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The President and Foreign Policy

One important role of any president is that of “chief diplomat.” Although these specific words do not appear in the Constitution, the president is given the authority to receive foreign diplomats. The president also acts as the director of foreign policy by appointing the secretary of state and ambassadors to foreign countries. These powers are shared with the Senate, which has the authority to confirm presidential appointments to these offices and to advise on and consent to treaties made by the president. In practice, the presidency has gained many informal foreign policy powers not written directly into the Constitution. The ability of the president to react swiftly, to speak as a single voice—in contrast to the many voices in Congress—and the central position of the president in American politics have created a dominant role for the president in foreign policy making. As international travel has become easier, presidents have capitalized on the opportunity to personally conduct diplomatic meetings with heads of state around the world.

Limiting the expansion of the Soviet Union’s influence became one of the main goals of U.S. foreign policy after World War II. The struggle between liberal democracy, led by the United States, and totalitarian communism, primarily represented by the Soviet Union, was called the Cold War. To challenge each other’s influence, both the United States and the Soviet Union built up their militaries and arms stockpiles and extended them to their respective allies during this period.

Convinced that the previously weakened U.S. military forces only invited Soviet expansionism around the globe, Ronald Reagan promoted strengthening the U.S. military through increased defense spending as one of the major themes of his 1980 presidential campaign. Military spending had been declining since the end of the Vietnam War—resulting in shortages of military parts and equipment—and had begun increasing at the end of President Carter’s administration. Furthermore, President Reagan and his advisors believed that because the Soviets were outspending the United States in military weapons procurement, a potentially dangerous imbalance of power could develop.

reagan and gorbachev signing

How did Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev contribute to ending the Cold War?

President Reagan also aimed to reduce the influence of the Soviet Union and “roll back” or eliminate communist regimes around the globe by supporting anti-Soviet governments and groups. These included the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, and the Solidarity Movement’s struggle for freedom in Poland. This policy became known as the “Reagan Doctrine.”

President Reagan was very vocal in his opposition to communism. He predicted that communism would be left “on the ash heap of history” with other “tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” He referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” This dramatic statement and President Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union generated a great deal of controversy. Some saw his words as an important reassertion of American resolve. Others worried that they needlessly antagonized the Soviets and increased the risk of war. To alleviate these concerns, the president spoke of his program as “peace through strength.”

Early in President Reagan’s second term, a reform-minded leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed power in the Soviet Union. Like previous presidents, Ronald Reagan made plans to meet the new Soviet leader. During his presidency, President Reagan met with General Secretary Gorbachev on five occasions from 1985 to 1988. The two leaders developed a personal relationship and worked together to reduce the tensions of the Cold War.

In June 1987, President Reagan stood before the famous Brandenburg Gate, which had been blocked by the Berlin Wall. The wall had been constructed in 1961 by communist East Germany to isolate West Berlin and to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West. It had become a symbol of communist repression around the world. In what would become one of his most famous speeches, President Reagan challenged Secretary Gorbachev and said,

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Also in this speech, President Reagan called for a lessening of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Just six months later, the two leaders signed a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons.

Mikhail Gorbachev introduced sweeping reforms to the Soviet Union that gave his people a greater measure of political and economic freedom. He hoped this would strengthen the weak Soviet economy and improve citizens’ well-being. The reforms, however, unleashed a wave of protests. The protest movements led to the collapse of communism all over Central and Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and eventually dismantled. The destruction of the wall became a symbol of this historic turning point. In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Mikhail Gorbachev resigned.

President Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy has often been credited as contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. President Reagan himself believed that when given the choice, people will always choose freedom.

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