Remembering Reagan’s Foreign Policy Legacy

Michael Evans/The White House/Getty Images

Frank Carlucci Advisory Council, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition
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As we approach the next Republican primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, you can rest assured there will be no shortage of candidates eager to portray themselves as the standard bearers of the Reagan foreign policy legacy. “Peace through strength,” “trust but verify”; these are widely known hallmarks of President Reagan’s clear-eyed approach to international affairs. I helped turn these truisms into realities as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense.

However, there are other components to President Reagan’s foreign policy successes equally as important as military might.  Crucial to my former Commander in Chief’s achievements on the world stage were vigorous diplomacy and robust assistance programs. President Reagan knew active diplomacy and strategic foreign assistance were essential to promoting freedom around the world, to making us and our allies safer, and to encouraging economic growth. Under Reagan’s leadership, the U.S. International Affairs Budget reached its highest level in the last forty years as a percentage of the nation’s GDP. Yet today, we spend half as much as we did in 1984 by the same measure.

There were critics of Reagan’s commitment to development and diplomacy in the 1980’s, just as there are critics of these programs today. Nonetheless, Reagan fought those who sought to reduce or eliminate foreign assistance, just as any serious candidate for President must today. In response to attacks on these programs in 1987, Reagan said, “You know the excuses: we can’t afford foreign aid anymore, or we’re wasting money pouring it into these poor countries, or we can’t buy friends — other countries just take the money and dislike us for giving it. Well, all these excuses are just that, excuses — and they’re dead wrong.”

He knew the United States must never back down from its leadership role in confronting global threats. While no one questioned his determination to rebuild America’s military strength, he also turned to effective diplomacy – even with those foreign leaders who disagreed with our views. His personal negotiations with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev paved the way for a peaceful end to the Cold War. Today, U.S. diplomats are hard at work building ties between U.S. companies and developing markets, between scholars from around the globe and American universities, and between military leaders from dozens of countries and our own armed services.

“Our economic development aid goes to those same countries in the developing world that provide … the market for our merchandise exports,” said Reagan. Nearly thirty years later, these words remain true. Eleven of our top fifteen trading partners were once recipients of U.S. foreign aid and over half of American exports now go to countries in the developing world.

Not only did Reagan believe that foreign assistance was in America’s economic and security interests, he knew it was the right thing to do. He called the U.S. humanitarian response to the 1983-85 famine in Africa, “in the best tradition of American values and ideals,” and signed a bill providing $1 billion in emergency aid. Over the course of his presidency he consistently called for protection of the impoverished, the forgotten, and the downtrodden. His legacy has been carried forward today by programs like PEPFAR, The President’s Emergency Plan for AID’s Relief.  Created in 2003 to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS in Africa, PEPFAR is a bi-partisan program that continues to save millions of lives today.

Reagan was visionary when it came to mobilizing the power of people against communism and tyranny. His convictions led him to call for the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which works today “to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, [and] universities.”

Having sent American troops overseas as Secretary of Defense, I know why our military leaders have been some of the strongest proponents of strategic investments in diplomacy and development. If America is to truly support our servicemen and women, we must do all we can to pursue development programs and diplomatic solutions before a conflict breaks out.

As the candidates gather this week at the library that bears President Reagan’s name, his views on foreign assistance must not be forgotten. As President Reagan himself summarized, “the ultimate importance to the United States of our security and development assistance programs cannot be exaggerated.”

Frank Carlucci is a member of the Advisory Council of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. He served as Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor in President Ronald Reagan’s administration.