Trump as Reagan
China is the greatest threat to world peace.
New Delhi: The importance of long-term strategy and goals in foreign policy cannot be overstated. If President Donald Trump wishes to be forgotten after one or two terms, he can carry on as now: Twittering away nonstop, heaping abuses on the media, trashing the US establishment, and looking no further than his family to recruit his closest aides. In India, this is called dynastic politics. It has brought ruin to a political party which was till recently ruling the country and established over one-hundred-and-thirty years ago, namely, the Indian National Congress. The United States has more secure checks and balances than India does, so the damage that Trump’s dynastic politics can inflict will primarily be on his person and on his presidency. He will be reduced to nothing if he goes on in the way he is.
On the other hand, if President Trump desires to leave a mark on history, and propel the United States to greater heights, he has no option but to revert to the traditions and policies established by some of his illustrious predecessors, chief of them being Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was not a planner and strategist in the real sense of those terms. He was conceivably one of the most unorthodox US Presidents of contemporary history, but he put America back in the strategic game which it had been losing to the Soviet Union through the late 1960s and all of the Seventies. While being unorthodox in form, he was indeed quite orthodox in the substance of his foreign policy, which flowed in an unbroken thread from the tenets laid down by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like them, Reagan came to project US exceptionalism with ideological fervour, in which he single-mindedly pursued the object of containing Soviet Russia.
This piece is constrained from its journalistic nature from exploring the entirety of Reagan’s foreign policy, but it should be of indubitable interest to President Trump to know why Reagan succeeded while Richard Nixon failed, though he had a brilliant grasp of foreign policy, and was intellectually superior as well. While Nixon inherited a stalemated war in Vietnam and a vicious Peace Movement at home, Reagan confronted foreign policy nightmares as bad and perhaps worse. His very first term was brought face to face with the twin menaces of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while the United States elsewhere was in retreat, and the US Congress had put a stranglehold on American strategic defence spending.
In this sea of troubles, Reagan’s greatness was never to lose focus. Drawing on the vision of Truman and Eisenhower and going as far back as Woodrow Wilson, he laboured with messianic zeal to end Soviet communism and encourage democracy. Winning the support of American people, and overcoming his own deep conviction against nuclear weapons, he authorized the arms race that brought down the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse could have been structured if Mikhail Gorbachev had gone along with Reagan’s disarmament proposals made at the Reykjavik Summit in their entirety, but it was not to be.
Unlike Nixon, Reagan was not a realist. He believed in change. Nixon’s realism, considerably bolstered and misshaped by the counsels of Henry Kissinger, produced the opening to China in the early 1970s as a way to prod the Soviet Union to detente and to ease the US drawdown from Vietnam. The opening to China went against US establishment policy since the 1949 revolution and the Korean War and came at a huge price. It was too big a price to contain the Soviet Union, and it has come to haunt the United States. China is today the US’s number 1 adversary. Overextended Russia helmed by the strategic cipher, Vladimir Putin, is a distant second. The Islamists come third in the absence of other strategic threats to the United States. President Trump should know that Ronald Reagan was the only US President after the opening to China who was neither impressed by nor enamoured of it. Always a loner, the Chinese could not pierce his reserve. He restored arms sales to Taiwan to maintain the balance of forces between China and Taiwan.
Where Ronald Reagan made a beginning to sideline China in world affairs, Trump is presented an opportunity to take it to conclusion. If President Trump wishes to succeed like Reagan, he has to have a clear vision of the world and America’s role in making that possible. As long as totalitarian China grows in strength and menaces its neighbours, there can be no peace. China is the post-Cold War equivalent of the Soviet Union. The United States and the freedom of the world will be constantly at threat if China is not contained. The missiles aimed at Syria should have destroyed North Korea’s nuclear forces prior. It is still not late.
There will only be any meaning to the Trump presidency if Chinese expansionism is contained. Ronald Reagan had set objectives about Soviet Russia. If Trump can downsize China, his presidency will be feted by history. America’s greatest general of the twentieth century, Douglas MacArthur, never underestimated the threat from China. Neither should the Donald Trump administration.