Friday, November 13, 2009

Those were the days, my friends


The beginning of the end

Nov 12th 2009

Looking back at the era of a cold warrior

“MR GORBACHEV, tear down this wall”. Ronald Reagan’s stirring speech at the Berlin Wall on June 12th 1987 was not the death blow to communism, but it did highlight the West’s renewed confidence in demanding what had previously been impossible. Though the president’s advisers egged him on, American diplomats were horrified at what they felt was provocative behaviour: they saw their job as managing relations with communism, not trying to overturn it.

Those glory days were the subject of a day-long conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley California on November 6th. A motley collection of heroes from east and west (with your columnist tagging along as a moderator) gathered to discuss the great communicator’s role in the collapse of communism and what his approach could still offer today. Nancy Reagan, frail but immaculate, presided. Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev sent messages of congratulation. Freedom fighters such as Mart Laar from Estonia, Leszek Balcerowicz from Poland and Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic recalled how Reagan’s approach had inspired them and demoralised their captors.

Many of the surviving members of the Reagan foreign-policy team turned up too, including John Lehman (navy secretary), Dick Allen (chief foreign policy adviser) Richard Pipes (Russia expert) and the towering figure of George Shultz (secretary of state).

It is easy to forget what a daunting task these men had faced when they came to office in 1980. America was traumatised by Vietnam, intimidated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, humiliated by the Iranian hostage crisis, and near-bankrupted by the economic downturn (will an incoming administration in three years’ time face something similar, wondered some people gloomily). The best option in foreign policy seemed to be presiding over inexorable Western decline as peacefully as possible.

Admittedly, whatever was happening in the West, communism would have been in trouble. Discontent among the public, divisions in the elite and economic failure would have all been gnawing away at the regimes’ stability and legitimacy. The confidence that Reagan exuded and inspired made the western star burn brightly, lifting captives’ spirits and dazzling their jailers. The America of Jimmy Carter or the Britain of the mid-1970s hardly provided a compelling alternative to communism.

In retrospect, the efficiency and decisiveness of the Reagan administration is striking. It arrived in office promptly and en masse, filling all important posts within weeks (nowadays getting the team straight within the first year is regarded as smart work). It knew exactly what it wanted to do and did it (not something that could be said so easily of the current administration). John Lehman recounted with gusto how he sent a big naval force to the north coast of Norway, against the howls of protest from officials who thought it would be provocative. Far from it: it put a direct stop to the de facto Soviet naval takeover of the region.

Communist propaganda depicted Ronald Reagan as a brainless gunslinger. In fact he was well read and wrote reams. And as George Shultz pointed out in his lunchtime speech, he used American armed force sparingly, on only three occasions—in forestalling a Marxist coup in Grenada, in bombing a terrorist headquarters in Tripoli, and in an operation against an Iranian ship that was planting mines. “Reality, strength, diplomacy” were his watchwords. “And no empty threats”. He also underlined Mr Reagan’s desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons—something on which Mr Shultz continues to work. The thousand-plus assorted Reaganites in the audience clapped that too.

It was hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for the days when grown-ups were in charge.

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