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How Reagan Looks to a Teacher of World History

Since I don't teach U.S. history, I don't have to deal with the "Reagan Legacy" much. But as a World History teacher who comes right up to the present (and even makes predictions about the future), I do cover those years. There is a way in which Ronald Reagan was important as an actor in world history which goes largely unappreciated in U.S. historiography that remains fixed on the twilight Cold War and partisan electoral politics.

Reagan was at the center of a group of the most powerful world leaders all of whom were pushing a certain kind of economic and political reform and who, collectively, set the stage for the intensely and extensively globalized capitalist economics that dominates the world today. The G-7 nations, dynamic industrialized democracies, were at the center of the action, but there were other important members as well, some of them surprising. And Ronald Reagan's personal relationships with these leaders often formed an important cornerstone of this coalition.

The other ideological linchpin of the group was Great Britain's Margaret Thatcher, whose hard-won reputation as an anti-communist "Iron Lady" paralleled Reagan's, and they had a close working relationship. They even both had prominent showdowns with unions, and both won, much to the detriment of the union movements in their respective countries. Both were nationalists -- Thatcher using the Falkland Islands crisis, Reagan using anti-communism -- to revive a spirit of unity and pride in their citizens.

Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan was an eager member of the group, and as Japan's only English-fluent, over-six-foot prime minister he could engage with the group in an unprecedentedly close fashion. Being on a first name basis with Reagan -- in Japan it was known as "Ron-Yasu Diplomacy" -- was one sign of that engagement. Nakasone's domestic and foreign policy agenda, known as "Internationalization" [kokusaika], was an attempt to leverage Japan's economic strength into both national pride and renewed activism on the international stage. This would, he hoped, reduce trade barriers and allow Japan to be a full member of the international community: Japan's push for a UN Security Council seat really began in earnest under Nakasone.

Helmut Kohl of Germany, Brian Mulroney of Canada, and Fran├žois Mitterand of France were active in this group as well, and all of them worked to reduce trade barriers and limit government spending. Mitterand was the only one to push his own country in a more socialist direction, but his commitment to international trade was strong.

More surprising, I would include the leaders of the Communist superpowers in this group. Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union had a remarkably good working relationship with Reagan, and though they were ideological enemies, they shared some methods. Gorbachev's "restructuring" [perestroika] and "openness" [glasnost] campaigns were attempts to deflect the effects of the Afghanistan quagmire, renew civic pride through common cause and stimulate economic growth through reducing government involvement in the economy. The parallel between Gorbachev's and Reagan's domestic reform rhetoric is striking. Like Reagan, Gorbachev realized that the legitimacy of government depends on the consent of the governed, and if the governed want less government, then that is what government must seem to give them.

Deng Xiaoping of China must be included as well. Though his personal relationship with Reagan was unremarkable, Deng was the first of China's communist leaders to push China's economy into active engagement with the global economy. Special Economic Zones, patent law, legal reform, and the emphasis on socialism instead of communism was a huge step towards the Chinese economy of today. Deng's foreign policy was much more moderate than his predecessors as well, resuming relations with the USSR and pursuing closer ties with Japan and the U.S. Like Reagan and Thatcher, Deng was unimpressed with communist radicals, and suppressed dissent from his left, including the 1989 Tiananmen protesters.

This confluence of leaders created the world we live in today. The market-driven global economy, lower trade and investment barriers, is their legacy. They renewed the classical ideology of limited government, retreating from the statist experiments of the twentieth century. Together they brought the largest hard-line versions of communism built by Mao and Stalin to an end with remarkably little bloodshed or disorder. They also revived flagging national identities and patriotism, reversing a trend towards internationalism, at the same time that they built international trade and finance instititutions which reduced national sovereignty in favor of integrated markets.

The Cold War began as the anti-fascist WW II was ending; the globalization movement was born not in the Internet-driven 1990s, but in the twilight of the Cold War. This 1980s coalition could not have succeeded in isolation: each needed the support and examples (and sometimes opposition) of the others to promote their domestic agendas, and each saw the alliance as beneficial to their own domestic constituencies. Reagan may stand as a cornerstone of this group, but the cornerstone accomplishes nothing by itself.