I’m not sure what it says about my mental state, but Ronald Reagan has been on my mind lately.
It’s probably because he keeps coming up as I teach my course on US foreign policy this semester. And he keeps coming up in a way that continually makes me scratch my head when I think about the contrast between his views, specifically on foreign policy, and those of today’s Republican Party standard bearers.
Now I’m at it again. In class this afternoon we’ll be discussing a case study on the history of the fraught negotiations between the US and Iran over the later’s nuclear ambitions and programs. Part of that discussion will revolve around the suspicion with which America typically views any negotiations with a hostile foreign power.
Writing in World Affairs back in 2010, Frank Logevall and Kenneth Osgood connect this to “The Ghost of Munich,” the reflexive charges of naive appeasement that are levied against any president who dares to engage diplomatically with a potentially dangerous rival:
‘Munich’ and ‘appeasement’ have been among the dirtiest words in American politics, synonymous with naivete and weakness, and signifying a craven willingness to barter away the nation’s vital interests for empty promises.
These words retain their power, they argue, because of electoral considerations:
An abiding faith in the Munich analogy became one of the few things that was truly bipartisan in postwar American politics. In the years that followed Chamberlain’s fateful trip to Bavaria, Democrats and Republicans alike displayed a common understanding of the dangers of appeasement, and a common belief in the political value of using the Munich analogy to undermine the other party.
The problem with this, they argue, is that success in foreign policy has typically come to presidents who had the courage to push back against the analogy and engage diplomatically with rivals and hostile powers, while those who bowed to its demand for unyielding strength and toughness often failed, and in spectacular, tragic ways. Like Vietnam. And Iraq.
Enter today’s GOP, and Sen. Ted Cruz’s assessment of the agreement then being negotiated with Iran:
I believe we are hearing echoes of history. I believe we are at a moment like Munich in 1938.
Or this from Jeb Bush:
This isn’t diplomacy – it is appeasement.
And from Marco Rubio:
President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession …
But what about Saint Ronald? Well, he came to see the value in negotiations, even with an adversary like the Soviet Union, whose strategic doctrine, like our own, assumed the utter annihilation of of its chief rival as the end goal:
I don’t take too seriously the statement of positions in advance of negotiations. Everyone wants to preserve their position at their highest price before negotiations, and for them to do otherwise is to give away something they might not have to give away once the negotiations start.
You’re unlikely to get all you want; you’ll probably get more of what you want if you don’t issue ultimatums and leave your adversary room to maneuver; you shouldn’t back your adversary into a corner, embarrass him, or humiliate him; and sometimes, the easiest way to get things done is for the top people to do them alone and in private.
If you’d have asked me 20 years ago if I could ever see myself lauding Reagan in either the classroom or in writing, I would have called you crazy. But then I hadn’t yet encountered today’s Republicans.