It is rare for world leaders to be selected on the basis of their foreign policy acumen or experience. Most leaders are chosen over rivals because of skills in domestic politics.
Consequently, those who shape international affairs are best understood first as politicians and only later perhaps as statesmen. Understanding how leaders come to and stay in office is far more important to our grasp of major events in international politics than traditional ideas about the balance of power or polarity.
Ronald Reagan’s successes illustrate this central claim. Reagan needed to run on a peace plan in 1980: a telephone survey taken by the Gallup Poll during the primaries had found that 46 percent of those questioned thought President Jimmy Carter would be more likely to keep the country out of war, while 31 percent thought Reagan would. Despite widespread expectations that he would favor abandoning nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviets, Reagan in fact supported continued talks, although under revised terms.
Reagan’s proposals in 1980 fundamentally challenged conventional economic and strategic assumptions. Reagan told voters that U.S. leaders, including President Carter, had for decades completely misunderstood the Cold War. But Reagan’s masterstroke was to present himself as a man of peace.
Reagan told voters that they should separate his strategy of rearmament from his objective of mutual cooperation with the Soviet Union. This was the heart of his interpretation of the conservative slogan “peace through strength.” While Carter labored to appear strong on defense, Reagan presented a muted version of his own foreign policy and defense plans. Speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering in Chicago on August 18, 1980, he expressed in peaceful terms his call for a military buildup.
“Actually, I’ve called for whatever it takes to be so strong that no other nation will dare violate the peace,” Reagan said. “World peace must be our number one priority. It is the first task of statecraft to preserve peace so that brave men need not die in battle. But it must not be peace at any price. It must not be a peace of humiliation and gradual surrender.”
Speaking to a crowd in Cincinnati two months later, Reagan unleashed one of his most thorough attempts to portray himself as a man of peace and Carter as a hapless warmonger.
“The president of the United States seems determined to have me start a nuclear war,” he said. “Well, I’m just as determined not to. As a matter of fact, his foreign policy, his vacillation, his weakness is allowing our allies throughout the world to no longer trust us and our adversaries to no longer respect us. There’s a far greater danger of an unwanted, inadvertent war with that policy than there is with someone in there who believes that the first thing we should do is rebuild our defensive capability.”
Reagan recast the national debate to his advantage, redefining the political mainstream to exclude his key opponents and placing himself in the newly defined core. Reagan entered the post-1976 electoral scene arguing, in essence, that the debate over how best to coexist with the Soviet Union was the wrong debate, on the wrong problem. He contended that the issue was not how to coexist, but rather how to defeat the Soviets peacefully, bringing an end to the Cold War and the global communist threat.
Reagan decided not to raise his ideas about a Strategic Defense Initiative during the 1980 campaign. He suppressed his opinions not because he had doubts about their merits but because he believed that expressing them would diminish, rather than expand, his coalition of support. Thus, although he may have told the truth to voters as he saw it, he left out those elements of his outlook that were likely to hinder his mission to persuade voters to support him.
A politician following Reagan’s model for campaigning would engage in an almost positive method of negative campaigning. There is no need to slur the opponent’s character or good intentions, or even the opponent’s competence to manage affairs as conventionally understood. Rather, the candidate highlights the inadequacy of the rival’s understanding of what the real problems are.
Although every seeker of the presidency since the end of World War II had debated how best to live with the Soviet threat (encirclement, mutually assured destruction, flexible response, détente, and so forth), Reagan was the only major-party candidate for president who argued that the Soviet threat could be defeated, rather than simply managed.
It did not matter for his electoral prospects that hindsight would prove him right. What mattered was that he could persuade voters to dismiss his rivals as archaic thinkers who did not understand the real problems of the day.
Radical, extraordinary changes in foreign policy can result from political campaigns that are run largely on domestic issues. Along with Reagan’s 1980 campaign, Boris Yeltsin’s focus on internal Soviet and Russian questions during his campaigns from 1989 to 1991 nonetheless catalyzed the end of the Cold War. Domestic political maneuvering, more than grand strategy, contributed to the most important international political change of the latter half of the twentieth century—and, arguably, of modern history.