagan fashioned an offensive global strategy to complement the revival of containment begun by Carter. That strategy had the bold objective of regime change in the Soviet Union itself. It is difficult to imagine Carter taking such steps. (It is also far from clear that Carter would have sustained the new containment had he been reelected; his inability to forge a consistent policy was a bane of his presidency, both foreign and domestic.)

So what were the broader consequences of 1980 for U.S. foreign policy?

First, the election of 1980 was, I would argue, critical to the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. There is, of course, an ongoing debate over the degree to which Reagan’s policies hastened the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it should not be discounted that the people who lived under Soviet rule widely agree that Reagan was instrumental in their liberation. If, as some argue, Soviet power collapsed more or less on its own, it would be one of the first empires in history to collapse without external pressure representing a significant factor in its demise. Needless to say, the end of the Soviet empire and the consequent rise of the U.S. as the sole superpower of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was a geopolitical event of profound importance. On balance, the world is freer, more prosperous, and safer because of it.

Second, the Munich paradigm took its place as a real competitor with the Vietnam paradigm as a way of thinking about and framing foreign policy choices. To the conservative policymakers swept into power in 1980, the defining task of U.S. foreign policy was to successfully resist aggressive totalitarianism, and its defining question was how to avoid another Munich (i.e. an act of appeasement that would endanger both peace and freedom). Reagan in the Cold War, the elder Bush in Kuwait, Clinton in Kosovo, and the younger Bush in Iraq all returned to the World War II analogy to justify action, even after the greater totalitarian threat had receded. This view, though parallel to the view which had dominated the post-war foreign policy consensus through 1968, was very different from that which drove policy from 1975-79, which defined itself by a determination to avoid “another Vietnam” at all costs. The Vietnam analogy was heard again in debates over Central America in the 1980s and Iraq in 1991 and 2002-2007, but it never dominated foreign policy as it had in the late ‘70s. 

More generally, 1980 ushered in an era of renewed American confidence in foreign policy, an eagerness to lead and to promote values of democracy and individual rights (as well as free markets) around the world. Ideology returned to a crucial place in policy. In varying ways and to varying degrees, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all embraced a sort of American exceptionalism. This confidence was undoubtedly preferable to the reverse—a foreign policy of self-flagellation, retreat, and indifference to human rights—but it came with a price of its own that is still being tallied. (It is too early to tell whether Barack Obama represents the leading edge of an enduring shift against this tendency, or an aberration.)

Some foreign policy approaches flowing from the 1980 election have not received emulation to the degree one might have expected, however. The conservation of American power by relying on asymmetrical warfare against U.S. adversaries (e.g. the Reagan Doctrine) has been largely eschewed by both the left, which is almost always reluctant to acknowledge that the U.S. has adversaries not of its own making, and the right, which (in Iraq, for example) did not have the patience to employ such a strategy when a more direct alternative was available.

In the end, while assertive, Reagan’s foreign policy relied on a combination of hard power, which was carefully marshaled and conserved, and soft power (such as economic warfare and enhanced propaganda against the Soviets, as well as negotiations with them); he managed a blend of realism and idealism that valued national interests within the context of national principles. Reagan was, one might say, strategically resolute but tactically flexible and aware of the limitations imposed by constrained resources and public opinion. A key question of foreign policy in years ahead will be whether American policymakers can build an approach that neither dismisses Reagan’s example nor applies it too simply.