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Ronald Reagan - America's Purpose in the World

America's Purpose in the World

March 17, 1978
5th Annual CPAC Conference

Reagan in front of flagsAs a part-time journalist faced with producing a syndicated daily radio broadcast and twice-a-week newspaper column, I find being on the mailing lists of an almost endless array of organizations most helpful. Now some of the flood of materials crosses my desk very swiftly. But not all of it. One thick handout I got late last year was especially fascinating, not only because of content but just because it was mailed to me at all.

It was from the White House Press Office. Under the title "Domestic and Foreign Policy Accomplishments" it told me, in 21 single-spaced pages, of the wonders of the Carter administration's first year.

Beginning with the modest statement that - quote - "The president tackled directly and comprehensively major domestic problems that had been almost completely ignored in previous years." - unquote - it then recited an impressive list of major accomplishments. True, the White House hadn't claimed to find a way to control the weather or to eliminate crab grass on the White House lawn, but it did think it had solved -- or nearly solved -- our energy problems, Social Security's $17-trillion deficit, the size of a big government (we added 52,000 new employees in the first 10 months of 1977), the welfare mess and a host of other problems that have been center stage in American life for quite some time.

Tonight, perhaps we should discuss some of those White House claims and see if they have stood the test of even the three months that have passed since they were made. I know that's a little cruel -- like checking up on someone's New Year's resolutions. After all, the administration has scarcely gotten a single domestic program worth noting through Congress. I'll tell you what. Let us concentrate on the administration's handling of foreign affairs, national security and its sense of priorities.

On priorities, there is the matter of issuing the former budget director a diplomatic passport; the taking of depositions from bartenders and issuing a 33-page denial that the president's chief aide expectorated at or in the direction of a young woman. It boggles the mind to think what they would have done if he'd spit on the sidewalk. Then there was the solemn oath to appoint and retain a U.S. attorney who goes investigating suspected wrongdoing on the part of Congressmen who belong to the president's own party.

Moving on to the Carter administration's record in foreign affairs -- let me say a few words about Panama and our canal there. And I do mean a few words.

With yesterday's vote on the so-called Neutrality Treaty, you might say that round one is over. Now, there has been confusion in some news reports which called this the "first treaty," saying that the Senate would next take up the "second treaty." Actually, the Senate decided to reverse the procedure. The Neutrality Treaty is the second treaty. They just voted on it first. Next they will deal with the basic treaty, the one called the Panama Canal Treaty. It is the basic treaty because it is the one which would relinquish our rights and would actually eliminate the canal zone as soon as it goes into effect -- if it does.

I hope the Senate will devote as much detailed attention to this basic treaty as it did to the Neutrality Treaty. Meanwhile, I can't get a question out of my head. It is this: Even though the Neutrality Treaty supposedly guarantees our right to go back in to defend the Canal after 1999, if there is no canal zone, wouldn't any such move on out part be branded as interference in the internal affairs of Panama?

On the other hand, if the basic treaty is not ratified, the Neutrality Treaty itself won't have much meaning because our rights and our presence in the canal zone would continue. And, when all is said and done, it is always easier to defend something you have than to get back something you gave away.

My fundamental concern has always been primarily with this basic treaty which would eliminate our rights there. I think there are alternatives to it which would be better for all concerned.

You are all activists, and I know you will make your views known to your elected representatives on this next treaty debate.

My purpose tonight, however, is not to repeat my views on this question. Panama is an important issue. The final outcome is not yet certain, and certainly the matter won't end with the final vote in the Senate. In a way, that will only begin it.

But, whatever the outcome on Capitol Hill, the smug assumptions of many of the treaties' proponents have been successfully and vigorously challenged.

Few Americans accept the belief of some of those now in positions of importance in guiding our foreign policy that America's purpose in the world is to appease the mighty out of a sense of fear or to appease the weak out of a sense of guilt.

But a question remains. Is the faulty thinking that has led us to these particular treaties an isolated particle, or is it part of a much larger whole?

In reviewing the foreign policy of this administration, one can only come to the conclusion that the mistaken assumptions that led to its course on the Panama Canal treaties are being duplicated around the world.

Its policy is rooted in well-meaning intentions, but it shows a woeful uncertainty as to America's purpose in the world.

The administration means to do good by espousing a human rights doctrine it cannot define, much less implement. In the process, this policy has met with scorn from our enemies and alarm from our friends. That self-graded, 21-page White House report card said, with regard to human rights, "The president has strengthened our human rights policy and we are letting it be known clearly that the United States stands with the victims of repression." Is that why our representatives at the Belgrade Conference remained silent in the face of a final report that contained not one word about Russian violations of the human rights provisions in the Helsinki Agreement?

If the Carter administration "stands with the victims of repression," the people of Cuba, Panama, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the mainland of China have yet to hear about it. The fact is, the Carter human rights policy is whatever his appointees who guide it want it to be. In practice, they have ceaselessly scolded authoritarian governments of countries that are friendly and ignored authoritarian and totalitarian countries that are not.

Mr. Carter might find a reading of the historian Charles Beard informative. Nearly 40 years ago, Beard concluded that the defect of a foreign policy based on what he called "the selfish sacrifice required by an absolute morality" was the inability to understand "the limited nature of American powers to relieve, restore and maintain life beyond its own sphere of interest and control - a recognition of the hard fact that the United States ... did not possess the power ... to assure the establishment of democratic and pacific government."

But, by using a combination of heavy-handed moves against allied countries, on the one hand, and making "pre-emptive concessions" toward unfriendly or potentially unfriendly countries on the other, the Carter administration has managed to convey the view that it desperately wants the whole world to have democratic institutions that would be the envy of the most ardent ACLU lawyer, and that wishing will make it so.

That view of the world ranks along with belief in the Tooth Fairy. But confusion of purpose and a false sense of guilt are not the only elements in this administration's foreign policy.

Too often, the president is advised by men and women who are forever trapped in the tragic but still fresh memory of a lost war. And from Vietnam they have drawn all the wrong lessons. When they say "never again," they mean the United States should never again resist Communist aggression.

In saying "never again," implying that the war should have been lost -- that it is all right for the victors to conduct a brutal campaign against their own people, violating even minimal human rights.

That it is alright to ignore these massive violations and alright for us to seek better relations with the governments responsible. That White House document lists as an "accomplishment" the fact that "the administration has started the process of normalizing relations" with the Communist conquerors of South Vietnam. The lesson we should have learned from Vietnam is that never again will Americans be asked to fight and die unless they are permitted to win. We need a foreign policy stripped of platitudes, cant and mere moral earnestness -- an earnestness fatally compromised by the massive crimes of some of the Communist world's newer members.

This pattern of Communist violations of human rights should come as no surprise to us. Over and over again, newly established Marxist regimes have committed them. In the 1920s and '30s it was the Soviet Union, in the late '40s the new Iron Curtain countries, in the '50s and through the Cultural Revolution of the '60s it was Communist China and Cuba, and now it is Vietnam and Cambodia.

The problem with much of the Carter team is that they know too little, not too much, of history. And, they have lost faith in their own country's past and traditions.

Too often, that team has operated under the assumption that the United States must prove and reprove and prove again its goodness to the world. Proving that we are civilized in a world that is often uncivilized -- and unapologetically so -- is hardly necessary.

The themes of a sound foreign policy should be no mystery, nor the result of endless agonizing reappraisals. They are rooted in our past -- in our very beginning as a nation.

The Founding Fathers established a system which meant a radical break from that which preceded it. A written constitution would provide a permanent form of government, limited in scope, but effective in providing both liberty and order. Government was not to be a matter of self-appointed rulers, governing by whim or harsh ideology. It was not to be government by the strongest or for the few. Our principles were revolutionary. We began as a small, weak republic. But we survived. Our example inspired others, imperfectly at times, but it inspired them nevertheless. This constitutional republic, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, prospered and grew strong. To this day, America is still the abiding alternative to tyranny. That is our purpose in the world -- nothing more and nothing less.

To carry out that purpose, our fundamental aim in foreign policy must be to ensure our own survival and to protect those others who share our values. Under no circumstances should we have any illusions about the intentions of those who are enemies of freedom. Our Communist adversaries have little regard for human rights because they have little interest in human freedom. The ruling elites of those countries wish only one thing: to preserve their privileges and to eliminate the nagging reminder that others have done and are doing better under freedom.

Every American president since World War II has known or quickly learned that the Soviet Union, for example, is not benign in its intentions.

The Soviet Union has no interest in maintaining the status quo. It does not accept our soft definition of "detente." To the Soviet Union, "detente" is an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence around the world.

The Soviet Union has steadily increased its capacity for such expansion. That capability has grown enormously since 1945 and, above all, since 1962 when the Cold War was first declared "over" by the hopeful and naive.

Today, the U.S.S.R. continues its drive to dominate the world in military capability: on land, on water, and in the air. Meanwhile, the Carter administration seems confused and torn, partly believing the realities and partly listening to those who believe that pre-emptive concession by the Soviets. But they don't bargain that way. They understand strength; they exploit weakness and take advantage of inexperience. And, possibly, it was inexperience that led the president to placate the most dovish members of his party by scuttling the B-1 bomber -- one of his bargaining chips -- even before the SALT II negotiations began.

One of the reasons given for cancellation of the B-1 was economy, and even here there was a lack of accuracy. First of all, the price given for the aircraft was what the price will be in 1986 if inflation continues -- which incidentally suggests a lack of resolve in the administration's anti-inflation fight. Second, we were told the B-52 or the F-111 could be modified to do the job the B-1 was supposed to do. Here the cost differential shrinks sizeably when we look at the facts. The modification itself is quite costly, and we can double that cost. It will take two planes to substitute for every B-1 because the B-1 carries twice the payload the others will. It will carry that load twice as fast in a plane only half the size of a B-52, and it is far less vulnerable to the Soviet defense system.

While confusion and conflicting advice seem to tug and pull at the White House, the Soviet Union continues to build up its capability for world domination. It has even gone so far as to put entire factories underground and to disperse much of its industrial capacity -- the most sophisticated civil defense program ever developed. The knowledge that our strategic missiles, if they ever had to be used, would inflict minimal damage on the Soviets, compared to the havoc theirs would produce on our continent, should, in itself, be sufficient to spur the administration to making certain that we be number one in the world in terms of national defense capabilities. So far, though, this does not seem to be a White House priority.

Today, we can see the brunt of the Soviet Union's capabilities at work in the Horn of Africa.

To most Americans, that part of the world seems remote, as Korea and Vietnam seemed remote, along with those other places where the Soviets have sought advantage.

In Ethiopia, formerly a close friend of the United States, the Soviets with their Cuban foreign legion have turned that country into a free-fire zone in order to subdue Ethiopia's two principal enemies, Somalia and the Eritrean rebels.

The Soviet goal is obvious: to secure a permanent foothold for itself on the Red Sea. If the Soviets are successful -- and it looks more and more as if they will be -- then the entire Horn of Africa will be under their influence, if not their control. From there, they can threaten the sea lanes carrying oil to western Europe and the United States, if and when they choose.

More immediately, control of the Horn of Africa would give Moscow the ability to destabilize those governments on the Arabian peninsula which have proven themselves strongly anti-Communist. Among them are some of the world's principal oil exporters.

Moscow can also turn its full attention south if it can ensure its position in the Horn of Africa. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see that Rhodesia is a tempting target. Cuban leaders now boast that it is.

What are we doing about it? Apparently, our response to the Rhodesian settlement proposed by the moderate black leaders and Prime Minister Ian Smith is not to tell the Soviets -- behind the scenes -- to get lost or risk pressures elsewhere that they won't like. No, our response seems to be best summed up by our ambassador to the United Nations, who is unhappy with the moderate, democratic solution in Rhodesia because he's afraid (he says) it will bring on a massive Soviet arms buildup. What does he think we're having now? He seems to believe that the only Rhodesian plan we can afford to support is one to the liking of the two terrorist guerrilla leaders. But if they have their way, one or the other of them will become the sole power in Rhodesia, fronting of course for the Soviet Union. Unless we want to make the world safe for terrorist guerrillas, the only sensible course is for us to support the moderate solution in Rhodesia and quietly tell Moscow to keep its hands off -- unless, of course, we are too weak to do that. Is that what Mr. Young is trying to tell us? I hope not, for a Marxist Rhodesia would lead to even more tempting targets for Moscow in Africa. Perhaps Djibouti, Sudan, Chad, the old Spanish Sahara (where guerrillas are already in operation).

And one other which will cost us dearly. Whatever we may think of South Africa's internal policies, control of its mineral riches and its strategic position are the Soviet Union's ultimate goal in Africa.

Unless the White House can bring itself to understand these realities, it is not too much to say that in a few years we may be faced with the prospect of a Soviet empire of proteges and dependencies stretching from Addis Ababa to Capetown. Those who now reject that possibility out of hand -- and they seem to have the ear of the man in the Oval Office -- have yet to explain Angola, Mozambique, the situation in the Horn of Africa or the terrorists in Rhodesia. One thing is certain: Soviet successes will not breed caution in the Kremlin. Rather, the reverse.

Those in the Carter administration who are not even inclined to protest the recent Soviet moves assure us that, sooner or later, the Soviets will make serious mistakes and our doing nothing will hasten that day.

But to say, as they do, that all is well because the Soviets are creating their own Vietnam is nonsense. These Carter advisers seem to forget that the Soviets won in Vietnam and they intend to win again -- this time in Africa. They learned the true lesson of the Vietnam war: certainty of purpose and ruthlessness of execution wins wars. Vietnam held no terror for the Soviets as it did for so many Americans. And, adventures in Africa hold no terror for them either.

To say, as some in the administration do, that African nationalism will stop the Soviets is the weakest reed of all. The reason is simple: African nationalism, as such, does not exist. No African government has yet condemned the Russians, nor do the halls of the Organization of African Unity ring with anti-Soviet slogans -- perhaps because those halls happen to be in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

The criticism by African states of the Soviets that the administration seems to be so desperately hoping for will not materialize. After all, there is in Africa, as around the world, a healthy respect for power and the determined use of power.

One veteran West European diplomat put the African situation in perspective recently. He was quoted as saying: "This situation is going to make the leaders of a lot of these small, weak nations stop and think. And what do they see on the American side? Apparent indecision, attempts to talk, a reluctance to give weapons to friends" -- and, he might have added, a "belief that there are nasty, immoral wars of imperialist aggression and nice clean wars of national liberation."

The administration's uncertainty of purpose isn't confined to the world's current hot spots. It is apparent even in our own hemisphere.

That White House tally sheet I mentioned listed its "accomplishments" in Latin America. It said, "The administration has developed a new global approach to Latin America...."

Well, what it has done from the beginning was to accept the notions fashionable in the most liberal circles that surrender of the Panama Canal and rapprochement with Cuba were the keys to successful relations with Latin America.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Of Panama, I have already had a good deal to say. But let me say again, we have earned no respect or lasting affection in Latin America with these treaties.

Unfortunately, our policy toward Latin America has not only entailed friendship for one dictator who is a sworn enemy and for another who routinely suppresses human rights and may be involved in the worst sort of corruption -- that policy has also entailed hostility toward our friends.

Let me cite just one example, Brazil. An ally in World War II, (contributing a division which saw hard action in Europe), a friend through most of the '60s and now a great hope for contributing to the future industrial strength of the West, Brazil now finds itself turned on by us -- with a vengeance. Whatever the motives, human rights or worries over nuclear proliferation, the ends did not justify the means. The result is that we have nearly lost a friend without achieving any of the administration's professed objectives.

It is time to try another approach, an approach based on reality and not the slogans and romantic notions of ideologues who just happen to have access to the Oval Office.

First, let us end this cycle of American indifference, followed by frenzied activity in Latin America (as it has been elsewhere). It leaves our southern neighbors bewildered and cynical. Instead, I propose a steadier course in which Latin America's growing importance is recognized not as an act of charity, but in our own self-interest. Latin America, with all its resources and vitality, should be encouraged to join not the Third World, much less the Communists' Second World, but the First World -- that community of stable, prosperous and free nations of Western Europe, North America and Japan.

Today, there is hope that much of Latin America might do so. First, many nations have learned the cost of Socialist experimentation: Argentina under the Perons, Chile under Allende, Peru under Velasco, Mexico under Echeverria. All suffered economic catastrophe. Their successors learned the bitter truth that defying the laws of economics benefits no one and, in fact, hurts most the poor whose cause those earlier leaders so demagogically espoused.

Today, as a result of those experiments which went so badly out of control, more and more of our neighbors are turning to the free market as a model of development. Their acceptance of economic rationality should be neither ignored nor penalized but actively encouraged.

At the same time, we must recognize that Latin America is once again leaving a period of strictly military rule and entering a more democratic phase. But in this case the United States is doing too much pushing, rather than too little.

Unhappily, the change from military to civilian rule is not an easy one. Nor can it be rushed. If it is, we will only succeed in creating weak and vulnerable democratic governments that will soon be swept out of power by just another generation of military strongmen even more convinced of the defects of democracy.

Above all, we want a free and prosperous Latin America. And, to obtain that, we cannot continue to reward our self-declared enemies and then turn around and punish our friends.

That leads me again to Panama. The treaties that have occupied so much of our attention in recent months represent both the good instincts and the bad impulses of American diplomacy.

The bad, for reasons I have repeated on many occasions: the feeling that we are guilty of some sin for which we must now atone and our inability to say "no," not out of truculence, but because it was the proper thing to say to secure our interests and to reaffirm our greater responsibility, which is leadership of all that remains of the free world.

Yes, the treaties represent the good instincts of American diplomacy, too -- a spirit of generosity and willingness to change with times. A good foreign policy must have both elements: the need to say "no" and the willingness to change, in just the right proportions. Unfortunately, accepting change because it seems fashionable to do so, with little real regard for the consequences, seems to dominate our foreign policy today.

Too many in positions of importance believe that through generosity and self-effacement we can avoid trouble, whether it's with Panama and the canal or the Soviet Union and SALT.

But, like it or not, trouble will not be avoided. The American people and their elected leaders will continue to be faced with hard choices and difficult moments, for resolve is continually being tested by those who envy us our prosperity and begrudge us our freedom.

America will remain great and act responsibly so long as it exercises power -- wisely, and not in the bullying sense -- but exercises it, nonetheless.

Leadership is a great burden. We grow weary of it at times. And the Carter administration, despite its own cheerful propaganda about accomplishments, reflects that weariness.

But if we are not to shoulder the burdens of leadership in the free world, then who will?

The alternatives are neither pleasant nor acceptable. Great nations which fail to meet their responsibilities are consigned to the dust bin of history. We grew from that small, weak republic which had as its assets spirit, optimism, faith in God and an unshakeable belief that free men and women could govern themselves wisely. We became the leader of the free world, an example for all those who cherish freedom.

If we are to continue to be that example -- if we are to preserve our own freedom -- we must understand those who would dominate us and deal with them with determination.

We must shoulder our burden with our eyes fixed on the future, but recognizing the realities of today, not counting on mere hope or wishes. We must be willing to carry out our responsibility as the custodian of individual freedom. Then we will achieve our destiny to be as a shining city on a hill for all mankind to see.