Jon Cayzer
Jon Cayzer

Ronald Reagan at 100: The legacy

Ronald Reagan turned 100 this month, and his legacy continues to shape American politics from the social democrat White House to that woman from Alaska — especially in the realm of statecraft. Reagan, like President Barack Obama in 2008, was elected on a “transformational ticket” and, indeed, the former — politics apart — is said to serve as a source of inspiration to the latter.

Political scientist James MacGregor Burns differentiates between “transformational” and “transactional” leadership. While transformative leaders inspire followers to transcend self-interest for the sake of a higher purpose, transactional leaders motivate followers by appealing to their self-interests. The former depends more on the soft power of inspiration, the latter on the hard power of threat and reward. The two styles of leadership sometimes coexist within the same leader. A leader may, to paraphrase Mario Cuomo, inspire his followers with the “poetry” of transformative leadership, but govern with the “prose” of transactional leadership (a criticism frequently levelled at Obama).

Charisma in the sense of personal attraction is only one component of transformational leadership, but it is usually a quality associated with transformational leaders. It is widely held that Reagan possessed such charisma while his estimable successor George H Bush lacked it. The handsome Reagan had the common touch and honeyed delivery of the polished actor he was. Bush stumbled over his lines.

In terms of vision, Reagan was arguably the most transformative president in the foreign policy realm since Franklin D Roosevelt. “We have it in our power” Reagan was fond of saying, quoting Thomas Paine, “to start the world over again”. While Bush did not aspire to frame a vision, he brought unparalleled experience to office, which anchored the US when the kaleidoscope of international relations was spinning.

Through his foreign policy, Reagan sought to achieve the transformative goal of “peace through strength”. Many credit Reagan with “winning” the Cold War. His call at the Berlin Wall to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” will ring through the ages as one of the most celebrated images of transformational or, more precisely, inspirational leadership. While Reagan’s expansion of the military budget and warrior-like rhetoric were significant, his vision would not have come to pass without an atrophying Soviet economy and the rise to power of the charismatic Gorbachev in 1985. Reagan did not, as the brilliant Joe Nye points out, “create the fork in the historical road,” but he did, as Yogi Berra counselled, take it.

Reagan’s ability to fashion a simple narrative with a sense of theatre was instrumental in achieving his transformational goals. In dramatic meetings with Gorbachev, Reagan negotiated a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The war against international terrorism also unfolded within the context of the transformative Reagan Doctrine. The president sent American bombers against Libya after evidence came out that Tripoli was involved in an attack on American soldiers in Berlin. Reagan also gave support to anti-communist insurgencies in Central America, Asia and Africa.

Reagan also, at times, could be described as reactionary rather than transformative. However attune Reagan was to the subtle stirrings of change in Soviet politics, his policy toward apartheid South Africa was far more short-sighted. Heavily influenced by Henry Kissinger, he opposed sanctions and failed to comprehend the growing strength of the African National Congress. I was bemused to read in Reagan’s diaries (a great read) at how he was enthralled by a certain “Chief of the Zulu people” from Ulundi.

In terms of his management abilities, although Reagan lacked a penchant for mastering detail, he had the savvy to entrust treaty negotiations to America’s most distinguished and able civil servant, secretary of state George Shultz. This practice of “extreme delegation” functioned well when he had an able team in place, but unravelled disastrously when Donald Regan, John Poindexter and Oliver North took over. The Iran-Contra affair marked the nadir of Reagan’s presidency, as Reagan appeared confused and uninformed about decisions taken at the lower levels of the White House, though supposedly with his authority. Reagan, the “Great Communicator” excelled in the soft power of vision, communications, and emotional intelligence, yet he lacked the transactional skills of leadership as management.

His successor’s foreign policy, in contrast, is often characterised as a rather bland husbanding of a historical process his charismatic predecessor had all but seen to a close. However, a more sophisticated evaluation reveals that Bush’s transactional skills were in fact effective at critical, and potentially calamitous, moments. Bush’s presidency was not, as widely predicted, a third Reagan term. To more fully understand Reagan it is insightful to compare and contrast the two leaders’ styles.

On assuming office, Bush’s wide-ranging foreign policy review and his assembling of a highly distinguished foreign affairs team highlighted his finely honed transactional skills. His national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, made sure that a set of powerful cabinet secretaries each had full access to the president, thus strengthening lines of accountability.

For Bush, the presidency was all about foreign affairs, and he possessed the pedigree of the most seasoned diplomat. While Reagan sought to be an agent of change, Bush was suspicious of political change. His strength, as his former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, put it, was in “managing the present and avoiding the mistakes of the past”.

Bush was weary of both Reagan’s strident “evil empire” rhetoric in the first term, and what he perceived as Reagan’s over-eagerness to court Gorbachev in the second term. As a transactional leader, Bush relied less upon personal chemistry with his international counterparts. Bush put his relationship with former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher on a more formal footing (rightly so) as he took a cool-eyed view of where the US’s strategic interests lay in Europe. He may well have been as sceptical about her transformational style of leadership as he was of Reagan’s.

Bush’s transactional skills, when he was satisfied about Gorbachev’s sincerity, shone during the negotiations to dramatically cut Nato and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. The tone and timbre of his leadership during the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 and German reunification in 1990 seemed to befit the spirit of the times. While Bush hailed the march of democracy, his policy toward the group of new nations was one of cautious restraint.

Inevitably, comparisons were drawn with the visionary leadership of Reagan. While Bush was faulted for not having what he called the “vision thing”, his transactional skills were similarly critical to the success of Desert Storm in 1991. He painstakingly stitched together an international coalition from Moscow to Damascus, which secured the passage of Security Council Resolution 678 authorising the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait. Moreover the lion’s share of the cost was shared by the coalition. This stands in stark contrast to the failure of his benighted son and Tony Blair in their, in my view, illegal execution of the second Gulf War.

The limitations of elder Bush’s transactional leadership however became apparent soon after Desert Storm when he vaguely spoke of the need to construct a “new world order”. At no point after did he seek to elucidate what the meaning or architecture of such an “order” might be. Bush did not seem to have an over-arching vision for the future; a verdict expressed by the American electorate in the 1992 election. Ironically, if he had spelt it out we could have been spared the second Bush’s transformational presidency (for he had a vision, just a fundamentally flawed one).

The presidencies of Reagan and Bush clearly illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of transformative and transactional leadership, although there is a strong argument to make that the two men’s styles of leadership were appropriate for their respective times. I would conclude that the most effective leader is the one who can successfully synthesise transformative objectives with transactional skills. Is Obama, who in so many ways seeks to fashion his leadership on Reagan, such a leader? I think so.