I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms. —Walt Whitman
Ronald Reagan’s vision of America’s role in the world, especially as it was expressed in his presidential speeches, continues to resonate with many Americans. President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, for example, have celebrated Reagan both as a great man and as a great leader. Each has acknowledged drawing a high degree of inspiration for his foreign policy thinking and actions from Reagan’s ideas. Countless other politicians, including President Barack Obama, as well as academics and ordinary citizens, are enthralled by this type of vision. Reagan’s popularity might lead many to believe that his foreign policy ideas are well understood, are by now deeply embedded in the American mind, and require little by way of fresh explanation and analysis. Yet it may be that many who have heard his words have not really listened to them. They have taken away vague impressions of his rhetoric and have not fully understood the meaning and significance of what he actually said. This may be especially true of those who were captivated by Reagan’s ideas and images during his presidency and the waning days of the Cold War.
Reagan’s vision of U.S. foreign policy consisted of a complex mixture of ideas about America, politics, and human nature. That mixture was not without paradoxes and internal tensions. At times he even intimated that not very much should be expected of politics. He described human beings as ethically dual, that is, as capable of both good and evil, and he could describe government, including democracy, as a limited enterprise devoted primarily to minimizing disorder. Such opinions recommended relatively modest foreign policy objectives. In his presidential speeches, he often invoked important U.S. strategic, economic, and national security concerns in support of specific goals in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, but, despite his seeing serious disagreements with other nations, he sometimes stressed that a successful U.S. policy would need to include restraint, flexibility, realism, and openness to dialogue, especially with the Soviet Union. Comments like these suggested that he viewed politics and foreign policy as the art of the possible, not as an attempt to realize some great ideal.
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