The Reagan Presidency and US Foreign Relations
- Simon MilesSimon MilesSanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy legacy remains hotly contested, and as new archival sources come to light, those debates are more likely to intensify than to recede into the background. In dealings with the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration set the superpowers on a course for the (largely) peaceful end of the Cold War. Reagan began his outreach to Soviet leaders almost immediately after taking office and enjoyed some success, even if the dominant theme of the period remains fears of Reagan as a “button-pusher” in the public’s perception. Mikhail Gorbachev’s election to the post of General Secretary proved the turning point. Reagan, now confident in US strength, and Gorbachev, keen to reduce the financial burden of the arms race, ushered in a new, cooperative phase of the Cold War. Elsewhere, in particular Latin America, the administration’s focus on fighting communism led it to support human rights–abusing regimes at the same time as it lambasted Moscow’s transgressions in that regard. But even so, over the course of the 1980s, the United States began pushing for democratization around the world, even where Reagan and his advisors had initially resisted it, fearing a communist takeover. In part, this was a result of public pressure, but the White House recognized and came to support the rising tide of democratization. When Reagan left office, a great many countries that had been authoritarian were no longer, often at least in part because of US policy. US–Soviet relations had improved to such an extent that Reagan’s successor, Vice President George H. W. Bush, worried that they had gone too far in working with Gorbachev and been hoodwinked.