What Putin Learned From Reagan

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tags: Putin, Reagan



Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

There was a great power that was worried about its longtime rival’s efforts to undermine it. Its leaders thought the rival power was stronger and trying to throw its weight around all over the world. In fact, this longtime rival was now interfering in places the declining state had long regarded as its own backyard. To protect this traditional sphere of influence, the worried great power had long maintained one-sided relationships with its neighbors, many of them led by corrupt and brutal oligarchs who stayed in power because they were subservient to the powerful neighbor’s whims.

But suddenly, a popular uprising toppled the corrupt leader of one of those client states, and he promptly fled the country. The leaders of the uprising seemed eager to align with the great power’s distant rival, in part because they admired the rival’s ideology and wanted to distance themselves from the neighbor that had long dominated their much-weaker country. In response, the tough-minded conservative leader of the now very worried great power ordered his government to arm rebel groups in the former client state, to prevent the new government from realigning and eventually to drive it from power.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, but the great power in this story isn’t Russia, the tough-minded leader isn’t Putin, and the troubled weak neighbor isn’t Ukraine. The great power in this story was the United States, the leader was Ronald Reagan, and unfortunate neighbor was Nicaragua.

As the 1980s began, many Americans thought Soviet power was rising and Moscow’s appetite was growing. Such fears helped put Reagan in the Oval Office and convinced the country to launch a costly military buildup.

Reagan was especially determined to stop Soviet encroachments in the Western hemisphere. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua had just overthrown pro-American dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and had begun cultivating close ties with Cuba. In response, the Reagan administration organized, armed, and backed the anti-Sandinista Contras. ...




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