Echoes of leadership against a global threat

Like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan was condemned for using the word 'evil'. But his rhetoric helped to end the cold war, writes Amity Shlaes.

A president uses the adjective "evil" in a speech to describe an enemy. US allies attack him for being unilateralist and dangerously retrograde. Diplomats cite the speech as evidence of a widening rift between the US on the one hand and Europe on the other. Colin Powell is concerned. The administration qualifies itself, slightly.

The above lines could describe President George W. Bush's recent "axis of evil" speech. But they do not. They in fact represent reactions to a triad of speeches delivered by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: his remarks at Westminster in 1982, in which he consigned Marxism-Leninism to the "ash heap of history"; the 1983 "evil empire" speech in Orlando; and his 1987 Berlin address, in which he undiplomatically ordered Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this Wall".

The similarity between the 2002 reaction to Mr Bush's "axis of evil" and Mr Reagan's 1980s rhetoric has been noted. But the parallel is worth looking at more closely, especially by those who are now positing that US unilateralism endangers the transatlantic alliance. For what the history of the Reagan speeches and their consequences show is that forthright US leadership in the face of a global threat can yield positive political change. And the by-product of that change can even be a stronger friendship between America and Europe.

Consider Ronald Reagan's last big inflammatory speech, his 1987 demand in Berlin that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this Wall". Today, this speech is generally regarded as a small and obvious link in a chain of inevitability that culminated in the end of Europe's division and the superpower arms race.

That, though, was not how it played at the time. Many viewed the speech as a threat to peace and an obstacle to the orderly progress of history. In the days before Mr Reagan mounted the dais in Berlin, recalls Peter Robinson, the author of the famous "Wall" line, both the US State Department and White House staffers tried to block the phrase.

John Kornblum, the senior US diplomat in Berlin at the time, was concerned that it would damage the work of detente between the two Germanies, just as diplomats this week are saying that Mr Bush's speech is hurting Korean-Korean relations. Colin Powell, then national security adviser, personally took Mr Robinson to task.

More resistance - just as after Mr Bush's State of the Union address - followed the Berlin speech. Moscow, via Pravda, attacked Mr Reagan, in much the way that the Arab press has slammed Mr Bush for the "axis of evil". As today, the speech was said to have increased the risk of nuclear war. A correspondent from The Guardian reported that crucial talks on shorter-range missiles - so vital to Europe's security - would slow down, because "the Soviet authorities have been angered" by the West Berlin appeal. The western press noted 25,000 protesters in West Berlin against Mr Reagan; a small group of supporters on the eastern side of the Wall got almost no coverage. And just as today, the State Department began emitting a few soothing noises.

The view that held that such speeches were trouble neglected to take into account that this speech, like Mr Reagan's earlier remarks, gave eastern Europeans from Poland to Moscow the will to push for greater change. In his memoirs, Natan Sharansky, the former dissident, recalls the inspiration he derived from a 1983 letter Mr Reagan had written on totalitarianism to Mr Sharansky's wife.

Mr Gorbachev himself hurried faster towards change because he knew Mr Reagan was serious. And Mr Reagan's frank remarks about the Wall did not, as feared, retard arms negotiations: by October there was a breakthrough.

Nor did the Berlin speech harm diplomatic relations at the moment they mattered most - when the Wall cracked. Indeed, the US, Britain and even France co-operated so well with the two Germanies that unification became a fact less than a year after the Wall had fallen.

What about now? Europe's diplomats are taking great pains to argue that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are different from that cold war challenge. But in the emerging US view, the analogy holds. The Soviet Union was a dictatorship that defended itself with nuclear weapons; the rogue three are too - but more unreliable. Containment - to borrow a cold war word - will no longer work.

This argument starts to look valid when we consider that containment was, in effect, the policy throughout the 1990s. In spite of clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was pursuing his development of biological and chemical weapons, the US desisted from its efforts to police Iraq, because doing so was too much trouble. In calling regimes preparing weapons of mass destruction "states of concern", the US was seeking a post-cold war version of detente; but such diplomacy obscured the problem, so allowing it to worsen.

Which brings us back to the "axis of evil". The phrase has already had an inspiring effect for those who live in the shadow of Middle Eastern regimes; at a recent Council on Foreign Relations meeting, visiting Kuwaitis cited it while making the case for fresh US intervention in Iraq.

Complaints of unilateral-ism really reflect the fact that the US is taking action in areas where Europe has been "apathetic, even though it may be concerned about the same problem," says Aram Bakshian, a former Reagan speechwriter.

The point here is not to bash Europe. It is that the US now believes that diplomacy alone will not prevent the rogue states from using their dangerous weapons and that it is time to stop them. The seriousness of this project has caught everyone off guard. But success would be of benefit to us all.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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