A new time for choosing: Reagan's lessons to Trump on Russia
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In the final week of the 1964 presidential campaign, budding conservative Ronald Reagan — still 17 years away from his own presidency — made the closing pitch in support of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

On October 27, the man known to most as a Hollywood movie star delivered the speech that would launch his political career. It was called "A Time for Choosing" and, in it, he argued against sacrificing American values in exchange for a quick peace with an aggressive Soviet Union:

“There's no argument over the choice between peace and war," Reagan declared, "but there's only one guaranteed way you can have peace — and you can have it in the next second — surrender.”  

Goldwater lost the ‘64 election to incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide — Reagan’s speech notwithstanding — but his sentiment of peace through strength endured long after. Although the Cold War is over, the values Reagan spoke so passionately about defending are once again being tested by an opportunistic Russia. To name just a few of Moscow’s more audacious actions: it has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, intervened in Syria to prop up the murderous Assad regime, and brazenly inserted itself into the democratic processes of the United States and its allies in Europe.

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The lengthy list of Russia’s destabilizing activities reflects an effective blending of both conventional and unconventional tactics. These tactics are designed to create chaos and sow instability in an effort to undermine the international system that would hold it accountable to the rule of law.

 

The steps taken by the United States and its allies since 2014, while laudable, remain insufficient to adequately manage this challenge. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to see more reward than risk. And he is becoming more emboldened and ambitious with time. What was once primarily an Eastern Europe problem has steadily expanded westward, reaching across the Atlantic and generating a wave of political instability that has continued to wreak havoc in Washington well beyond the 2016 election.

It is time to draw a firmer line. As Lenin reminds us about the Russian attitude toward power, “You probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you push. If you find steel you withdraw.” A steel spine is required in defense of the international system that has served the United States and its allies so well over the past 70 years.

The yardstick for success can no longer be reaching consensus around a NATO table; it must be changing Russia’s behavior. This will entail increasing the credibility of our threats and promises, and lessening our sensitivity to Russia’s false indignation and knee-jerk protests to defensive U.S. and NATO activities. Contesting Russia when it threatens our interests will speak to Putin in the language he best understands: power and resolve.

As we discuss in a new report, “Recalibrating U.S. Strategy toward Russia: A New Time for Choosing,” the Trump administration would therefore be wise to follow Reagan’s lead and pursue more robust offensive and defensive measures to contest Russia’s aggression and introduce additional risk into its decision-making calculus.

Moscow’s challenging of the international order will not be constrained only by punitive measures imposed after the fact, but must also be shaped by the proactive imposition of a predictable set of policies that makes clear the United States’ boundaries and expectations. This means shaping a new relationship paradigm that puts more onus on Russia to comply with international norms rather than simply imposing consequences for breaching them.

For example, instead of lifting Ukraine-related sanctions whenever Russia decides to comply with the conditions laid out in the Minsk agreements, the United States and its European allies should consider raising them until it does. Options exist across the range of diplomatic, economic, and military actions that could better press the United States’ advantages. This may include such things as conducting proportional offensive cyber activities, reinforcing the U.S. military presence in Europe, and doing more to robustly and creatively combat Russian propaganda.

There was more to Ronald Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union than confrontation, just as there should be more to our Russia strategy now. The fortieth U.S. president knew that drawing a firmer line did not equate to taking reckless action. Indeed, he approached the use of military force with extreme caution and seized upon areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union where advantageous and feasible.

The debate over what constitutes credible deterrence and what amounts to unhelpful provocation remains a valid one. That said, Reagan did not let fear of escalation paralyze him against standing firm for vital U.S. national interests, which included peace and stability in Europe, or allow a desire for negotiation devolve into endless accommodation.

Greater efforts to push back against Russia coercion must be joined by steps to shore up that which is making Russian coercion possible. The latent disrepair in Western institutions — a result of attacks on the media and the prevalence of subjective truth, the disengagement and disenchantment of our publics, escalating social tensions, and Europe’s decades of divestment in defense, among other things — have made the West an easy target for meddling and manipulation. More concerted action will therefore be needed to inoculate our societies against Russia’s brand of hybrid warfare and rebuild public trust in our institutions. First and foremost, this will mean practicing what we preach as a democracy and providing a strong alternative governing example.

The United States now finds itself back at the crossroads of accommodation or courage. How President Trump chooses to manage the Russia challenge will not only shape his own legacy, but the future of the liberal international order. Friends and foes alike will be watching and calibrating their behavior accordingly. Reagan’s legacy of defiance in the face of Russian aggression provides a useful template. This is a new time for choosing.

Lisa Sawyer Samp is a Senior Fellow in CSIS’s International Security Program, and formerly the Director for NATO and European Strategic Affairs at the National Security Council.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.