President 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, but 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 taken from the people not in armed clashes but in the gradual and silent encroachment of those in power.”
These words are relevant for today’s European reality, although 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.
Reagan’s centennial year is a time when politicians in the European Union are trying to deal with the consequences of the economic crisis. They all celebrate Reagan, but they are tackling the crisis in a manner against which Reagan warned.
They wrongly assume that the crisis was primarily a market failure, and that any future crises can be prevented by greater government intervention in the economy.
Instead of abolishing useless restrictions and repealing thousands of pages of regulations and directives which stand in the way of the economic growth, they are trying to come up with new ones.
This year is also the year of the war in Libya. Reagan detested Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and he considered him “one of the worst terrorists in the world.” Reagan was not among those who shook hands with Gadhafi or had their pictures taken with him in a friendly hug, only to call for his resignation four months later and send fighter jets against his troops.
His dislike for Gadhafi, especially after the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, did not come from some attempt to divert attention from domestic problems, or from an attempt to make himself more visible before an election.
For some politicians in Europe today, the war in Libya is a substitute topic. It does not originate in their contempt and long-term denouncements of Gaddafi. It originates in a feeling they did not have four months previously.
Reagan did not believe in a destiny that will come about no matter what we do. He believed instead in a fate that will befall us if we do nothing. Today’s world is no less complicated than Reagan’s era.
The difference is that there is so little of Reagan in it. 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.
Jirí Brodský is deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Department in the Office of the President of the Czech Republic.