Reagan encountered a similar combination of triumphs and difficulties in international affairs. Determined to restore American pride and prestige in the world, he argued that the United States should once again become active and assertive in opposing Communism and in supporting friendly governments whatever their internal policies. The president's rhetoric, and the administration's military spending policies, supported that goal. But in the end, Reagan's foreign policy—although more belligerent than that of his two immediate predecessors—was considerably more cautious than his sometimes bellicose statements suggested.
Unlike recent presidents from Nixon to Carter, whose national security advisers had often overshadowed the cabinet in formulating foreign policy, Reagan appointed prominent men to be secretary of state and secretary of defense and left the White House position to a series of little-known figures whose influence at first rarely matched those of the cabinet ministers. His first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., a man of high self-regard and little patience with politics, resigned after less than a year, complaining that the administration was not following a consistent diplomatic course. His replacement, former secretary of commerce George P. Shultz, served for the remainder of Reagan's term and usually, although not always, dominated the formulation of policy. Shultz's task was complicated by his long-running feud with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who—despite his unwavering and un-critical support of ever rising defense budgets—was extremely reluctant to endorse any deployment of American troops in situations that carried any element of risk. Over time, the intensity of their disagreements worked to enhance the position of the national security adviser, whose office became increasingly influential as the years passed.
Relations with the Soviet Union, which had been steadily deteriorating in the last years of the Carter administration, grew still more strained in the first years of the Reagan presidency. The president spoke harshly of the Soviet regime, which he once called an "evil empire." He accused it of sponsoring world terrorism, and he declared that any armaments negotiations must be linked to negotiations on Soviet behavior in other areas. Relations with the Russians deteriorated further after the government of Poland (under strong pressure from Moscow) imposed martial law on the country in the winter of 1981 to crush a growing challenge from an independent labor organization, Solidarity.
The president had long denounced the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) negotiated by Ford and Carter but as yet unratified by the Senate, although he continued quietly to honor its provisions. The treaty was, Reagan claimed, unfavorable to the United States, and he declined to request ratification. And the early Reagan administration made little progress toward arms control in other areas. In fact, the president proposed the most ambitious (and potentially most expensive) new military program in many years: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), widely known as "Star Wars" after the popular movie of that name. Reagan claimed that SDI, through the use of lasers and satellites, could provide an effective shield against incoming missiles and thus make nuclear war obsolete. The Soviet Union claimed that the new program would elevate the arms race to new and more dangerous levels (a complaint many domestic critics of SDI shared) and insisted that any arms control agreement begin with an American abandonment of SDI. But Reagan remained fervently committed to SDI until the end of his administration, even as the original lofty claims for it proved impossible to sustain and it evolved into a relatively conventional (if unprecedentedly expensive) plan for shielding American missile sites from attack.
The escalation of Cold War tensions and the slowing of arms control initiatives helped produce an important popular movement in Europe and the United States calling for an end to nuclear weapons buildups. In America, the principal goal of the movement was a "nuclear freeze," an agreement between the two superpowers not to expand their atomic arsenals. In what many believed was the largest mass demonstration in American history, nearly a million people rallied in New York City's Central Park in 1982 to support the freeze. Perhaps partly in response to this growing pressure, the administration began tentative efforts to revive arms control negotiations in 1983.
At the same time, however, it began—rhetorically at least—to support forces opposing Communism almost anywhere in the world, whether or not the regimes or movements such forces were challenging had any direct connection to the Soviet Union. This new policy became known as the Reagan Doctrine, and it represented a conscious effort to repudiate the lessons that liberals and others had drawn from the failed war in Vietnam. Reagan called Vietnam a "noble cause," and both he and his supporters seemed to believe that the American defeat had been more the result of insufficient resolve than of the flawed premises of the original commitment. In practice, the Reagan Doctrine meant above all a new American activism in Latin America. In October 1983, the administration sent American soldiers into the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to oust an anti-American Marxist regime that showed signs of forging a relationship with Moscow. In El Salvador, where first a repressive military regime and later a moderate civilian one were engaged in murderous struggles with left-wing revolutionaries (who were supported, according to the Reagan administration, by Cuba and the Soviet Union), the president provided increased military and economic assistance. In neighboring Nicaragua, a pro-American dictatorship had fallen to the revolutionary Sandinistas in 1979; the new government had grown increasingly anti-American (and increasingly Marxist) throughout the early 1980s. The administration gave both rhetorical and material support to the so-called contras, a guerrilla movement drawn from several anti-government groups and fighting (without great success) to topple the Sandinista regime. Indeed, support of the contras became a mission of special importance to the president, and later the source of some of his greatest difficulties.
In other parts of the world, the administration's bellicose public statements masked an instinctive restraint. In June 1982, the Israeli army launched an invasion of Lebanon in an effort to drive guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. The United States supported the Israelis but also worked to permit PLO forces to leave Lebanon peacefully. An American peace-keeping force entered Beirut to supervise the evacuation. American marines then remained in the city, apparently to protect the fragile Lebanese government, which was embroiled in a vicious civil war. Now identified with one faction in the struggle, Americans became the targets in 1983 of a terrorist bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Beirut that left 241 marines dead. Rather than become more deeply involved in the Lebanese struggle, Reagan withdrew American forces.
The tragedy in Lebanon was an example of the changing character of many Third World struggles: an increasing reliance on terrorism by otherwise powerless groups to advance their political aims. A series of terrorist acts in the 1980s—attacks on airplanes, cruise ships, commercial and diplomatic posts; the seizing of American and European hostages—alarmed and frightened much of the Western world. The Reagan administration spoke bravely about its resolve to punish terrorism; and at one point in 1986, the president ordered American planes to bomb sites in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, whose controversial leader Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi was widely believed to be a leading sponsor of terrorism. In general, however, terrorists remained difficult to identify or control; and the administration's private resolve in the face of terrorism was never as firm as its public rhetoric suggested.