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Nuclear Decision-Making And Covid19 Impairments: Existential Perils Of The Trump Presidency

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“In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

It is no longer just a casual or gratuitous apprehension. Now, following US President Donald Trump’s Covid19 diagnosis and treatment, an impaired or irrational nuclear command decision is entirely plausible. Though nothing can  be determined about the actual mathematical probability of any such once hard-to-imagine scenario,[1] there are amply good reasons for concern.

               Several serious questions arise, though some not directly related to the Covid factor. In view of strange and risky personal behaviors pre-dating Trump’s medical diagnosis  – hardly a controversial or narrowly partisan assessment any longer – there are several forms of dissemblance worth noting. Should these normally separate debilities begin to intersect in variously specific ways, whether predictable or unpredictable, they could produce profound synergies.

               By definition, these particular intersections would produce cumulative harms that exceed the sum of their injurious parts.

               Leaving aside Donald J. Trump’s evident venality and his continuing disinterest in science, law and history, an overriding query must finally be raised:

               Should this president still be allowed to decide when and where to launch American nuclear weapons?

               In the early days of the Nuclear Age, when strategic weapon-survivability was still markedly uncertain, a conspicuous capacity for immediate firing command was presumed necessary for credible nuclear deterrence. Today, however, when there no longer exists any reasonable  basis to doubt America’s durable second-strike nuclear retaliatory capability (sometimes also called an “assured destruction” capability), there remains no good argument for continuing to grant the  president such overwhelming decisional authority.

               As corollary, more general questions now also arise:

               In our expansively imperiled democracy, should an American president ever be permitted to hold such precarious life or death power over the entire country?

                Could such an allowance still be consistent with a Constitutional  “separation of powers?”

               Can anyone reasonably believe that such existential power could ever have been favored by America’s Founding Fathers?

               The correct answers are apparent, obvious and uncomplicated. To wit:

               We can readily extrapolate from Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders had expressed a profound concern about Presidential power long before the advent of nuclear weapons. This concern predates even any imaginationof apocalyptic warfare possibilities,[2] before there could even be the poet’s “inaudible Sunday bomb.”

               As a legal and strategic scholar, I have been personally concerned about such fearful issues for exactly fifty years, though in a generic rather than president-specific sense. On 14 March 1976, in response to my detailed query concerning  American nuclear weapons launch authority, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The focus of this letter concerned assorted nuclear risks of US presidential irrationality. Most noteworthy, in this handwritten letter (attached hereto), was the riveting warning in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.

               Ideally, Taylor had wisely cautioned, presidential irrationality is a grave problem that should be dealt with very early on; that is, during the actual election process.

               “….the best protection,” I was informed about an irrational American president, “is not to elect one…”

               Of course, regarding America’s current nuclear security problem, the realistic prospect of a tangibly impaired American president, it’s already too late to heed General Taylor’s advice. We must inquire, therefore, with a more narrow but still fact-centered focus: “What is current US governing policy on nuclear weapons launch authority?” This query is not only vital per se, especially when Trump is being given anti-viral therapeutics that can produce genuinely manic effects, but also because  of this president’s strange and problematic attachment to his dominating Russian counterpart.

               Why does Donald J. Trump always take such great pains to exonerate Vladimir Putin from even any hint of interference or wrongdoing?

               In principle, at least, there are extant safeguards against presidential impairment. To be sure, pertinent protocols are seemingly in place. Among other things, assorted structural protections are already built into any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, including substantial and reinforcing redundancies. Nonetheless, virtually all of these safeguards are designed to become operative only at lower or sub-presidential  nuclear command levels.

                In essence, therefore, these safeguards do not apply to the Commander-in-Chief; that is, to the elected President of the United States.

                What relevant protocols do obtain? At present, there likely exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. Plausibly, certain senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke applicable “Nuremberg Obligations” (law-based obligations to disobey), but any such last-minute effort to thwart a presidential nuclear command directive would almost certainly yield to more recognizable commands of US domestic law.

               Given the vast levels of legal illiteracy in the United States, it is unlikely that a clear-thinking participant anywhere in this country’s nuclear chain of command would place sufficient personal confidence in the relatively “soft” norms of international law. This is the case even though such norms are already “incorporated” into the laws of the United States,[3] unambiguously and convincingly.

               Appropriate scenarios must now be suitably postulated and examined. Should President Trump, operating within another bewildering chaos of  his own making, issue an impaired, intemperate, irrational or even seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to effectively obstruct this potentially catastrophic order would be “illegal.” Under the very best of circumstances, such informal safeguards might somehow manage to work capably for a limited time, but there could be few compelling grounds for any longer-term optimism.

               Accepting the unrealistic assumption of  a “best case scenario” would represent a foolhardy approach to US nuclear security. This is especially the case at a time of worldwide microbial assault, a time when the “pandemic variable” could quickly become overriding or determinative.

                Already, the US is  navigating in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had then calculated his own odds of a consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This curiously precise calculation, corroborated both by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my colleague and week-long roommate at the Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was either (a) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;” or (b) wittingly acting out certain untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”

               This was not during a bewildering time of “plague.”

                What are this country’s  present-day analytic “coordinates?”

               Currently, the most urgent threats of a mistaken, irrational or effectively deranged US presidential order to use nuclear weapons flow not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack –  whether Russian, North Korean or even American – but instead from a potentially uncontrollable process of escalation. Back in 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any mutual and irrecoverable nuclear harms. Now, however, certain escalatory initiatives undertaken by US President Donald J. Trump could express uniquely unstable decision-making processes.

               And all of this could unravel in the blink of an eye.

               What shall be done? Above all, Trump should be brought to understand that a great deal is unknown. No one can yet adequately decipher  the unprecedented risks of being locked into an escalatory dynamic from which there could be no choice save outright capitulation or nuclear war. This would not be the same crisis-setting Trump previously encountered in more narrowly commercial real-estate matters. Although Donald Trump might be well advised to seek “escalation dominance” in selected crisis negotiations, he would also need to avoid any catastrophic miscalculations.

               Is this president prepared for such daunting constraints?

               At some time or other, whether Americans like it or not, Donald Trump may have to play the challenging “game” of nuclear brinksmanship. This will not be a contest for the intellectually faint-hearted or for the analytically unprepared. To best ensure that this too-easily-distracted president’s strategic moves will prove rational, thoughtful and cumulatively cost-effective, it will first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his most senior military/defense subordinates.

               How shall this be operationalized?

               At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor, and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions should prepare to assume more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum. Although it is reasonable to assume that some such preparations are already underway, there is also good reason to assume that this president’s  multiple insecurities and personal derangements would gravely obstruct any needed progress.

               In all such multi-layered matters, terminological distinctions must be made explicit and refined. Accordingly, whether applied to any adversarial decision-maker or to Donald J. Trump himself,  “irrational” does not mean “crazy” or “mad.”  Fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take various different and subtle forms. These traits, when expressed, could remain indecipherable or latent for a very long time, and include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular strategic decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any pertinent structure of collective decision-making.[4]

               From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapons launch authority, legitimate reasons to worry about the dissembling Trump presidency need not hinge on any accurate expectations of “craziness” or “madness.” Rather, looking over the above list of problematic decisional traits, there is good cause not just for undefined worry (that would not represent any rational or purposeful reaction), but for visible non-partisan objectivity and for a carefully developed analytic  prudence. On this last valued criterion of presidential decision-making, Donald Trump would need to bear in mind certain  core conceptual distinctions between (1) deliberate and inadvertent nuclear war and (2) inadvertent nuclear war by accident versus inadvertent nuclear war by miscalculation.[5]

               Whatever the particular nuclear-war scenarios for which this US president must make himself prepared, a common feature would be complexity. Back in March 1976, US General Maxwell Taylor advised me by letter that the “best protection” against an irrational American president is “not to elect one.” Regarding the plainly incoherent presidency of Donald J. Trump, this optimal level of national protection is no longer available. All that we can do now is take steps to better ensure a capable and properly authoritative nuclear decisional posture.

               This stance would be one wherein a continuously misguided, Covid19-impacted  or literally deranged Donald J. Trump could be forestalled and reliably held in check. Although, in the past, any juxtaposition of “derangement” with an American president would have seemed both disrespectful and implausible, these are very different times. Now, it is the willful disregard for such a troubling juxtaposition, not its expressly purposeful suggestion, that defies US citizen responsibility. Looking ahead, such disregard could prove both unconscionable and unforgivable.


[1] This is because (1) any statement of authentic probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events and because, in this case (2) there are no pertinent past events.

[2] One of this author’s earliest books was (Louis René Beres) Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). His twelfth and latest book dealing with such issues is Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016 (2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[3] .  In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The more specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”  For pertinent earlier decisions by Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[4] More technically this means assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems, and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[5] See, by Professor Beres, at The Hill: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/foreign-policy/344344-risks-of-accidental-nuclear-war-with-north-korea-must-be  See also, Louis René Beres:  https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2019/10/22/donald-trump-foreign-policy-incoherence-and-inadvertent-nuclear-war/

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Trump Lost, Biden Won. Is Joe Biden’s presidency a signal towards Obama’s America?

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image source: obamalibrary.gov

Greek statesmen, Pericles once said, “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean the politics won’t take interest in you”. The same is the case of United States politics which knowingly or unknowingly has an impact on world politics. That is why the result of the US elections are of great interest to states across the world. Although, for the United States, the goal is to maintain American primacy, to see a world in which the United States can use its predominant power to get its way, regardless of what others want. However, it is a fact that the political landscape of the United States has mostly been dominated by two parties, Republicans and Democrats, who not only differ in their ideas, policies, priorities but also in their approaches towards addressing the key issues facing the country. 

Comparing the two, we see the Republicans are more conservative in their approach as compared to the liberal Democrats. Therefore, the recent election in the US (2020), with Biden (Democrat) won and trump (Republican) lost is also a signal towards a changed approach in many issue areas The focus is to see, whether the new President, Joe Biden who remained the 47th vice president during Obama’s administration for eight long years is going to follow the same lines as Barack Obama and whether he going to reverse the policies of Donald Trump?

Looking at first the climate change issues, President Joe Biden’s plans to tackle  it seems more ambitious than any of the US presidential candidates so far. Biden during his presidential campaign proposed $2trillion over four years to significantly escalate the use of clean energy in transportation, electricity and building sectors. His public health and environment platform planned the establishment of a climate and environmental justice division. He further intends to make the US electricity production carbon-free by 2035 with achieving net-zero emissions by middle of the century. Apart from all these, the most noticeable is President Joe Biden’s promise to reverse Trump’s plan to exit from the Paris climate agreement that was signed back in 2016 under Obama’s administration. 

As Joe Biden in response to the former President, Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement on 4th-Nov 2020, tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.” He further stated“Reversing the decision would be one of my first acts as president”. This is exactly what happened as Joe Biden’s first act in the Oval Office was his signing an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement.  Thus, while Trump has taken a strident anti-climate approach, President Joe Biden decision shows his intentions to bring back the policies of Obama towards climate change. 

Considering the health sector, we again find difference in approaches of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, yet similarity between Biden and Obama. As, President Joe Biden in his presidential campaign speech in Lancaster on June 25, 2020 defended the first American healthcare law also known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare that was initiated by Obama’s administration. He stated, “I’m proud of the Affordable Care Act. In addition to helping people with pre-existing conditions, it delivered vital coverage for 20 million Americans who did not have health insurance”. This depicts President Joe Biden’s plans to restore Obama’s health care policies. 

America is known as the land for all, a land of cultural diversity, but we have seen with Donald Trump coming to power, the immigration rules became very strict as he imposed restrictions on foreigner’s visits to the US. An example of this is Trump’s first Muslim travel ban announced on January 27, 2017, whereby five Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, were banned from traveling to the United States. Trump stated, the act is needed for national security and to save the country from terrorism. However, this discriminatory act was opposed by ex-President Obama, who in 2016, stated: “America was a country founded on religious freedom. We don’t have religious tests here”. 

This is what President Joe Biden also believes in, as he called Trump’s actions on immigration a pitiless assault on American values. On November 8, 2020 during the presidential campaign, he said,“My administration will look like America with Muslim Americans serving at every level,” and “on my first day in office I’ll end Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban.”So, President Joe Biden did what he said, as on his first day in office he signed 17 executive orders, memorandums and proclamations, including orders to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and end the Muslim ban

Then racism that increased in the US under former President Donald Trump is now challenged by President Joe Biden as he came up with a very different idea just like Barack Obama’s notion of “A more perfect Union”. Example of which is Kamala Harris, who became the first black Asian America woman vice-president in American history. More can be seen by Joe Biden giving credit to African Americans for helping him win the election. So, his presidency is seen as a sign of hope to end racism in the country. 

Moving further, we know globalization has cut the long-distance short, it has made countries more interconnected in all aspects, especially economic. To name a champion of globalization, obviously no other than the USA comes into the mind of every single person. Under the administration of Obama, we have seen the US convening the G-20 summit, introduced macro-economic policies, signed Trans pacific partnership, and much more. However, the question is, whether the US is going to retain this all under Joe Biden’s presidency? What would be his approach towards the ongoing US-China trade war? 

President Joe Biden from the very start has focused on rebuilding the domestic economy, as the slogan ‘Build Back Better’. Therefore, he clearly stated that the US will not enter any international trade deals unless the domestic concerns of labor and the environment are fully addressed. Moreover, looking at the US-China trade war, which started back in 2018 when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese goods worth more than $360bn, we don’t find much difference except the tactics. As Joe Biden too in his presidential campaign accused China of violating international trade rules, subsidizing its companies, and stealing U.S. intellectual property. He promised to continue with Trump’s heavy tariffs on Chinese imports, but while Trump did this all unilaterally, Biden would continue it together with the allies.

On issues related to national security, we again find President Joe Biden’s approach a bit different from that of Donald Trump. Considering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or p5+1 deal that was signed between Islamic Republic of Iran and 5 permanent members of UNSC along with Germany. It imposed several restrictions on Iran in exchange for sanction reliefs and was achieved by Obama’s administration under his “constructive engagement policy“in 2015 But Trump smashed it by calling it a historical blunder and in 2018 under his “Maximum pressure policy” pulled the USA out of the deal and reinstated sanctions. Iran too after the withdrawal of US from JCPOA and upon Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) commander Qasim Sulemani killing by the US airstrike announced that it no longer adheres to the 2015 Nuclear Deal. 

Now, the hope is President Joe Biden, as he stated in his presidential campaign that the “maximum pressure” policy has failed, emphasizing that it led to a significant escalation in tensions, and that Iran is now closer to a nuclear weapon than it was when Trump came to office. Therefore, he pledged to rejoin the nuclear accord if Iran returns to strict compliance. Here again it shows President Joe Biden’s intention to follow Obama’s approach of constructive engagement towards Iran. 

When it comes to Afghanistan, Trump decided to end the endless war in Afghanistan by having a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban, according to which the US will withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan. However, Joe Biden has not taken any clear decision on it yet. But he is under pressure as the Taliban wants the new president to follow the same peace accord achieved by the Trump administration. Yet, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani has requested President Joe Biden to rethink the Afghan peace deal. Therefore, it is too early to say what Biden would do. 

To sum up, the 78 years old Joe Biden who has smashed the election records by securing more votes than any presidential candidate in the history of United States elections, he has not only raised high expectations, but there are numerous challenges on his way as well. This is because his policies would now be a center of focus for many. In most of the issue areas, we see President Joe Biden reversing the policies of Donald Trump and following the path of Obama’s Administration. Something which he promised during his presidential campaign as he said to take the country on a very different path from what it has been in the past four years under former President Donald Trump’s administration. However, it’s just the start of a new journey for America and the future decisions by President Joe Biden will uncover a lot more

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How Uncle Sam views the world by 2040

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How the US is seeing the future world is revealed in a recent report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, published by the National Intelligence Council of the US. This report of political, social and economic estimates is prepared through an integrated process for every incoming President of the USA. For Biden, the report was published in March this year. The world, its politics, economics and societies, is going to change under the forces stemmed in changes in demographic modalities, environmental fluctuations, economic preferences and technological transformations. These together are going to impact on societies, states and international systems which would end in sketching five different futures of the world. Uncle Sam seems to be shaking the world, and this time even more intensely.

Starting off how the forces will interact and intersect, it all begins with the changes in demographics. The developed economies are aging bringing a global slow economic growth whereas the contracting working age will weigh on the economies of these developed countries as Japan and South Korea will reach the median age of 53 and Europe the median age of 47 by 2040. On the other side, in developing countries the converse will be happening as Sub Saharan Africa will reach median age of less than 15 years whereas Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan will reach the median age of 30 years. This seems opportunity but these economies will be challenged to meet the demands of the growing working age populace in their economies with the slow global economic growth remaining constant dragging the societies into  social volatilities while testing the performances of states too.

The forces of environment will leave no country unaffected especially the developing countries that lack in adaptations skills and technologies. The occurrence of heat waves, melting of Arctic, land degradation, water misuses, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels and pollution will erode the ‘human security’ while affecting states and societies, politics and economics coequally. For curtailing environmental threats, countries may apply geoengineering by interacting with the natural system of earth to counteract threats of climate change like releasing the sun’s energy back into space through Solar Radiations Management or Stratospheric Aerosol Injection spraying to cause global dimming. The developed countries especially US and China will see suspicions on sincerely working on environmental threats as this would require economic sacrifices.

In the sphere of Economics, the national debt management will push countries to avoid funding on the issues of environment as they will already be pressed hard for matching the needs of the growing demands of their elderly and younger populations alike. Covid 19 has already left indelible imprints on the economies of the world especially the developing countries two fifths of which, according to 2019 IMF assessment, were at debt distress. Automation and rapidly growing AI will reduce 9 percent global jobs and transform one third by 2040 while at the same time creating massive new technology and automation stemmed jobs which will test the states adaptability to manoeuvring technology. This will have disproportionate effect across the countries and regions. The element of Superstar firms, the new multinationals, will critically affect world economies and make definitive inroads in the affairs of politics.

The technological forces will surpass all other forces in intensity especially with the significant rise of AI and Biotechnology. The US-China rivalry in this sphere will be rampant. AI will disrupt global current workforce while also creating new dimensions of labor compelling the countries to remodel their working force structures. The application of AI in warfare will be on the rise and will be adding a new element to the geopolitical dynamics. AI is well positioned to fly and reach space which will turn the space diplomacy in new form and bring the two global rivals face to face. AI will siphon out the human element of emotions in making decisions having social effects.

As these forces interact, world will see five possible scenarios in which the first three are the prominent.

In the first scenario, it will the US and allies led democracy which will manipulate the world. Being democratic, there will be more space for innovation and the rise of technology with robust public private partnerships will prosperously affect economic growth of the countries. This will enable the states to be responsive to their people’s needs while the same time making adaptations unlike in the repressive regimes of Russian and China whose policies will let them on steady decline.

In the second scenario, it will be China which will be mastering the world arena but not exactly acting like leading it due to its inherent repressive dynamics. This will happen on account of failure of international organizations with least interest paid to them by the major powers. The factors of high national debt, the costs of caring for aging populations, and hazardous environmental occurrences will havoc states’ budgets and keep them away from spending on education, infrastructure, and scientific research. In these circumstances due to the integrally centralist and controlled Chinese centralism will help China gain global attention through its global infrastructure packages and other initiatives. Many countries will thus tilt to the Chinese sidelines.

In the third effectual scenario, it will be a contested coexistence of US and China which will emerge. This will be based on shared economic and growth preferences and agreements.

Much of what is stated in the report must be happening in the world ahead but much of what is left unstated is more critical. Summed up, there will be more instability, pandemics, economic recessions, state conflicts and disorders in the five different worlds that lay ahead.

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Understanding Ronald Regan’s approach to the Cold War

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President and Mrs. Reagan at the 1981 inauguration parade. Image source: Wikipedia

President Ronald Reagan’s ascendency in the political hierarchy of the United States, ending in him becoming the President is often regarded as a triumphant victory by American conservatives. His conception of the world order, domestic and international relations show a reflection of a conservative understanding of issues. His legacy as president remains as having effectively brought down the Soviet Union and the threat of Communism. His policies towards the Soviet Union have a transformative nature, as his understanding and approach to US-Soviet relations changed radically after his first term. Though being a staunch Anti-communist and regarding the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, he sought to ensure that America and its idea of a “Free World” prevailed and later on, that the two most significant military powers would reach common ground in order to make peace more sustainable.

In studying his approach to tackling the Soviet threat, it’s important to first understand the correlation between the policies adopted by previous administrations and Reagan’s own pursuit of defeating the Communist threat which at the height of the Cold War, threatened to spill into a full-scale conflict between the two regional hegemons. Previous administrations had traditionally approached the threat posed by the Soviet Union with a policy of preventing the collapse of European allies at the hands of the Soviet Union. This included stymieing the spread of Communism across the world and the consistent development of Ballistic missiles in order to deter a Soviet military advance into Europe by providing a “nuclear umbrella” to European Allies.  Before the Reagan administration this policy was in large part accepted as the means through which the Soviet threat could be effectively challenged. President Reagan followed a similar policy by pursuing aggressive military buildup and focusing on development of a vast range of ballistic missile platforms which would act as a comprehensive deterrent in preventing the Soviet decision-making elite to pursue a path unacceptable to US strategists (ARBATOV 2019). Being disillusioned with the far left, his opinions and campaign slogans had strong ideological underpinnings which would later on influence his dealings with the Soviet Union.

 The changes in Reagan’s policy weren’t without the influence of another very important personality, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader’s role in Reagan’s change in policy from antagonism to rapprochement is widely claimed by academic scholars as a major contributing factor for the rethink in Reagans approach to Communist Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s revolutionary approach to International Relations was followed by America’s “reactionary response” in the shape of pursuance of arms control and softening of political rhetoric (Fischer 1997). Ronald Reagan second term in office was marked by a change in his policy of pursuing aggressive development of arms and making space-based missile defense systems having the capability of destroying incoming Soviet missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative was seen by many in the Soviet ranks as a dangerous escalation of arms race which had the potential of transforming into military conflict. (Britannica, T.Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021). Seeing and acknowledging Gorbachev’s new approach as “revolutionary” President Reagan sought to rely on an intense sustained engagement with the Soviet leader in order to achieve what his previous approach had failed to do (Talbott 2004).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s approach to the subject of foreign policy was based on establishing relations with the west and a recalibration of ties with the United States. At the time of the Cold War a large part of the effort by the two nations was to prevent the other state from gaining a definitive edge in the area of technology, military and nuclear weapons. Apart from the ideological conflict the Cold War witnessed many states in the world becoming the conflict grounds in which the US and USSR sought to establish their control and influence. Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival into the political spectrum and pursuing a policy of peace and prevention of creation of arms was in large part influenced by the domestic environment of his country. The Soviet Union after Brezhnev had a weakened economy due to extensive spending building and maintaining large military industries and sophisticated missile delivery and defense systems. The Russian political elite largely dominated by Russians. Gorbachev’s “restructuring” in order to improve the economic conditions of the state was also followed by a rethink at the foreign policy front. In his famous interview at Harvard University he described how the conditions of repression, arrests and suppression of critical voices against the state were silenced. This led to perestroika which gained support from the Russian masses. (The Harvard Gazette 2004).

The question as to the extent to which the effect of President Reagan and Gorbachev’s relationship caused “reversal” of US foreign policy with regards to the Soviet Union should be considered through different metrics. Firstly it’s important to study how the “Reagan doctrine” which formulated the plan of tackling soviet expansionism into countries across the globe evolved during the time of Reagan’s Presidential terms. Ronald Reagan’s doctrine was a shift from previous administrations approach to the Soviet threat. In what was previously termed as “containment” of Soviet expansionism, Reagan’s approach constituted of a “roll back” of Soviet expansionist forces across the world. From “Afghanistan to Nicaragua” Reagan’s approach was an active effort to subdue Soviet expansionist forces seeking to gain a foothold in important areas such as South Asia and Central Americas. (US Department of State archive 2001). While toning down the harsh rhetoric and signing important arms control treaties, US efforts to prevent Soviet expansionism continued despite a thaw in relations and a warm cordial relationship between the two world leaders. 

Reagan’s original agenda of an aggressive military buildup and development of ballistic missiles saw a reversal during his second term. Both leaders sought to control the arms race and roll back on the creation of such weapons. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1) and other similar treaties was a ‘break away’ from Reagan’s original doctrinal approach. Gorbachev’s willingness to engage in talks was what initiated this change. What is also interesting to note is that despite belonging to radically different ideologies, both leaders shared a similar view on important matters. This is significant as both leaders expressed the desire to regulate arms control and to promote peace.

Another important element is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which saw an all-out Soviet effort to establish control over the region and reach the warm waters of the Arabian sea. The United States, eying an opportunity and realizing the threat of a possible soviet hold of South Asia, actively supported the Afghan Mujahedeen. Through Pakistan, the US pivotal role resulted in the Soviet forces failing to defeat the guerrilla forces despite huge numbers of troops and highly sophisticated weapon systems. This costly conflict was to prove detrimental to Soviet morale and the economy. After having effectively taken over, Gorbachev became heavily involved in restoring the economy and control over the production of arms between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev sought to move away from previous Soviet leaders doctrines and open diplomatic channels which would result in the final culmination of the Cold War.

President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was marked with a significant contrast in approaches to the Soviet threat. Having become president, his strong ideological standpoints were the driving forces behind his policies. With the Soviet Union, Reagan’s original approach was that of confronting, condemning and a protectionist mindset. Being a vocal proponent of American values of free speech, liberty and democracy his political campaigns to his televised addresses portrayed the Soviet Union as the principals threat to the very principals that America stood for. Like previous administrations, combating soviet expansionism and attaining global hegemony were prized objectives which defined much of US policies during the first term of President Reagan. His second term however saw a ‘shift’ in part of Reagan’s understanding of greater and more pressing issues at hand which demanded attention. Having originally promoted military spending and development of sophisticated missile weapon systems, Reagan’s view changed by the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Both leaders, seeking initially to control production of arms, sought other means to create an environment more conducive for peace. While motivations differed, there was consensus between the two leaders on important matters which made diplomatic summits productive and resulted in many arms treaties. Both leaders established a relationship of trust and warmth which had largely been unseen since the start of the Cold War. These meetings were then followed by confidence building measures and trips to respective capitals which allowed a further thaw in the relations. Despite continued conflict in other states, both leaders relationship saw a significant reversal in the policies of US under the Reagan administration.

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