Monday, 7 February 2011

Thanking Reagan?

You know that you are living in another culture with a different historical background when people start praising Ronald Reagan. In other posts I have described the difficulty of hearing people wax lyrical about Margaret Thatcher and the historical paradoxes of the Solidarity movement. However, when celebrations are held to commemorate the memory of Ronald Reagan it all seems a step too far.

Yet this is the paradox of history. Reagan is remembered by many in the former Eastern bloc as the individual who helped to 'liberate' Poland from the oppressions of Communism. There is some truth in the assertion that the policies of Reagan - backed up by Thatcher - placed an unbearable pressure on the Eastern European governments, eventually leading to their collapse. This was achieved primarily through an unprecedented build up of nuclear weapons, which the Soviet Union was unable to compete with. While the heirs to Reagan in Poland may currently be urging fiscal restraint (and perhaps believing they stand in the tradition of 'Reaganomics') the economic policies of the Reagan governments were very different.

Pubic spending rose significantly during the term of Reagan's administrations. This was led by a huge increase in defense spending - rising from (in constant 2000 dollars) $267.1bn in 1980 (4.9% of GDP and 22.7% of public expenditure) to $393.1bn in 1988 (5.8% of GDP and 27.3% of public expenditure). All this was done while cutting the taxes for the highest earners in society - leading to public debt increasing from 33.3% of GDP to 51.9% and the budget deficit doubling from 2.7% to around 6%. Furthermore America began to shift from being an international exporter to an importer of capital - with the country's trade deficit balooning to around $148bn in 1985. Many of the current imbalances and difficulties of the American economy are rooted in this era.

Yet it may be said that all this was worth it - as Reagan helped to bring down the Evil Empire. However, firstly one has to question the moral and human cost of building up a nuclear arsenal and wasting billions of dollars on weapons capable of wiping out human civilisation. These weapons remain with us and threaten our existence every day. Furthermore, beyond Eastern Europe, lies the historical role played by Reagan in other parts of the world - not least in his own backyard of Latin America. In order to accept the image of Reagan - portrayed by the right in Poland - as the supporter of democracy and forebearer of freedom - one has to forget the historical experiences of millions of people around the globe. In a recent blogpost MichaƂ Syska points out how the Reagan governments helped to support repressive dictatorships, torture, killings and guerilla armies throughout Latin America and beyond in the 1980s (e.g. Nicuaguara, Honduras, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, Philipines). We can add to this the de-facto support given by the Reagan government to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, through its reluctance to impose sanctions on, and the policy of 'constructive engagement' with, the racist government in Pretoria.

The current events in Egypt and Tunisia show us that freedom and democracy are universal concepts. Because freedom was ostensibly espoused in one part of the world, it does not excuse oppressions committed in others.


  1. Why not put "everything" in scare quotes ? ...

    You're forgetting one very simple thing: the LEGISLATURE spend the money. The President and the COngress go back and forth looking for terms of agreement on the budget, and the Congress was dominated by the Democrats.

    For someone whose party did not a majority in Congress, his achievements were impressive, despite the childish hatred of a pop-culture that was trying to humilate people into getting their way, even though Reagan was voted in and re-elected in a landslide: tax reform, restraint from the most burdensome regulations, and arms control.

  2. Not quite sure what you "point" is. If its that the democrats largely colluded with Reagan during his time in office then I can agree. But what 'a pop-culture that was trying to humiliate people into getting their own way' actually means is beyond me. If you list supporting dictatorships and building up a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons as being impressive then go ahead.

  3. I was always amused when I heard about Polish admirers of Thatcher who also supported public ownership of the (failing) heavy industries, extension of the social welfare system, etc. They did not realise that her main attack against 'communists' was those people back home who advocated such policies - Scargill, etc. The Polish meaning of 'communist' did not even embrace such people. They were surprised when papers were released showing how accommodating she was to the Soviets.

  4. And Poland exported coal to the UK during the miners strike. contradictions galore


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