Unilateralism and the US Reagan Bush Clinton, an Analysis


Well-Known Member
May 23, 2007
I have written this before and it bears repeating.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan brought about confrontation with the USSR during in the Cold War. It increased public fear of nuclear holocaust, indeed there were a number of protests and movies ("The Day After" and "AMERIKA" among others) that found their ways into society during those years. Probably the clearest illustration is the confrontation between the US and USSR on European soil over intermediate range nuclear missiles in the 1980's. The USSR had moved its SS-20 nuclear missile force into Europe. NATO believed that a viable defense would be to have comparable range (and capability) and made the "dual track" decision in 1979 for deploying American intermediate range nuclear force (INF) with the open invitation to the USSR to negotiate the issue down. It was an attempt to sustain the policy of d�tente that was built in the 1970's.

Reagan liked the missiles. But his view was not de'tente. In fact d'tente was viewed as a losing proposition (it was). Reagan felt that restoring nuclear parity should not be a support of d�tente but a reason to throw the policy of d'tente out the window. George Schultz, who was secretary of state at the time saw d'tente as a misguided failure. He believed cooperation with the USSR did not restrain the USSR in the least. They still involved themselves in a number of different "ventures". While Carter began the aid to the Afghan fighters, Reagan took it to another level. Resistance to the USSR became a program for global support for insurgencies against the USSR. Simultaneously Reagan used the human rights issues to question the very legitimacy of the USSR and its system of oppression. He turned up the pressure.

Reagan and US allies did agree on the 1981 INF negotiating position of "zero option", in which it eliminated all Soviet and US intermediate range missiles. But the reasoning by the Reagan administration was quite different. Reagan liked the idea of the USSR having to forfeit its "new missiles", while the allies looked at it as a neutralized political position. Here we also see a very different stance between that of a Super Power and that of other nations, Europe specifically. To Europe all things are political and neutralized political positions are the same as neutralized military positions. Hard and soft power were not well defined concepts in those days. Most of the Euro leaders at the time thought the US had to show good faith for the negotiations to work. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany thought the deployments would not work "politically" unless the US could show some type of negotiating stance. The US would HAVE TO COMPROMISE.

Alas Helmut Schmidt would not survive the Euromissile issue. His coalition partners (the Free Democrats) brought down the West Germany government. Helmut Kohl was made the new Chancellor. But even Kohl of the on his first trip to Washington told Reagan the negotiations had to be real and "not a show". Margaret Thatcher stated much the same. Even the US national security leaders were divided. State Department, many thought could not keep up the non-negotiable position. Nitze, who was the US negotiation on INF thought the entire thing would collapse without European sanction, specifically German sanction (where the weapons would be located). He wanted a compromise, "parity". Reagan disallowed it. Reagan once told Nize to inform the Soviets "you work for one tough son of a *****". In fact Reagan did not even inform the allies that Nize had broached a compromise plan (it was later leaked through the papers ( some things never change). Reagan thought success depended on "inflexibility". Another "parity" decision, which left the USSR with most of their desires was not the way to win. Caspar Weinberger stated "The alliance needs leadership, not compromise".

VP Bush went to Europe to seek a constructive sounding note with "compromise" and a meeting with Yuri Andropov, but the point of the meeting was only to accept "zero option". On top of that SDI made its debut, thus showing how far a field US policy had gone sine the 1981 NATO negotiations had started.

What I find interesting, and also a sign of continuity in regard to European US relationship was the reaction of the hoi poloi in Europe. The USSR had begun the confrontation with a Soviet buildup. The rhetoric of the USSR was much worse and more dangerous than the US. But the focus of the protests were against the US. Some of the largest political demonstrations in post Vietnam history occurred during that period. The Dutch vote for deployment was canceled when the Dutch realized they did not have the votes. Italy's Prime Minister also broke rank with the US. It seemed there was a general "deep desperation" (per George Schultz) among European leaders. In 1986 the Germans saw it as unrelenting and the US as an uncompromising country leading us all down chaos.

Sound familiar?

US policy held. Thatcher and Kohl both were able to keep their positions and push forward with the "zero option" plan. After Reagan's re-election the USSR came back to the table and negotiated. Two years later Gorbachev signed the "zero option" treaty. Soon after perestroika began and the USSR collapsed. Gorbachev always downplayed the idea that US pressure led to the collapse. But he was willing to admit that it did produce "new" directions in Soviet foreign policy. The turning point, Gorbachev stated, was the lost battle with NATO over nuclear missiles in Europe.
George H W Bush

The present President Bush has stated that he holds more in common with Ronald Reagan (in the realm of foreign policy) than he does with his father George HW Bush. One assumes the father, whom I remember as the more urbane and pragmatic international diplomat (with years serving as CIA director as well as a number of other posts) would be more of the diplomat in international relations.

Interestingly enough, Bush 41 thought Reagan’s administration had become too “passive” and “conciliatory” towards the USSR. They feared Gorbachev had created an excellent political opportunity with perestroika and would use it to manipulate a change in the alliance. He was right of course. If DC did not gain the advantage things with the alliance could fall apart.

So Bush 41 moved the goal posts. It ceased being an issue of arms control, they wanted to redefine the field. A broader pull back of the Soviet Union and their power became the new foreign policy. Liberalization became the new policy by word. One key aspect of that foreign policy was German re-unification. The new rhetoric was not lost on the USSR and Shevardnadze asked Genscher about the new rhetoric. “Why”, he asked, “was Bush fanning the flames against East Germany?” Even before the fall, the US had taken an aggressive stance. And once the Berlin Wall fell, it was seen as an important goal for German unification. Indeed, the US post Berlin Wall policy was not new, but a continuation of an already managed program. German ambitions for reunification was heavily questioned by US allies. How quickly could West Germany absorb the East? What guarantees would the other European states have against a united Germany? This was a question pushed forward with great enthusiasm by France, which did not want to see a united Germany. On all of these questions, the US took an opposite stance to all of the other allies AND the USSR.

Mitterand had told Bush that German reunification would put Europe back to 1913, on the eve of war. Since no European country favored reunification, it was NOT on the agenda. Even Thatcher saw Germany as a naturally destabilizing force in Europe. She stated that before anything else was done, East Germany had to have a sustainable working democracy.

It would have been easy for the US to go along with these views. After all, Germany had little policy influence in Europe. Indeed Bush told both Thatcher and Gorbachev that they would not be reckless regarding reunification (December 1989), a month later the US put the pedal to the metal with reunification. Neither Gorbachev or anyone else was advised of the change. So why did the US go against the grain?

1-The US, unlike the rest of Europe saw a growing chaos and social unrest in East Germany. They needed a stalking horse.
2-Most Europeans thought they could get adequate guarantees by blocking reunification.
3-Germans would eventually become resentful of not being allowed full reunification by foreigners, when such a possibility was open. Germans knew saw themselves as being considered second class status. Thus Germany would have created a more belligerent state when reunification finally came about.
4-Polls showed 58% of all Germans wanted to withdraw from both alliances (which deepened US concern).

Of course the US did not openly state its desire to ignore everyone. There was the “two plus four” framework whose purpose was to fashion a satisfactory conclusion for both the German states and the World War II victors. It was a brilliant illusion. Not one significant process regarding the slow down of reunification passed. By keeping the major powers of Europe from uniting (through the “Two Plus Four”) the US was able to see its process through without having to expend a great deal of political capital or alienation. Finally the USSR put forth, in one last attempt, the idea that Germany should remain, for an indefinite transitional period, a member of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. But despite the desires of England and the USSR the US allowed no constraints. Some measures were drawn up to reassure both the USSR and other allies, but they tended to be vague promises.

The US achieved its goals. It kept Germany as an ally. It kept Germany within NATO. The unification of Germany is viewed as a masterpiece of the diplomatic art, a brilliant response. But not because the leaders of nations worked in harmony or even together. It worked because the European countries were suspicious of each other, fearful and divided. The US was able to steer Europe in the right direction and used their partners disarray and US deception to provide the best outcome.

During this period Condoleezza Rice stated that the “the main lesson was to select optimal goals even if they seem politically infeasible at the time.” In a major negotiation among many players who are all vying for different goals, single mindedness is a huge asset. For Rice, a government that “knows what it wants has a reasonable chance of getting it.”
William Jefferson Clinton

Clinton believed, like Reagan and Bush that prior administrations had been inadequate to the threats that had been raised in the world.

Sound familiar?

Clinton wanted a more ambitious policy in regard to the Balkans. Without something stronger he felt nothing would happen. Clinton had wanted to help the Bosnian Muslims and put more pressure on the Serbs. But chose not to risk a breach with his European allies.

It soon became clear however, that not even the minimal goals would be achieved. Merely choosing not to argue with allies was insufficient to prevent various crisis. In 1995 with the winter ceasefire expiring and a Bosnian Serb offensive anticipated and likely to lead to mass killings, Clinton decided to break with the allies. Clinton decided to part with Europe in viewing Bosnia as a containable second tier issue were second best results were acceptable. Clinton decided to use the same tactics both Reagan and Bush used. He would go his own way and inform Europe what he was going to do, after he made the decision.

Clinton told his advisors “We have to seize control of this”. The status quo was “doing enormous damage to US standing in the world” (again, sound familiar?). Clinton stopped listening to NATO allies and chose to deliberate internally and then send senior officials to the EU capitals to inform them of the presidents decision. Allies acquiescence was expected. US national security advisor Anthony Lake was, “the big dog”, and on an issue this important, the smaller dogs would surely follow, as long as the United States set the example.

Clinton enhanced the substance to the Balkan issue. Containing instability was not the option. Instead an end state would be achieved without the status quo. In other words the most desirable outcome of states in the area would be put forward and the reverse engineered to find out what policy steps needed to be taken UNILATERALLY by the US. The contrast with European policy was stark. The French were also preparing to involve themselves, but only to defend peacekeepers already in place. The purpose of Europe’s so called “rapid reaction force” was not a bold new strategy, but to shore up an old failed one.

The US began its new policy by calling for negotiations. But the Clinton Administration told both its allies and warring parties that if there was no peaceful solution was QUICKLY accepted by all sides, it would become coercive. This included training and arms for Bosnian Muslims and air strikes to rebel Serb advances, removal of peacekeepers (so NATO or more correctly the US could work unhampered). Such a quick timetable was reflective of the INF action. Americans proposed negotiation but did not expect it to work and took the steps to ensure it would. In fact plans had been written up well ahead of time (much as they were with Iraq). Dayton ceased being about maintaining order (as originally planned) and encompassed a mandate of social reconstruction and the establishment of states. In short, nation building.

Clinton employed the same action when he confronted Miloslovec four years later. Clinton would not allow Miloslovec to exploit negotiations to deflect pressure (again similarities abound). Diplomacy alone was bound for failure. A leader with one genocide on his record was not entitled to the benefit of a doubt. The war then proceded without the normal �pro forma� round of deliberations in NATO. US goals were not to squeeze incremental improvement. It was to change the field completely.

When the bombing campaign failed to produce a quick success, and Clinton was criticized for providing inadequate rationale for war (see comparisons with �Wag the Dog� during the Monica Lewinsky period), also for failure to anticipate the course of the war, and for making the status quo worse (does all of this sound familiar to anyone?). Despite the discord with the state department, some early reverses, and an acute humanitarian crisis created by the war, the US continue to push forward.

In fact allied suggestions for a bombing pause were ignored. Chancellor Schroeder stated Germany would block an invastion, the Clinton administration countered that such objections would not prevail, there was a reference to a coalition of those willing to take part if necessary. Only Miloslovec’s unconditional surrender saved Clinton from rolling over European dissent in the matter. US aims in the Balkans continued to escalate, and regime change was called for.


So for the past 25 years American presidents have, with amazing regularity acted in the same fundamental way. The US would see the status quo, and realize that it was not helping. In fact that the status quo often with hindsight was seen as deteriorating the entire situation in a strategic region. The US rejected approaches that often took incremental paths that often led nowhere. Its desire was to create a stronger and better international framework, one which did not lead to the constant erosion of both western and US power. So the US in the last 25 years unlike the UN tended to meet problems head on rather than manage them and allow them to fester. And while negotiations have frequently been used in the process (Reagan with INF, Bush 41 with reunification, Clinton in Bosnia [both Dayton and Ramboullet] and Bush 43 with the UN in Iraq), the end result was not management, but specific goals which changed the strategic field and created more favorable “facts on the ground”. Now this has bothered many allies and certainly gives fodder to the many anti-Americans, but policymakers have been ready to pay the price for these things. As Madeline Albright stated “We see further than other countries into the future”.
Well thank them all for dismantling a large part of our manufacturing capability, raising our national debt eight-fold and contributing to building even another communist nation into a real major military power. I'm sure this heads on solutions in hindsight will prove to be showing how our leadership had their heads off. And all it cost was money, blood and more of our liberties.
Our real GDP of manufactured goods has more than doubled since 1980.

The dollar is a at least a third of the value from 1980. Look at the employment statistics and total compensation of those hourly workers employed in manufacturing. There's a big difference in 100's of thousands of garment workers and a couple of hundred missle employees cranking out their wares. I'm sure the latter's reported product value exceeds the former.