Ronald Reagan was the most significant U.S. president in recent memory, but Reagan is also the least-understood president of the post-1945 era.

William Michael Schmidli

"Ronald Reagan was the most significant U.S. president in recent memory," says Professor William Michael Schmidli, history. "But Reagan is also the least-understood president of the post-1945 era."

Schmidli, a specialist in U.S. national security strategy, foreign relations history and human rights, is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan administration. His first book, The Fate of Freedom Elsewhere: Human Rights and U.S. Cold War Policy Toward Argentina (Cornell University Press, 2013) examined the evolving role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s.

Why does Reagan's human rights policy matter? Following the presidential election of 1980, the administration sought to redefine human rights in accordance with right-wing political and economic goals, emphasizing anticommunism, neoliberal economic policies and democracy promotion. This approach to human rights de-emphasized questions of social and economic inequality, and stressed a direct relationship between market logic and democratic process.

"By the late 1980s a distinctive form of U.S. democracy promotion, pursued through civil society or low-intensity military interventions and rooted in the neoliberal imperatives of U.S.-led globalization, had emerged as a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, with significant implications for post-Cold War international relations," Schmidli says.

He strives to impart the significance of the Reagan presidency to his students. Although Reagan was president before they were born, Schmidli says the late-Cold War era provides a lens to help them understand the present.

"My research on the role of non-state actors and epistemic communities in promoting neoliberal economic policies and facilitating U.S.-led regime change in the 1980s serves as a foundation for engaging the relationship between neoliberalism and current issues of security in the developing world," he says. "And my research on neoconservatism and its relationship to U.S. democracy promotion provides historical understanding to the evolving U.S. response to traditional and non-traditional security threats, including the intellectual framework underpinning the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq."

Schmidli's work takes him around the country and across the globe. He conducted research for his new book as a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He hopes to complete a draft of the manuscript during his 2016–17 sabbatical as a fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in Helsinki, Finland.

Updated Sept. 30, 2016