As the Republican candidates for president slug it out, one of the issues which divides them is whose philosophy represents the true legacy of Ronald Reagan. In addition to desiring to wear the mantle of most Reagan-like, I am sure that each of them wishes that he or she had the Great Communicator’s gift for the pithy aphorism. Reflect on this example: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
One of Reagan’s great gifts as a leader and a communicator was his ability to cut to the core of an issue. This was nowhere more evident than in his views of nuclear deterrence. More than any other president before or since, he understood the relationship between the politics and the nuclear arms race: “Nations do not fear each other because they are armed. They are armed because they fear each other.” This was the philosophy which was the basis for such military initiatives as the Reagan buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative, on the one hand, and the Reykjavik Summit, where Reagan offered to eliminate all ballistic missiles, on the other hand. The president’s bold move in Iceland ultimately failed because of his refusal to agree with Soviet Premier Gorbachev’s insistence on limits to strategic defenses in return for deep reductions in strategic offensive forces. The proof of the correctness of Reagan’s position can be judged by the fact that Russia and the United States were able to reduce their strategic nuclear forces by almost 90 percent in the 20 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union even with the termination of the 1972 ABM Treaty.
The next president, regardless of which Republican gets the nomination or whether or not that individual bests the Democratic incumbent, will face a Reaganesque moment. Despite the best efforts of this administration to achieve a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, the next president will face an increasingly contentious, even hostile situation vis-à-vis the government in Moscow. Part of this is a function of the fact that the West’s hope for the rise of democracy in Russia has been dashed in the face of Prime Minister Putin’s seemingly successful efforts to highjack his country’s political system. In part, too, it reflects the growing disconnect between U.S. and Russian policy objectives when it comes to states such as Iran and Venezuela.
Faced with the need to reign in government spending, the next president will be bombarded with suggestions of where to cut. One area that is receiving increased attention is the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent is certainly not cheap. Already there are calls to cut the land-based portion of the TRIAD by one-third and reduce the number of ballistic missile submarines to as few as ten. The next occupant of the White House will confront additional challenges because the Pentagon will need to begin the process of acquiring a new long-range strategic bomber and a follow-on ballistic missile submarine as well as developing a replacement for the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Also, the effort to refurbish the nuclear weapons complex must continue. Finally, in view of events in North Korea and Iran, the effort to deploy highly capable theater missile defenses, the so-called Phased Adaptive Architecture, needs to be accelerated along with upgrading the national missile defense system.
This is not the time to consider cuts to the U.S. strategic deterrent nor to the funding of follow-on programs. Rather, it is time for all the Republican candidates to rededicate themselves to the essence of Ronald Reagan’s philosophy on nuclear deterrence and arms control. The fact that there are nations in the world who mean us harm and who desire to hold this country at risk with nuclear weapons means that the United States must remain strong militarily and in particular it must ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrent.
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