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Ronald Reagan

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US Foreign Policy

05 September 2012

US Foreign Policy: The Election Barely Matters

By Gwynne Dyer

There was never going to be a big debate on US foreign policy at the Democratic National Convention. It will be whatever Barack Obama say it should be, and besides, the delegates in Charlotte weren’t interested.

It’s the economy, stupid, and two months before the election nobody wants to get sidetracked into discussing a peripheral issue like American foreign policy. The only people who really care about that at the moment are foreigners and the US military – and even they are not following the election with bated breath, because few of them believe that a change of president could fundamentally change the way the US relates to the rest of the world.

Although the Republicans do their best to paint Obama as a wild-eyed radical who is dismantling America’s defences, he has actually been painfully orthodox in his foreign policy. He loves Israel to bits, he did not shut down the Afghan war (or Guantanamo), he uses drones to kill US enemies (and sometimes, anybody else who is nearby), and he tamely signs off on a $700 billion defence budget.

How can Mitt Romney top that? He could say he loves Israel even more. In fact, he does say that, promising to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But that is purely gesture politics, since almost no other countries do, and in practice Obama gives Israel almost everything it wants already.

He could pledge to spend even more on “defence” than Obama, but the United States is already pouring 4.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product down that rathole. Obama has planned cuts over the next several years that would bring it down to about 4 percent – and Romney has promised not to let it fall below 4 percent. Not a huge difference there.

Romney does his best to disguise that fact by declaring that he would reverse certain of Obama’s decisions. US ground forces, for example, would remain at their current level under a Romney administration, rather than being reduced by 100,000 people. But changing only that and nothing else would put $25 billion a year back onto the defence budget. How do you do that without raising taxes?

The Republican candidate faces a constraint none of his recent predecessors had: a party that really cares about the deficit. In the past three decades, it has been Republican presidents who ran up the bills – Ronald Reagan never balanced a budget, and the Bush-Cheney team declared that “deficits don’t matter” – while the subsequent Democratic administrations tried to curb out-of-control spending.

Romney doesn’t have that option: the Tea Party wing of his party actually means what it says about both taxes and deficits. So what’s left for him? Well, he could promise to kill even more of America’s enemies than Obama, but he can’t get around the fact that it’s Obama who nailed Osama bin Laden, and Obama who is playing fast and loose with international law by using drones to carry out remote-control assassinations of hostile foreigners.

So Romney says very little about foreign policy because there is little he can say. The closest he has come to specific policy changes was an “action plan” he laid out during the Republican primaries last year, to be accomplished within a hundred days of taking office. It was an entirely credible promise, because none of it really involves a policy change at all.

He promised to “re-assure traditional allies that America will fulfill its global commitments.” A couple of phone calls, and that’s done.

He declared that he would move more military forces to the Gulf “to send a message to Iran,” but he didn’t threaten to attack Iran, or endorse an Israeli attack on Iran. And he can always move them back again if he gets bored.

He said he would appoint a Middle East czar to oversee US support for the evolving Arab transitions. That’s one more government job, but Romney has even less idea than Obama about where he wants those transitions to end up. Besides, the United States has almost no leverage on this issue.

He will review the Obama administration’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not necessarily change it; just review it.

He will also review Obama’s global missile defence strategy. He might like to change that – Republicans have loved the concept ever since Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dreams – but he hasn’t got the kind of money he would need for a more ambitious policy.

He will increase the government’s focus on cybersecurity. Ho-hum.

He will raise the rate of US Navy shipbuilding. So far as budget constraints permit, which is not very far at all.

And he will launch an economic opportunity initiative in Latin America. As long as it doesn’t cost much money.

It’s not surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t care much about the US election. Most foreigners, on both the right and the left, are more comfortable with Obama than Romney, but US foreign policy will stay the same whoever wins. They might not like all of it, but they’re used to it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 15, 16 and 17. (“Romney…taxes”; and “He will increase…money”)



Global Zero

29 March 2012

Global Zero

By Gwynne Dyer

We have just had the second Nuclear Security Summit, in Seoul. It got surprisingly little attention from the international media although 53 countries attended. For the media, nuclear weapons yesterday’s issue, because nobody expects a nuclear war. But a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands is the defining nightmare of the post-9/11 decade, and that’s what the summit was actually about.

“It would not take much, just a handful or so of these (nuclear) materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said President Barack Obama on his way home from Seoul. “There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials, and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”

Keeping bomb-grade nuclear material out of the wrong hands requires a high level of international cooperation. Some progress was made on this issue in Seoul, in terms of coordinating police and intelligence operations, but the real problem is that there are far too many nuclear weapons in the world.

Nobody has ever come up with a plausible scenario in which a terrorist group creates a nuclear bomb from scratch. Mining uranium, refining it to weapons-grade material, and constructing a bomb that will actually produce even a 20-kiloton explosion (like the Hiroshima bomb) are tasks that require the scientific, technical and financial resources of a state.

What terrorists need is a ready-made bomb, or at least enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium that the only job left is to assemble the bomb. The only plausible source of a terrorist bomb, therefore, is the nuclear weapons programmes of the various states that own them. And the bigger those programmes are, the greater the chance that either a nuclear weapon or a large amount of fissile material will fall into the wrong hands.

Now, it may be true (or it may not) that the US nuclear weapons establishment is so efficient and experienced that there is little risk of anybody stealing American bombs or fissile material. But American security also depends on everybody else’s nuclear establishments being well protected – and this explains why Obama is a strong supporter of the “Global Zero” project.

No other US president except Ronald Reagan has called for a world with zero nuclear weapons. In 1984 Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in (the US and the Soviet Union) possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” Obama seems to share the same goal, but his support for “Global Zero” is more nuanced.

From a high of 65,000 active nuclear weapons in 1985, the world’s stock has declined to about 8,000 active warheads now, 95 percent of them under Russian or American control. There are an additional 14,000 nuclear weapons in storage, all of them Russian or American – and those may be an even greater danger for nuclear terrorism, since they are not under hourly supervision.

The world will probably never fulfill Ronald Reagan’s dream and abolish nuclear weapons, but it would be a much safer place if there were fewer of them around. Not because that would make a nuclear war less horrible if it happened: a hundred nuclear warheads, dropped on major cities, is quite enough to destroy any country. But because the more weapons there are, the greater the risk that some will fall into the hands of terrorists.

So getting the number of active nuclear weapons in American and Russian hands down to 1,000 each, and dismantling all of the “reserve” and stockpiled weapons, is probably Obama’s real goal. The “Global Zero” rhetoric is mainly useful for bringing the old peace movement along for the ride. (And why would they complain? The essence of any political strategy is finding partners to ride with you at least part of the way to your destination.)

However, to get Russia to sign up to a mere 1,000 nuclear weapons, Obama will have to give up on ballistic missile defence. The Russians are hugely inferior to the Americans militarily by every other measure, so they cherish their nuclear parity. Effective US missile defences, if they could ever be made to work, would fatally undermine that parity.

Of course they never have been made to work reliably, even though the United States has deployed them in a couple of places. But the Russians have a childlike faith in (or rather, fear of) American technological prowess, so ballistic missile defence systems have to go.

Abandoning them would involve Obama in an immense battle with the Republican right, and he’s not going to start that battle in an election year. But that is what President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the outgoing Russian president, were really talking about in Seoul when they were caught on an open mike.

Obama told Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important for [incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin] to give me space. … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” And so he may.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. “Nobody…state”; and “The world…terrorists”)


Ronald Reagan

6 June 2004

Ronald Reagan

By Gwynne Dyer

John F. Kennedy had to wait until he was dead to have New York City’s Idlewild Airport named after him, but they renamed Washington’s National Airport after Ronald Reagan even before he died. Now that he’s gone it won’t be long before his face is on the $10 bill, and there is already a campaign to carve his likeness on Mount Rushmore. It makes sense, in a way: nobody has ever played the role of US president as well as Ronald Reagan.

In fact, he re-defined it. The man who succeeded him, the elder George Bush, was a throwback to the old political style, but both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exude the same folksy charm that made Mr. Reagan the best-loved of former American presidents. They all made the cold-blooded political calculations that are a necessary part of partisan politics, but somehow they all managed to seem as if they weren’t.

Ronald Reagan did it best because he was a professional actor, but also because he was a genuinely nice man. A nice man with a mastery of doublethink, perhaps, but you really believed that he didn’t grasp the negative implications of his own political strategies.

When Democrats in the 1960s abandoned their traditional base among southern whites by backing civil rights, Mr. Reagan fully accepted the Republican ‘southern strategy’ of winning over those votes with coded support for segregation. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Running for governor of California in 1966, he attacked the Fair Housing Act, explaining that “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Yet he wasn’t a racist. He was just very good at playing the political game, and even better at persuading people (probably including himself) that he was doing no such thing. The same applied to Reagan’s tax cuts, a trend that has continued under Republican and Democratic administrations alike until the gulf between rich and poor in the United States is now wider than in any other developed country.

He truly didn’t see the links netween cause and effect in his own actions. When he talked in 1984 about “the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice,” nobody accused him of hypocrisy. They could see that he genuinely thought that any rise in the number of people sleeping on grates was the result of free choice.

Still, that only explains why Americans liked and trusted Ronald Reagan. His claim to be a great president rests on three assertions: that he won the Cold War; that he created the great economic boom of the 1980s; and that he made America (or at least white America) feel good about itself after the traumas of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and the Iran hostage crisis.

His sunny disposition doubtless cheered Americans up, but the key factor in his success was the end of the oil crisis. The huge rise in oil prices caused by the 1973 Middle East war and the 1979 revolution in Iran ended with a steep fall in 1981, just as Reagan took office. That fuelled the economic boom and the good feeling — and it is also what ended the Cold War.

The old Soviet Union was finished long before Mr Reagan became president. Communist central planning was incompatible with a modern economy, and the Soviet economy had effectively ceased growing by the late 1960s. As a result, Soviet military spending, which tracked US spending through the 1970s, swelled in relative terms until it was absorbing 30-35 percent of the economy. High oil prices plastered over the cracks for ten years — the Soviet Union was the world’s second-biggest producer — but when the oil price collapsed in 1981, Communist rule was doomed.

It was the moderate Nixon and Carter defence budgets in the 1970s that dug the Soviet Union’s grave; Reagan’s big increases in defence spending were just flogging a horse that was already dead. Ronald Reagan’s great achievement was to figure that out for himself, with little help from the State Department and the intelligence services, and act accordingly.

He didn’t cut defence spending, which had domestic political purposes as well. He pressed on with ‘Star Wars,’ because in his own mind it really was about getting beyond the moral lunacy of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction.’ But he put huge effort into creating a civilised political relationship with the government of reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ronald Reagan knew One Big Thing: a mutual suicide pact is a lethally stupid idea. He probably didn’t realise that the old Soviet Union was going down fast until the very end of his second term in 1988 — the State Department didn’t get it until early 1991 — but he did know that a nuclear war would be very bad, and that you need to establish a relationship of openness and trust with your partner in the suicide pact. So we are all still here.

The period of maximum danger is when empires collapse, but we all sailed through the end of the Soviet Union without as much as a torn fingernail. Ronald Reagan’s genuine good-will and common sense was what made the happy outcome possible. He didn’t destroy the Soviet Union, but he probably saved my children’s lives. If they want to carve his face on Mount Rushmore, it’s all right with me.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“He truly…choice”;and “He didn’t…Gorbachev”)

Deja Vu

1 February 2003

Deja Vu All Over Again

By Gwynne Dyer

Has anybody else noticed that there is a plot afoot to turn economics into an exact science? Since we are all part of the experiment, I think we should be told.

Economics is about the behaviour of human beings, so it has the same drawback as other social ‘sciences’: you are not allowed to confirm your hypothesis by running repeated experiments on live human beings. Somehow, though, an undercover team of experimental economists has managed to trick the Bush administration into re-running the great Reagan adventure in ‘voodoo economics’ of the 1980s. They can’t tell us which theory they are testing for fear of influencing the results, but it looks like it’s about the relationship between the size of budget deficits and the severity of the subsequent recession.

Ronald Reagan set a peacetime record for budget deficits in 1984, the year that he was seeking a second term: 6.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product. He justified it by grossly inflating the threat from the decrepit Soviet Union, which was actually teetering on the brink of collapse (the intelligence agencies were as eager to please the administration then as now), and pumping up the defence budget to fight the ‘evil empire’. The short-term result of this extra spending, no doubt by purest coincidence, was to make the US economy grow by 7 percent in 1984, guaranteeing Mr Reagan’s sweeping re-election victory.

The longer-term effect, of course, was force up interest rates as government borrowing competed with private borrowers for credit, and to kill the boom in a particularly savage way: the recession at the end of the 80s was the grimmest since the 50s. Small wonder that the father of the current president, a real conservative (as opposed to a neo-conservative), dubbed the Reagan budgets ‘voodoo economics’ when he was seeking the Republican nomination in 1988. It didn’t save President George H.W. Bush from the recession that followed, however, and the voters punished him by electing Bill Clinton in 1992.

So along comes President George W. Bush in 2001, and in only three years he has turned the 2 percent surplus he inherited from Clinton into a deficit that is now nearing 5 percent of GDP. Since the defence budget is already stuffed to bursting, he did most of it by pushing through unfunded tax cuts targeted on his core supporters.

At one point, according to the recent tell-all book written by Ron Suskind in collaboration with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Mr Bush appears to have had doubts about the beneficiaries if not the scale of his largesse, asking “Haven’t we already given money to rich people? Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle?” But his political adviser Karl Rove told him to “Stick to principle” and he meekly obeyed.

The massive deficit — $520 billion this year, and the final bill for Iraq could drive it still higher — is already producing the desired short-term economic boom. If it starts to create jobs as well as profits by the middle of the year, then only a drastic deterioration in the security situation in Iraq could stop Mr Bush from winning in November. But that’s not what interests the economists-in-disguise who tricked him into this repeat of the Reagan experiment. They just want to see how bad the subsequent recession will be.

Recessions are bound to occur from time to time, but they vary wildly in severity. Many people expected a particularly bad one after the exceptionally long nine-year Clinton boom, mainly due to a superstitious belief that the universe will always get even, but in fact the recession we have just come through was one of the mildest on record. So you can see the cutting-edge economic theorists getting together and coming up with a brilliant new theory: budget surpluses are followed by gentle recessions; huge deficits lead to brutal recessions.

But if you want your discipline to be recognised as a proper science, then you have to reproduce the results under properly controlled experimental conditions. How could we ever get another administration to repeat Reagan’s folly? It’s not just Americans who would suffer, either: the whole world would face a long, bitter recession in a few years if America went down that road again. Have we the right to do that to people in the name of science?

Of course we do; science is important, and besides we’ll probably get the Nobel Prize in economics. So the whole massive operation went ahead: the kidnapping of Vice-President Dick Cheney at his secret ‘secure location’ and the substitution of a surgically altered look-alike experimental economist who goes around spouting lines like “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” It is certainly a daring experiment, though one has reservations about how responsible it is.

It’s hard to create conditions that exactly duplicate those of the Reagan era. This time, for example, there is no opposition-controlled Congress trying to cut the deficits and mandate a balanced budget, so the swings may be more extreme than first time round. But if you want to test a theory to destruction, this should work just fine.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraph 6. (“At one point…obeyed”)