We Win, They Lose is an attempt to offer a fusionist vision of Ronald Reagan’s and Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy as a model for the next GOP administration. As such, this volume by Matthew Kroenig and Dan Negrea is a sociological novelty. It isn’t much more. The title comes from a Reagan quip three years before his election as president regarding his policy goals toward the Soviet Union: “We win, and they lose.” And so we did, with the fall of the Berlin Wall not long after Reagan left office and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“We win, they lose” does indeed sound like something Trump could say. It might even be his approach toward the “New Cold War” our authors believe is well under way with China, and indeed with the other major foreign-policy challenges that Russia, Iran, and North Korea pose in conjunction with China in what they call a “New Axis of Evil.”

The sociological problem represented by the book is that the Trump people and the Reagan people can’t stand each other, notwithstanding that they probably agree with 95 percent of the analysis and policy recommendations Kroenig and Negrea put forward. The authors seek to unify two camps that currently have no interest in coming together. The Trump true believers think the Reagan people are at best dinosaurs and at worst “uniparty” interventionists who have been wrong about policy for 40-plus years. The Reaganites of the “never Trump” persuasion think a fusionist project can only sully Reagan and legitimize Trump, whom they regard as an aberration as well as an abomination. We Win, They Lose is a book that lacks a clear constituency.

For example, “peace through strength” is a recurring theme here. That’s certainly a Reaganite principle, and it seems obviously a Trump principle as well. The authors have mustered evidence to buttress the claim that it belongs to both camps. The difficulty arises from the historical mindset underlying it. Reagan took office knowing that as president of the United States, he was also leader of the free world. He spent years preparing himself for that role. Trump took office without embracing such a role, for which he did not prepare. He subsumed any sense of larger leadership under his “Make America Great Again” rubric. He believed respect and deference were his due as president of the most powerful country in the world.

Reagan rebuilt American strength for the defense of the United States and the Free World. Trump inherited American strength and reframed the “Free World” as countries welcome to tag along with the United States for their own good, provided they pay their share. Otherwise, they were of negligible concern to him.

Kroenig and Negrea don’t see too much substantive difference in how Reagan and Trump pursued their respective “peace through strength” policies, and they have a point. They were Republican presidents of the same country, at two different times. But while both did indeed pursue “peace through strength,” their personal sense of mission was very different. It so happens than one can pursue peace through strength from either perspective and others besides—including George W. Bush’s, which our authors unsurprisingly remark upon very sparingly and generally critically. Likewise there is the neoconservative sensibility, described so badly by the authors that their incompetence in this regard can only be deliberate. They must know better:

Neoconservativism, a variant of Wilsonianism, agrees that America has a duty to spread freedom and is generally held to believe that, if necessary, this goal should be achieved through the exercise of American military power. But these are the wrong lessons to derive from American exceptionalism. The United States is a force for good in the world, but it cannot transform the world into utopia. It is, therefore, a poor use of US resources and against the national interest to pursue such a fool’s errand. [Emphasis added.]

Is this generally held belief about neoconservatism rightly or wrongly held? Do the authors themselves hold it? Or is describing neoconservatism this way merely an expedient sop to the next-generation paleoconservative Trump true believers, whose forebears held neoconservatives to be the nation’s biggest problem going back to the 1970s?

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The good news for the country is that “peace through strength” is something one can pursue without complete agreement on why one is pursuing it. The vitriolic intra-party GOP debate is currently over the reasons for doing largely as Kroenig and Negrea propose.

As for the specific threats facing the United States today, Kroenig and Negrea infer from the Reagan and Trump presidencies a policy they call “deterrence and diplomacy.” They trace it to Reagan’s handling of the Soviet Union with an arms buildup and tough “Evil Empire” rhetoric at first, then diplomacy once the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev became more open to change.

Whether the challenge is China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea, policy today should begin by confronting the adversary to create fear of adverse consequences for those who might seek to “disrupt” international order. China can’t have Taiwan, Russia can’t have Ukraine, Iran can’t have nuclear weapons, and North Korea mustn’t use and must eventually give up its nuclear arsenal. These precepts are more or less of a restatement of “peace through strength.” Diplomacy comes in as potential rewards when adversaries become less disruptive.

The authors give considerable credit to Trump for achieving deterrence in a way the Biden administration has not. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, in this view, really begins with the disastrous U.S. bugout from Afghanistan. But was that show of weakness truly a necessary condition for Putin to proceed, or would his historical grievances, his drastic overestimation of his military capabilities, and his overvaluation of his relations with China have been enough?

It’s true that Putin was not deterred. But what if China chooses not to be deterred over Taiwan? We Win, They Lose suggests that the United States has to fight the ‘New Axis of Evil” in all four cases. One could be forgiven, however, for harboring doubts that this is the view of Trump’s true believers. Nor is it obvious what “diplomacy” contributes to U.S. foreign policy if it is impossible to pursue until our adversaries give up their disruptive ways.

We Win, They Lose is a partisan pamphlet. Democrats will have little reason to pay heed to a book that blames Bill Clinton for getting “bogged down in several amorphous nation-building and peacekeeping campaigns, including in Somalia, leading to the ‘Black Hawk Down’ tragedy”—without mentioning that the Somalia humanitarian mission began in the final months of the George H.W. Bush administration.

That said, the single-minded GOP focus on security through strength does indeed stand in contrast to the multifaceted, multilateral approach Democrats favor. That brand of postwar liberal institutionalism is now in crisis. Kroenig and Negrea have succeeded in outlining the main currents of the likely response to American foreign-
policy challenges during the next GOP administration. But in framing it as a Reagan-Trump fusion, they are asking for an intra-party level of agreement that is currently unattainable.

In his day, people saw Reagan as a polarizing figure, even through two landslide presidential victories. But he never commanded the obsessive attention, both hateful and loving, that Trump has for eight years now and counting.

If there had ever been an “Age of Reagan,” it was discernable only in retrospect, with the successful end of the Cold War. In terms of sheer force of personality, it was as nothing compared with what future historians will call the Age of Trump, which began when he came down the escalator in 2015.

Already, ambitious and opportunistic politicians are positioning themselves as a successor generation. Many of them are fools, but some of them, such as Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, are cunning. They profess to hate everything Reagan stood for, even as they live off the geopolitical capital he created. Neither reelection nor imprisonment is likely to end the Age of Trump. Perhaps not even his death.

Photo: Ed Jones / POOL / AFP

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