Ronald Reagan and the Europe of today

Jiří Brodský of the Office of the President of the Czech Republic examines the enduring legacy of US President Ronald Reagan abroad

Foreign Affairs
Guest Writer | 01.07.2011
US President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981

Ronald Reagan’s centennial this year is a good opportunity to remember what sort of a man he was, what he achieved and the era in which he lived. This is particularly true for Central Europeans. His contribution — which was a significant one — to the fact that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe live in freedom today should never be forgotten.

Nor should we forget to commemorate his philosophy of life, his principles, his patriotism, his faith in God, his humbleness, his sincerity, his straightforwardness, his decisiveness, his sense of humor and his natural skepticism.

It is also appropriate to use this occasion to discuss the present. Reagan used to speak and write about what is and what will be, rather than about what used to be, although he did recall the past and draw lessons from it. He often reflected on James Madison and his warning in 1788 that, throughout history, “Freedom has been most often been taken from the people not in armed clashes but in the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power.”

Reagan relaxing at Rancho Del Cielo, 1976

Reagan also used to say that those who founded the United States believed that government should be as close as possible to the people, that it should guarantee national security and democratic freedoms, and that it should limit its intrusions into the lives of Americans. He said that the Founding Fathers “never envisioned vast agencies in Washington telling farmers what to plant and teachers what to teach.”

These words are apt for today’s European reality. To criticize what comes from the European Commission in Brussels is not Euroskepticism, nor is it anti-Europeanness, any more than Reagan’s criticism of the Washington administration was an expression of anti-Americanism. This is not to suggest that the European Union is or should be similar to the US.

Criticism of the fact that many things in the EU today are decided by unelected bureaucrats does not mean that they should be elected. It means instead that there should be as few of them as possible, that their powers should be radically reduced, and that no new institution — such as the European External Action Service — should be created, because any newly created department, agency, body or international institution will never cease to exist. Reagan used to say that a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth.

Reagan used to say that a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth. “The bureaucracy once created has one fundamental rule above all others: Preserve the bureaucracy.” The same is true for every new EU competence and only dreamers believe that they will ever be transferred back to the member states.

The same goes for union programs, subsidies and funds. This is what Reagan wrote about his first year in office: “We started to restore the authority of states and municipalities, which had been taken away from them by the federal bureaucracy and we increasingly used the so-called aggregate subventions which enabled the teachers and local representatives to talk into the distribution of aid and limited the competences of the social engineers from Washington who were used to decide and prescribe through “earmarked” subsidies what the states and towns should do”

Self-government vs. Brussels

It is the same in the European Union today. The bureaucrats from the European Commission in Brussels determine the projects for which the money from the EU budget will be used, and for which the regions, towns and municipalities can apply.

Reagan speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987

In order to be able to apply, however, applicants often need to allocate up to 40 percent of the final sum of the Union subsidy to projects on which they did not decide and which therefore do not constitute a necessary priority for them. This means that they are spending money which could be put to better and more effective use on projects other than those which have been decided in the capital of another member state.

Just before the 1964 election, Reagan said: “This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” In Brussels, when they celebrate Reagan, they only recall his Berlin speech and the fall of the Iron Curtain.

They do not like to hear this in Brussels. That is why, when they celebrate Reagan, they only recall his Berlin speech and the fall of the Iron Curtain. You will not hear from them about democracy, freedom or elections, let alone about the defense of capitalism or the free market. They are not saying the EU should do less, or that what Reagan used to say about the American federal government holds true for the EU as well: that it is often the problem, not a solution.

They do not criticize the omnipotence of the European Court of Justice. They do not discuss the need to reduce EU legislation, the power of the Commission and the number of its officials. They compare their number with the number of government employees in the member states, and if they do want to reduce anything, it is the powers of the member states and their governments themselves. They do not aim at creating a federation: their ambition is to create a European Union without states, in which nations will be a historical relic.

The very word “nation” is not politically correct in today’s European Union, because it relates to a clearly defined demos, with its historically given territory, its past, traditions, distinctiveness and uniqueness; an entity which has its own interests and with which the citizens identify.  This is something of which Reagan was always proud and which he always awakened in the Americans.

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Democracy in the western world is gravely threatened

Thank you Mr. Brodsky for a summary of some of Ronald Reagan's main contributions to political thought. His contributions were truly an overwhealming force for good and prosperity in the 20th century. Unfortunately we are now in the 21st century and nobody is emerging to assume a similar role. Because I believe that democracy in the western world is gravely threatened, I venture to say that similar leadership is needed now as much, if not more, than in Ronald Reagan's time. Seeing the strength and momentum of the direction in which our freedoms and economic policy (specifically fiscal and monetary policy) is going, I have serious doubt whether what is right will eventually triumph. The root causes of our current problems are so brutally self evident and yet our political elite do nothing that would truly begin to solve the problems, that even Ronald Reagan, were he alive today, might be less optimistic than he was, perhaps finding that at least when it comes to our political leaders, he could no longer agree with his statement that “there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder”.

Based upon fairly compelling evidence, I feel that the problem may be far worse than that there are plenty of short-sighted politicians and too few statesmen who have the backbone, ideals, long-term vision and sense of direction which were Ronald Reagan’s finest qualities. I am sad and disheartened to conclude that, with too few exceptions that don't make a difference, most politicians on a global level, are morally corrupt and driven by self-interest at the expense of values that have positively contributed to western civilization. As long as this will be true, the real systemic risk in our economic systems, and therefore also the health of our frail democracy, is simply and ultimately the government. Ronald Reagan said “There are no easy answers' but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

The Gipper

 

Reagan has a legacy so distorted by the Conservative idolization of him that we may never have a clear picture of the real man behind the television.  Did he rid the world of commie scum?  Check out my portrait of The Gipper in commemoration of his 100th birthday at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/02/happy-100th-gipper.htmlReagan has a legacy so distorted by the Conservative idolization of him that we may never have a clear picture of the real man behind the television.  Did he rid the world of commie scum?  Check out my portrait of The Gipper in commemoration of his 100th birthday at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/02/happy-100th-gipper.html

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