Reagan’s Foreign Policy

The Reagan Administration also came to Washington determined to combat communism—especially in Latin America. Reagan and his advisers focused in particular on El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Haig decided to make El Salvador a "test case" of his foreign policy. Conflicts between the White House and the State Department and with the Congress, however, frustrated the Administration’s bold plans. While Haig sought a significant increase in military assistance to El Salvador, Congress made certification of progress on human rights a quid pro quo. The two branches of government clashed regularly over assistance and certification.

Administration officials also disagreed on China policy. For over a decade, the White House had managed most high-level contacts between Washington and Beijing. Under Haig, the Department of State assumed primary responsibility for the formulation and implementation of the Administration's China policy. Haig wanted to transform the informal alliance with China into a “strategic association” to block Soviet “hegemony” in Asia, but the President insisted on loyalty to Taiwan. The Administration debate on Taiwan, especially over the sale of military aircraft, resulted in a crisis in relations with China, which was only alleviated in August 1982, when, after months of arduous negotiations, the United States and China issued a joint communiqué on Taiwan in which the United States agreed to limit arms sales and China agreed to seek a “peaceful solution.”

In the critical Middle East region, the White House, preoccupied with its domestic agenda, largely deferred to the Department of State and its Foreign Service experts. The Department continued negotiations to implement the Camp David Peace Accords, a task complicated by the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981, and the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Philip C. Habib, the President’s special envoy, conducted Kissinger-like shuttle diplomacy to reach a ceasefire agreement.