35 years after Reagan’s Westminster Address: Reclaiming American Realism?


Advancing U.S. interests take should precedence over defending the “liberal international order” and the U.S. should not use its “national strength to uphold a fictive international community”, according to foreign policy analysts Ted R. BromundMichael Auslin and Colin Dueck.

“Today, nearly a generation after the collapse of Soviet Communism and over fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, it is undeniable that Europe is at greater risk, the Gulf is more war-torn, and the Pacific less secure than they were eight or eighteen years ago. We must arrest these trends, which threaten the central purpose of American foreign policy,” they write for American Affairs, a publication variously described as intellectual journal of Trumpism and a journal that aims to rethink policy for the age of Trump:

The fact that they also threaten the “liberal international order” that many claim has characterized part of the world in the postwar era is merely an incidental fact, for it is our efforts to defend our interests that played the central role in defining that order. Today, focusing on the order, not U.S. interests, merely perpetuates a central fallacy of post–Cold War foreign policy: it emphasizes the waterwheel, not the water that makes it move. ….

If the United States prudently leads, the stability and freedom we have built will survive—indeed, it will be renewed and extended. The real danger will come if we overreact or if we refuse to lead, if we indulge in mindless praise of the rules-based international order, or if we become so transfixed by the rise of authoritarianism that we try to find safety by clinging to every facet of the “order” as it exists today.

“The true purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to protect and promote the freedom of individual Americans, who by their own actions are remaking our world,” they add, while conceding that:

We will enjoy that individual freedom more fully the more nations embrace the principles of democratic sovereignty on which our own union was founded. A world of unfree nations, a world divided into spheres of influence controlled by the hostile or the unfree, would be a world in which the freedom of Americans would be curtailed or, at worst, would exist only on the sufferance of others. ….

No regime or idea that seeks to traduce the sovereignty of democratic nations is our friend, because our purposes cannot be realized in a world defined by the unfree. And we should remember one more thing: states that reject democratic sovereignty are implicitly rejecting our legitimacy.

Ideals and interests inseparable

But democracies like the United States cannot draw stark distinctions between interests and ideals or separate principle from purpose, says House Speaker Paul Ryan (left, R-WI). “The rising tide of authoritarianism, corruption, and terror undermines not only our principles, but our security. These forces seek to divide, destabilize, and demoralize us,” he told the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2017 Democracy Award ceremony, honoring five anti-corruption activists from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine.

“Corruption is not just a means to gain power or influence. It threatens to deprive ordinary citizens of their voice and their belief in one another. And when people lose that confidence—that resilience that is so vital to an active citizenry—the whole system comes into question,” he added. “This is why we cannot separate our values from our policies. We cannot separate our ideals from our interests. We cannot separate moral imperatives from strategic imperatives.”

The 35th anniversary of Reagan’s Westminster speech (above) is a singularly appropriate time to take stock of the threats to democracy and the vigorous forces working in its defense, notes NED president Carl Gershman. He highlights the Coalition for Democratic Renewal, launched at the end of May by a group of democratic intellectuals and activists from more than two dozen countries. They gathered in Prague under the auspices of Forum 2000, an organization founded by Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel, to consider how to reverse the alarming decline of liberal democracy in the world today, he writes for World Affairs.

“Indeed, America’s challengers today—just as in 1776, or 1917, or 1941, or 1950—are enemies of sovereign democracies,” the principled realists BromundAuslin and Dueck write in American Affairs. A less idealistic foreign policy “does not mean we give up the competitive struggle,” they contend:

Instead, we must find new ways to wage it. While we should not use our national strength to uphold a fictive international community, we should recognize that our interests rest in advancing towards a freer world. Thus, our goal has not changed: it is to help defend, and, where possible, to advance prudently towards a world built on sovereign democracies in which Americans can be safe and free.

Reagan’s Westminster speech remains a vital clarion call to “stay engaged” in the global fight for democracy, according to Garry Kasparov, chess champion and chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.

It also serves as a reminder that “[w]hile not always perfect, liberal democracy offers the most sustainable and equitable path to confronting the challenges facing the world,” argues Andrew Wilson, Managing Director of the Center for International Private Enterprise:

An employed and prosperous people rarely resort to violent extremism, conflict, or emigration. For our government to reach its policy goals, it would be well served to look to the wisdom of Ronald Reagan who understood that markets and democracy were the best responses to the challenge of his time, and are timeless in their relevance today.

The greatest strategic challenge we face today is not the strength of our main adversaries: it is the weakness of their neighbors, BromundAuslin and Dueck contend:

By various means—hybrid war, political subversion, or fear induced by threats—these nations, some of them our allies, are being suborned in ways that we find hard to combat and are reluctant even to acknowledge. A world divided up into spheres of influence, largely controlled by our adversaries, would be neither stable nor free. While we cannot prevent powerful nations from having spheres of particular interest, it is not in our interest to allow them to exercise neo-imperial control over their neighbors. We are by instinct and by interest opposed to empires.

“If illiberal states dominate vital regions, such as East Asia or Central Europe, the result will not be good for the freedom of Americans in the world, or the idea of republican self-government, or for our relative power.”

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation. Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. RTWT


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