Using the Reagan arms control legacy correctly

By Todd Fine | June 10, 2009

While conservatives find comfort in channeling Ronald Reagan’s memory in support of their national security policies, liberals have mostly ceded to his symbol. Indeed, when Barack Obama referenced Reagan as a model transformational president during the Democratic primary, his opponent Hillary Clinton pounced on the statement for her political gain. However, given the challenges in the Senate facing President Obama’s treaty agenda related to nuclear weapons, disarmament advocates are becoming more and more amenable to invoking Reagan and his deeply held views against these weapons as a rhetorical bludgeon in persuading Republicans on upcoming issues such as START renewal and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). And while the strategy appears clever and mostly costless, there are pitfalls awaiting those too hasty in entering this alien rhetorical space.

The basic premise of Reagan’s fundamental belief in elimination is solid. Most Reagan historians (and his own personal historian, Nancy) have concluded that he was a sincere, perhaps lifelong, abolitionist, and that these views strongly colored and motivated his policies. While his opinions were well known by his advisers, they only recently have received greater academic scrutiny and public attention. The popular narrative of Reagan’s defense buildup breaking the back of the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War has often overshadowed his ambitious arms control agenda, despite the 1986 Reykjavik Summit that nearly led to a framework for elimination of nuclear weapons within 10 years, a still incredible event that’s hard to reconcile with the popular narrative of Reagan’s presidency. At the time, many conservatives were themselves horrified with Reagan’s turn toward arms control, raising the question of whether, given sufficient prompting, these memories might be again recalled.

In 2005, Random House published a book by a young historian, Paul Lettow, entitled Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. It gathered extensive evidence of Reagan’s abolitionism, showing how Reagan constantly inserted the desirability of abolition into his speeches, ordered his puzzled subordinates to write studies about its feasibility, and, most incredibly, seriously endeavored for the conclusion of an agreement toward their complete elimination at Reykjavik and elsewhere.

While this book was certainly no massive success in the popular conservative book trade, one could make a strong inferential case that it had a substantial impact on the Republican foreign policy elite. Lettow, in researching his book, networked with nearly all of Reagan’s living foreign policy advisers and interviewed Secretary of State George Shultz, chief nuclear negotiator Max Kampelman, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, and many others. Some might dispute the exact genealogy of the Shultz-Nunn-Perry-Kissinger group that has advocated for eventual elimination, the so-called “Four Horsemen,” but Kampelman has said that he prompted Shultz to return to the subject of elimination once Kampelman realized that 9/11 might indicate that perhaps “Reagan was right” about its desirability. And in April 2006, almost a year before the Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shultz and his group, Kampelman made a naked argument for elimination within a well-received op-ed in the New York Times.

There is also evidence that the rhetoric about Reagan has already impacted the party politics of the issue. One of the greatest fears of the anti-nuclear lobby during the 2008 presidential campaign was that the McCain campaign might decide to attack Obama’s consistent rhetoric in favor of the concept of abolition as being naïve and utopian. Yet, in a May 2008 speech at the University of Denver, McCain blocked off this potential by stating, “A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.’ That is my dream, too.”

According to the New York Times, this choice of language caused controversy within the McCain campaign, apparently with his more neoconservative advisers opposing the Reaganite internationalists who had been organizing themselves around this issue during the previous several years (Shultz and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger et al.). At a recent event reviewing the Reagan presidency at the American Enterprise Institute, one of McCain’s foreign policy advisers stated publicly that it was McCain’s respect for Reagan that ultimately led him to embrace this view.

Therefore, given the evident power of the Reagan symbol, the major new campaigns on nuclear weapons and their elimination, the Nuclear Security Project, Global Zero, and the Two Futures Project, have all deployed Reagan’s memory in their marketing materials and rhetoric. But, already, in the haste to use Reagan politically, they have made errors that could ultimately weaken the potency of his symbol. For instance, the 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed implies that Reagan himself said that nuclear weapons are “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” But while there are many other perfectly acceptable quotations along these lines from Reagan, this is actually a paraphrasing of his view by Amb. Jack Matlock that appears in Lettow’s book and has been frequently falsely attributed to Reagan ever since.

As this casual and confident appropriation of Reagan’s presumed policy preference continues, conservatives and skeptics of this new wave of abolitionism will become increasingly frustrated with perceived distortions of Reagan’s views. One critic, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, has said that he is willing to begin a debate about the merits of elimination on the ground of Reagan’s views so long as that is where people would like to initiate the discussion.

There also are definite and concrete policy questions that abolition advocates will need to address that may complicate their embrace of the Reagan symbol. Most prominently, it’s clear that, for Reagan, the elimination of nuclear weapons was fundamentally tied to his interest in missile defense and the possible neutralization of nuclear missiles altogether. Indeed, Reagan spoke about universalizing and sharing missile defense technologies with other nations as a part of the road to zero. Yet, it seems increasingly likely that future progress with Russia on strategic arms control may necessitate restrictions and cutbacks in missile defense development and deployment.

Furthermore, it’s pure conjecture to know how Reagan would have seen nuclear weapons in the face of today’s political uncertainty in China and Russia. The recent reports on the nuclear infrastructure emerging from the Pentagon after the air force security mistakes have emphasized these political uncertainties when expressing the view that nuclear deterrence will be needed for the foreseeable future. Also, given that there is no agreed timetable for elimination in the current arms control dialogue, adding Reagan’s moral weight to a debate on the CTBT seems rather artificial.

Another problem is the increasing overlap between nuclear and conventional weapons. There are signs that Russia may require that Prompt Global Strike, the long-range conventional platform, enter into discussions surrounding deep cuts to nuclear systems. Reagan’s popular association with substantial investments in conventional weapons might conflict with this possible component of future arms control negotiations. Hence, advocates of deep cuts, and certainly abolition, need to do much more thinking about connections to conventional arms control, possibly looking at other model treaties such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The Obama administration does have an ambitious progressive agenda on nuclear weapons, and there will most certainly be major treaty ratification battles in the Senate. The Reagan legacy will inevitably be part of these debates, and both sides will need to tread reasonably and carefully.

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