Since the obituaries and eulogies for Ronald Reagan have now been read, I think it’s reasonable to take a critical look at his historical contribution. It’s often argued that Reagan accelerated the end of the Cold War by raising US military expenditure, thereby forcing the Soviet Union to increase its own military expenditure and crippling its economy. I think this argument has some plausibility in relation to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, though not in relation to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe.
So granting that this analysis is correct, should Reagan be praised. For the argument to work at all, the buildup must have raised the probability of nuclear war, unless you suppose (improbably) that the Russians were absolutely convinced of the peaceful intentions of the West and responded to Reagan purely to build up their own offensive capability. Let’s suppose that the annual risk of war was raised by one percentage point. Then over the eight years Reagan was in office, there was a cumulative 8 per cent chance of a war that would certainly have produced tens of millions of deaths, probably billions and possibly the extinction of the human race. Against this, the early collapse of the Soviet Union produced benefits (mixed, but still positive on balance) for people in the Soviet Union, and perhaps also a reduction in the likelihood of an accidental nuclear war in the period since 1990. These benefits are small in relation to the potential cost.
As I’ve argued previously, if you think that a good policy is one which, in expectation, has good consequences, Reagan’s policy fails this test. On the other hand, standard accounts of consequentialism say that a good policy is one that has good actual consequences. If you accept this, and the assessment of the facts given above, Reagan’s historical record looks pretty good.
fn1. It had been obvious for many years that these governments were sustained only by the threat of Soviet military intervention. Gorbachev still had the military capacity to intervene in 1989 (in fact, on the argument presented above, the Russians had a bigger military than they would have had if Reagan had not been elected), but he chose not to do so. As soon as this became evident, the Communist bloc governments collapsed.
fn2. As an aside, in debate at the time, it was widely asserted that the Soviet government was actively planning an attack on the West, to be undertaken if Western defences could be weakened sufficiently. Has the collapse of Communism produced any archival or similar evidence on this? I would have thought that the Warsaw Pact countries would have had to have had a fair degree of involvement, and, since they are now in NATO, there would be no reason to keep any secrets.