Free Minds & Free Markets

The Reagan Doctrine

Should it stay or should it go?

Should the U.S. government aid anti-communist insurgents? This question of whether the so-called Reagan Doctrine is right or wrong divides—often bitterly—even those who share a common devotion to individual liberty. Yet all too often, the two sides talk past each other. Put them in a room together, add a good moderator, and they won't. That's what the editors of REASON figured when we asked four of our authors, with widely varying views, to debate the question one afternoon in early March—the same day, it so happened, that the Tower Commission released its findings on the Iran-contra affair.

Our panel included two men who can, and do, claim some credit for introducing the Reagan Doctrine to Ronald Reagan. Laurence W. Beilenson, a former trial lawyer and author of numerous books on history and foreign policy, first articulated the doctrine's theoretical basis long before Reagan became president. Jack Wheeler, president of the Freedom Research Foundation, traveled around the world for REASON to report on anti-Soviet resistance movements. His series of articles and subsequent speeches encouraged policymakers to think of these insurgents not as isolated cases but as a worldwide rebellion against the Soviet Union.

On the other side of the table, literally and figuratively, were two frequent critics of the doctrine and of U.S. intervention abroad in general. Ted Galen Carpenter, a historian, is a foreign policy analyst for the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Christopher Layne, an attorney by profession, writes frequently on foreign policy not only for REASON but also for such publications as The New Republic and Foreign Policy. The discussion was moderated by Reason Foundation president and REASON publisher Robert W. Poole, Jr.

Robert W. Poole, Jr.: We'll start by addressing the general question of the rightness of the Reagan Doctrine—what do each of you think about whether it is appropriate for a free society, for a society that believes in limited government and individual liberty? I'd like to start off by asking Jack to make the basic case for the rightness of the doctrine.

Jack Wheeler: It is an entirely legitimate and necessary function of the government to provide defense. The U.S. is up against an enemy of staggering military power whose purpose of existence is to remove every obstacle in its way to world domination. That is the religion of Soviet Marxism. We are obligated in terms of our national survival to take every measure that we can to weaken the Soviet Union and to render it incapable of being a threat to the U.S. Supporting these freedom fighter organizations is the most cost-effective way that I can possibly think of to defend the interests of the U.S. and to also do something which I would consider to be moral, and that is to make an effort to bring freedom to these peoples under Soviet colonial sway.

Poole: Ted, would you like to give us your reasons for questioning the rightness of the doctrine as a free society's policy?

Ted Carpenter: The Reagan Doctrine, as Jack has just enunciated it, has deficiencies both from the standpoint of security concerns and also moral concerns. That is not to say that there are no strategic or moral arguments for the Reagan Doctrine, because I think there are. But a number of very important subsidiary questions have to be addressed, and I don't think most proponents of the Reagan Doctrine have ever done so.

With regard to security, we must ask ourselves whether supporting these movements inevitably enhances the security of the U.S. Conversely, would support for only some of them enhance our security? What are the risks involved—both in terms of financial cost and also the potential for long-term undesirable political and military entanglements? With regard to the moral dimension, we have to ask ourselves whether all of these insurgents are indeed freedom fighters or whether many of them, while they may be anticommunist, do not necessarily stand for freedom. I think we have to be very, very careful if we are going to link our heritage and our values to diverse insurgencies with often murky ideologies.

I also think it's an oversimplification to assert that the Soviet colonial empire extends to every regime that has a Soviet presence in that country or exhibits a clear pro-Soviet policy. They may well be rather repulsive and undesirable regimes, but that does not in and of itself make them Soviet puppets.

Laurence W. Beilenson: I think the great mistake is in calling it the Reagan Doctrine. Any successful subversion has to be long-term. Therefore it has to outlive any president, and furthermore it needs a consensus of the American people in order to make it successful. I agree more with Mr. Wheeler than I do with Mr. Carpenter. The fact is that it is a mistake to speak of Marxism. Lenin. The Soviet policy is what Lenin said Marx meant. If you read Lenin's works, he's perfectly clear on the whole subject. You always have to ask, by what tool? Is it war, subversion, subsidy, or what tool? Now Lenin was very clear that the major tool of the Soviet Union was not to be war but was to be subversion.

I would confine U.S. aid to money aid only, and I would not have the CIA administer it. I would make clear publicly that we would not go further than money. That is the only way you'll ever get a consensus. You have to give up the military approach completely. In Nicaragua, for instance, I would withdraw all the ships, the troops, and the CIA. Give them the money, leave them alone, let them make their own mistakes. Of course, they'll make them. But the CIA has made and will make more.

Christopher Layne: In a sense, it's perhaps wrong to call this the Reagan Doctrine. What it really represents is a revitalization of the Truman Doctrine and Cold War liberalism. It reflects a perception of the world as bipolar ideologically. It very much overstates the nature of the Soviet threat to American security.

If the Reagan Doctrine is followed to its logical conclusion, the U.S. is going to find itself with a foreign policy of undifferentiated global interventionism, because the doctrine as it has been articulated makes no distinction between what are vital American interests and what is merely desirable to accomplish in the world. As Professor George Guester phrased it, the world might be a better place and a more comfortable place if all nations were governed in the same manner as Minnesota, but the fact is the rest of the world is not like Minnesota and the world is not infinitely malleable. And for the U.S. to reshape the world—at horrible costs to its domestic institutions, at horrible economic costs, at horrible political costs internationally—is a goal, an objective, that is far beyond our material or psychological resources.

No one who considers themselves to be a foreign policy realist would ever say that in a great-power rivalry, such as that between the United States and Soviet Union, the U.S. should always forswear the use of force or the use of subversion. But the Reagan Doctrine is framed in terms of per se. And I think that is a very dangerous thing.

There are two other points that disturb me and that I hope will come out as this discussion continues. One is that not every government that we disapprove of in the Third World is necessarily in Moscow's camp. Nationalism and pluralism in the Third World are rampant forces that the U.S. is going to have to learn to deal with.

Finally, one reason I personally recoil from the Reagan Doctrine is the implication that by inflicting these defeats on the Soviets in the Third World the U.S. is going to somehow trigger an internal transformation of the Soviet Union. The fact is, for better or worse again, the Soviet Union is here to stay for a very long time. And history offers no convincing proof that great powers are brought low by small defeats. It does provide numerous examples of great powers that have been laid low by embracing foreign policies that are simply beyond their powers to sustain.

Beilenson: You say it's a danger to high institutions—in my opinion if we're going to follow this policy it should be openly announced. You should get a consensus of the American people and of Congress. You say the Soviet Union is here to stay. Of course it is. That is as Russia is here to stay. But if you look at the whole history of subversion, you will find two trends that Lenin traced.

One, a government is a sometime thing. You never know when and where it will fall. Therefore, you keep trying. You never know when revolution will break out. Anybody in Europe would have told you before the French Revolution that it would break out in England and not in France, which had been stable for two centuries, and yet it came in France and not in England.

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