The Reagan-Trump Roadmap

REVIEW: ‘We Win, They Lose: Republican Foreign Policy and the New Cold War’ by Matthew Kroenig and Dan Negrea

L: (Wikimedia Commons) R: (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
April 14, 2024

"My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple," Ronald Reagan told Richard Allen, his future national security adviser, in 1977. "We win and they lose." Reagan lived to see his policy come to fruition when the Soviet regime collapsed 14 years later.

A new foreign policy roadmap by Matthew Kroenig and Dan Negrea is the namesake of the Gipper’s famous words. We Win, They Lose could not have come at a better time for a Republican Party and a conservative movement looking to define its national security policy.

The authors draw a parallel between America’s victory over the Soviets during the first Cold War and today’s conflict between the United States and China, which they call "the New Cold War." Defeating Beijing, they argue, must be the overriding aim of U.S. foreign policy. Few conservatives will disagree.

Kroenig, an academic turned GOP foreign policy whiz, and Negrea, a defector from then-Communist Romania who made his mark in finance before serving in the Trump State Department, are direct in explaining how to relate Reagan’s words to today’s enemy. "America should strive for a situation where the Chinese Communist Party loses the will and/or the capacity to challenge America’s vital interests," they state. Getting there is the focus of the rest of their book.

Its pages have no starry-eyed idealism or neo-isolationism. Kroenig and Negrea want to keep America secure, prosperous, and free. They also want to keep the U.S.-led world order because, they maintain, it has made Americans better off. The "We" in the book’s title refers mostly to the United States, but it’s also about the greater Free World.

Besides Reagan, whom the authors revere, they see much to admire in the current Republican standard bearer. They call Trump and Reagan "the most influential Republican presidents of the past seventy-five years." They’re right to do so. Ford and Bush 41 were hardly Republican thought leaders. Bush 43’s brand of compassionate conservatism did not endure. Although Eisenhower and Nixon were luminaries in their time, their influence on the party has faded. Reagan and Trump stand alone. As such, Kroenig and Negrea argue, today’s Republican foreign policymakers should channel both men.

To do so, they should embrace a "Trump-Reagan fusion." By that, Kroenig and Negrea mean applying the best foreign policy contributions from each president. Take Reagan’s loathing of communism and faith in America’s greatness, which were two qualities he needed to defeat Moscow. As for Trump, he showed a lot of backbone in challenging the establishment’s view of China. According to the authors, this Trump-Reagan fusion is what today’s GOP most needs. It will unite conservatives around achievable goals and distinguish itself from the feckless progressive statecraft practiced by the other side. Much as Reagan’s policies were instrumental in winning the first Cold War against the Soviet Union, this Trump-Reagan fusion will win the New Cold War against China.

That said, the Trump-Reagan fusion isn’t intuitive. Many claim that Trumpism and Reaganism cannot coexist. Prominent Reaganites deplore the MAGA camp’s influence on the Republican Party. "Reagan would never vote for Trump," argues a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by John Lehman, a brilliant maritime strategist who was secretary of the Navy under Reagan. Reaganite politicians like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney long for the golden days of 2015, before Trump ascended down the golden escalator. The feeling is often mutual in Trump World. Younger members of the New Right in particular mock a "Zombie Reaganism" they say afflicts their fellow Republicans.

In some ways, Trump and Reagan are indeed opposites. Trump upended Reaganite orthodoxy on trade and immigration and to a lesser extent international security commitments. Rhetorically they took very different approaches to foreign policy. Reagan denounced the Soviet Union’s "evil empire," whereas Trump heaped praise (and affection) on Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un.

Yet Kroenig and Negrea make a strong case that a Trump-Reagan fusion is desirable and attainable. Trump and Reagan are more similar personally than many would acknowledge. There is also a lot of common ground on policy. Trump and Reagan both advocated patriotism, excellence, and peace through strength. This book may make those who dismiss the Trump-Reagan fusion think twice.

The fusion is found in the book itself. "The United States would be much poorer if it were to shut itself off from the global economy," Kroenig and Negrea assert while sounding like traditional Reaganite free traders. Yet they add that Americans mustn’t "be ripped off" and that they deserve "a free and fair international economic system" in recognition of the policies Trump has done so much to champion. Here they channel the Trump-Reagan fusion in capturing the Republican center of gravity on the trade issue.

It is in discussing progressive foreign policy that Kroenig and Negrea seem to have the most fun. They relish criticizing the Left’s naïveté and self-hatred. One example is Democratic foreign policy elites’ disproportionate attention to the woke cause du jour. Promoting progressive causes like DEI abroad is not just a waste of time. "It is also a mistake to push progressive social policies—many controversial even within the United States—on other countries with even more traditional values," Kroenig and Negrea point out. That includes the Biden administration’s decision to fly the rainbow flag outside U.S. embassies in Muslim countries. Democrats may feel good about themselves for spreading the progressive gospel, but they’re alienating countries that the United States needs on its side in the New Cold War. Kroenig and Negrea also demolish the Democratic consensus on climate change. "Climate change is not one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States," they write, demonstrating that the impact of climate change will not be nearly as grave as other threats.

The book comes up short in a few places. It is at times repetitive and inelegant. In their chapter on free and fair trade, for instance, Negrea and Kroenig write that "The United States and other market-based economies should selectively decouple from China." Just two sentences later, they add that "The United States must continue to selectively decouple from China." Despite the many endnotes, there is no index, which could have helped readers find specific issues quicker. Although some may take issue with the book’s brevity, it’s not supposed to be a hefty tome. Rather, the authors cover the basics in a way that will appeal to both foreign policy hands and non-specialists.

Kroenig and Negrea articulate a strong vision for American victory in the tradition of two consequential Republican presidents. As Republicans consider what to do should they retake the White House this election, We Win, They Lose should be on their reading lists.

We Win, They Lose: Republican Foreign Policy and the New Cold War
by Matthew Kroenig and Dan Negrea
Republic Book Publishers, 220 pp., $29.95

Daniel J. Samet is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and an America in the World Consortium pre-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS.