A Covenant with All Mankind: Ronald Reagan's Idyllic Vision of America in the World

By Garrison, Justin | Humanitas, Spring-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Covenant with All Mankind: Ronald Reagan's Idyllic Vision of America in the World


Garrison, Justin, Humanitas


  I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God!
  I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on
  the same terms.

--Walt Whitman

Ronald Reagan's vision of America's role in the world, especially as it was expressed in his presidential speeches, continues to resonate with many Americans. President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, for example, have celebrated Reagan both as a great man and as a great leader. Each has acknowledged drawing a high degree of inspiration for his foreign policy thinking and actions from Reagan's ideas. (1) Countless other politicians, including Presi-dent Barack Obama, as well as academics and ordinary citizens, are enthralled by this type of vision. Reagan's popularity might lead many to believe that his foreign policy ideas are well understood, are by now deeply embedded in the American mind, and require little by way of fresh explanation and analysis. Yet it may be that many who have heard his words have not really listened to them. They have taken away vague impressions of his rhetoric and have not fully understood the meaning and significance of what he actually said. This may be especially true of those who were captivated by Reagan's ideas and images during his presidency and the waning days of the Cold War.

Reagan's vision of U.S. foreign policy consisted of a complex mixture of ideas about America, politics, and human nature. That mixture was not without paradoxes and internal tensions. At times he even intimated that not very much should be expected of politics. He described human beings as ethically dual, that is, as capable of both good and evil, and he could describe government, including democracy, as a limited enterprise devoted primarily to minimizing disorder. Such opinions recommended relatively modest foreign policy objectives. In his presidential speeches, he often invoked important U.S. strategic, economic, and national security concerns in support of specific goals in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere, but, despite his seeing serious disagreements with other nations, he sometimes stressed that a successful U.S. policy would need to include restraint, flexibility, realism, and openness to dialogue, especially with the Soviet Union. Comments like these suggested that he viewed politics and foreign policy as the art of the possible, not as an attempt to realize some great ideal.

Yet there was another and more prominent aspect of Reagan's foreign policy thinking that pointed in a much different, far more "idealistic" and ambitious direction. This part of his vision of America's role stemmed from a belief that human beings are basically good and entitled to individual liberty and democratic government. Unfortunately, a number of governments around the world were tyrannizing their citizens, depriving them of their rights and the ability to realize their goodness. They needed to be freed from the oppressive yokes of such regimes. Reagan held that the United States had a unique, moral responsibility to advance the global growth of democracy and freedom and that America had a long tradition of pursuing such a foreign policy. As president, he sought to reinvigorate the United States and its citizens with a fervent desire to continue this mission. With America at the forefront, the world would become a better place and might eventually even achieve lasting peace.

Although Reagan's foreign policy imagination contained a rich assortment of images, not all of which pointed in the same direction, it was this latter, more optimistic and "idealistic" vision that clearly predominated. It suffused virtually all of his major comments on foreign policy. It is this large and powerful dimension of Reagan's outlook that will be the subject of this article. A careful examination of his foreign policy vision, including a historical and philosophical analysis of its main components, will show that it had a strongly romantic, even Utopian cast. …

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