Those who have studied or worked with Ronald Reagan will tell you much can be learned from the former president about promoting democracy globally. Reagan used words to peacefully bring an end to the Cold War. He encouraged British Parliament to foster the infrastructure of democracy, telling them to “be shy no longer,” in a famous 1982 speech. On Friday, March 20, a panel of seven speakers, close to Reagan’s vision, discussed how his wisdom should influence today’s challenges of fostering global freedom.
A few hundred guests packed the Regent University Theatre to hear two panels hash out the issue of global freedom. Guests took to note cards to submit their questions to the speakers. The Hon. Aram Bakshian Jr. took stage first, reflecting upon Reagan as a happy Cold warrior. He said Reagan’s 1982 Westminster speech was a game-changer in the Cold War.
“It was a keystone, an arch of speeches amongst many others that defined the Cold War, how we felt about the issues. Step-by-step led to the end of that Cold War and the collapse of communism,” said Bakshian.
Reagan is remembered for labeling the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” and seeing it eventually collapse. Eureka College Reagan Scholar Craig Shirley provided a history of Reagan’s sacrifice to resist Soviet influence in the United States. As early as the 1940’s, Reagan was physically threatened and hired security to protect his family. Shirley highlighted the constant fight communist sympathizers in America placed against Reagan, personally and politically. Especially through his journey as president, Reagan had to face domestic contention to his vision for global freedom.
“From lobbyist Clark Clifford to writer Nicholas Von Hoffman to another writer, Anthony Lewis to historian Robert Dallek to many other prominent liberals, all in their own way either spoke up for Soviet communism or denounced Reagan’s stated goal of ‘consigning it to the ash heap of history,'” said Shirley.
Shirley cited instances where he says Senator Ted Kennedy, Jessie Jackson and Daniel Ortega violated the Logan Act to negotiate with communists and subvert President Reagan’s goal to see an end to Soviet expansion.
“These democrats did not just trample on the Logan Act,” said Shirley. “They tore it up!”
Fox News’ KT McFarland is the network’s national security analyst. She summed up the consequence of such attacks against promoting democracy in favor of communism, and she asked the question ‘what would Reagan do?’ in light of current issues.
McFarland said, much like today, our nation was dismal about its future just before Reagan entered office. He was able to turn things around and restore optimism. She is optimistic that a future “Reagan” could do the same today and is excited that freedom is allowing the United States to still be a leader in the globe since freedom enables people to develop new technologies.
“For the millennials watching online, this is your 1985,” said McFarland. “The world is hungry for American leadership. We’ve lost our way. We think of moral equivalency when it comes to our system of government compared to others, and there’s no such equivalency. Take a page out of Reagan’s Westminster speech. Understand that our system is the greatest in the history of the world because it unleashes human nature to do what human nature does best.”
Speakers contended that this free system should not just be kept within America’s borders. Panelist Dr. Henry Nau, a former senior staff member on President Reagan’s National Security Council, shared his advice of how Americans can spread liberty abroad while respecting it at home. He says Reagan was a conservative internationalist who saw a moral imperative to spreading democracy.
“Reagan saw it as central to the way the world worked,” said Nau. “For Reagan, world affairs were all about the struggle between ideas or political ideologies, between freedom and democracy on the one hand oppression and authoritarianism on the other. There could be no permanent coexistence with oppression.”
Nau says this thinking was highly unconventional and has remained that way to this day. He says Reagan’s worldview that ideas compete and shape realities, there are no moral equivalence of ideas, ideologies drive the balance of power and that freedom is universal and wins without war should inform how Americans approach the growth of freedom and peace today.
“Today realists and liberal internationalists dominate the academy and the contemporary policy debate, calling for America to pull back or hoping that negotiations alone will bring authoritarian powers like Iran, Russia, China and North Korea back into the fold,” said Nau. “Both realists and liberal internationalists de-emphasize democracy. There’s little wonder democracy is in retreat. Reagan would have none of that. He would be standing tall for freedom, backed by a strong American military and economy.”
Dr. William Inboden, executive director of the William P. Clements Jr. Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft and associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, then spoke of institutionalizing freedom. He showed how Reagan was able to translate his words into action.
“I think the historical record is pretty clear that the Reagan administration supported the right to democracy, and it contributed to one of the greatest expansions of freedom in history,” said Inboden.
This expansion came as Soviet influence began to self-implode. Dr. James Wilson, a diplomatic historian in the Department of State, provided perspective on just who the United States was up against during the Cold War and how the conflict eventually came to a close. He’s an expert on the topic, having authored The Triumph of Improvisation, where he suggests it took adaptation, improvisation and engagement on behalf of leaders to dodge nuclear war. This engagement differed from the terrorism the United States faces today in that Reagan had to interact directly with the leaders who opposed him.
“Terrorists are faceless. Communism is an ideology. It was not terrorism. It had a coherent set of principles, an order to society,” said Wilson. “Reagan, we know, rejected those principles. I think Reagan thought communism was less of an international issue than it was a false religion that corrupted individuals.”
It was through his resolve and the uncompromising of his principles that Reagan negotiated. Many speakers in the symposium agreed that this is what made him stand out from previous presidents, his unwillingness to contain communism and instead see it collapse on its own without nuclear force.
That sort of global war was avoided, according to panelist Dr. Kiron Skinner, because of Reagan’s regard for human rights. In essence, Skinner said Reagan is remembered for his idea of peace through strength.
“The build up was part of a strategy for a very different goal, to spread human rights around the world and make people free,” said Skinner. “I don’t think it was as much as to instill democracy in every country that he could, but to really increase the capacity of civil society, and then let people choose the particular form of government that they would want. He believed in the power of the American ideal, but he wasn’t like many Republicans and Democrats in recent decades, who have seen it as a responsibility of the United States.”
The annual Reagan symposium brought students, professionals and educators to Regent’s campus. More than 200 attended in person, and many others joined online. It is one of the largest outreach events held by the Robertson School of Government. (RSG).