Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan could not be more different on foreign policy


president_reagan_speaking_in_minneapolis_1982 Earlier this month, Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence made a pilgrimage to the Reagan library, where he tried to make the case that his running mate, Donald Trump, shared many ideas and traits with former president Ronald Reagan. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel qualified to assess the extent of their shared optimism, and will leave it to economists to discuss overlap in their domestic agendas. But on foreign policy, there are almost no parallels whatsoever. Aside from a pledge to increase military spending, Trump’s national security policies have nothing in common with Ronald Reagan’s.

First, Trump’s approach to dealing with Moscow radically diverges from Reagan’s strategy. Trump’s advisers argue that Reagan befriended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, so what’s the harm in Trump doing the same with Russian President Vladimir Putin? The answer is that Putin is no Gorbachev, as the Russian president would passionately explain to you. As the last leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev sought to democratize the Soviet political system and move his country closer to the West. Reagan rightly assessed Gorbachev’s commitment to these laudable goals and worked with him to achieve these objectives. Putin has the opposite agenda — greater autocracy at home and less cooperation with the West, and the United States, in particular.

Before Gorbachev, Reagan agreed to “realistic reengagement with the Soviets,” as his Secretary of State George Shultz called it in his memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph.” As Shultz wrote, realistic engagement meant talking to the Kremlin while also committing “to counter Soviet expansionism” and “to do whatever we could to encourage greater liberalization and pluralism within the Soviet Union.” Trump seems distinctly disinterested in either of these central tenets of Reagan’s approach to Moscow.

Reagan believed in supporting our allies in Europe and Asia. Trump does not. He has raised serious doubts about his commitment to defending our allies. As Shultz wrote, “The United States, I knew had no hope of dealing successfully with the Soviet Union, and the turmoil around the world unless there was solidarity in the NATO alliance.” Most dramatically, Reagan pushed for the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe to strengthen NATO’s deterrent capabilities against the Soviet Union. This decision was criticized widely by those in the United States and Europe seeking to get along with Moscow, but Reagan’s controversial policy eventually created conditions ripe for the signing in 1987 of the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, or INF, Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States, which prohibited the deployment of such weapons in Europe. To obtain this historic agreement, Reagan did not appease his Soviet counterparts because they said nice things about him. His strategy was the exact opposite — peace through strength.

Reagan believed in free trade. Trump does not. On the benefits of free trade, Reagan could not have been clearer: “Our trade policy rests firmly on the foundation of free and open markets. . . . I . . . recognize the inescapable conclusion that all of history has taught: The freer the flow of world trade, the stronger the tides for human progress and peace among nations.” In 1986, the Reagan administration initiated the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which eventually created the World Trade Organization. Reagan also signed into law the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988, the precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Reagan’s actual trade decisions varied — sometimes vetoing protectionist legislation, sometimes acting to protect American industries. But his general philosophy regarding trade could not be more in opposition to Trump’s ideas.


Reagan believed passionately in promoting liberty around the world. Trump does not. In his speech to the British parliament in June 1982, Reagan stated emphatically, “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” In this speech, Reagan proposed the creation of what eventually became the National Endowment for Democracy, “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” Trump has made clear that he sees no value in promoting democracy or human rights, the exact opposite of Reagan.

Reagan believed in American exceptionalism. Trump does not. Reagan saw strength from our unique history and democratic values. He contrasted our moral goodness with that of the Soviet Union, which he referred to as the “Evil Empire.” In dramatic contrast, Trump thinks that the United States is no different from Putin’s Russia. When asked by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough in December 2015 about new evils in Russia, Trump replied, “well our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so, you know. . . . There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on.” It is unimaginable that Reagan would have compared the brave efforts of our soldiers abroad to what the Kremlin is doing around the world and at home.

In the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections, Reagan won electoral support from “Reagan Democrats.” Though difficult to generalize about the reasons for their affinity for Reagan, one segment of this voting bloc — blue-collar workers of Eastern European heritage — did not allow traditional class affinities to determine their votes, but instead were attracted to Reagan in large measure because of his national security agenda. A vital question in the current presidential election is whether these Reagan Democrats will support Trump. If foreign policy still matters to them, the answer should be no.

Michael McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University.

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