President Richard Nixon is most remembered for the Watergate scandal; the iconic words “I am not a crook,” have captivated the popular imagination since his nationally televised press conference in 1973. This is unfortunate, because Richard Nixon should be remembered just as much for his masterful foreign policy, which stabilized a world that was genuinely on fire.
Richard Nixon should be remembered just as much for his masterful foreign policy, which stabilized a world that was genuinely on fire.
When Nixon entered office in January 1969, there was no end in sight to the Vietnam war, and little domestic political support for winning it. The national media, Washington’s elite opinion makers, and the whole liberal establishment hated the incoming President. And professional doomsayers flooded the political airwaves, caterwauling about air and water pollution, future food scarcity, overpopulation, dwindling energy reserves, and advocated the global redistribution of wealth and resources.
Today’s foreign and domestic political environment bears an eerie resemblance to the one Nixon faced. Even the doomsayers are back at it, this time warning that man-made climate change endangers our survival on earth, and every other aspect of our foreign and domestic policy be subordinated to this threat.
It behooves us, then, to take stock of the successes and failures of Nixonian strategies—and how they can be employed in our troubled times.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
1969 was the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the Eastern and Western Bloc were at an all time high and Soviet expansionism threatened to ignite proxy conflicts throughout the globe. The Soviet Union was challenging U.S. predominance in the Middle East. A Soviet naval build-up threatened America’s command of the seas. Previous administrations had surrendered U.S. strategic nuclear superiority. The bipartisan consensus in support of the policy of containment was breaking down; most Democrats in Washington had abandoned it. A global terror network, stretching from the Middle East to Western Europe, was creating havoc around the world. It was a bleak time.
Nixon realistically appraised the threats America faced and the strategies available to him, and came up with an effective foreign policy.
The one potential opportunity was the Sino-Soviet rift caused by Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization agenda. Nixon shrewdly and tactfully exploited this rift, pursuing hard-headed détente with the Soviet Union and diplomacy with China. Husbanding American power through the Nixon Doctrine, he skillfully positioned the United States to have better relations with China and the Soviet Union than they had with each other. The Sino-Soviet rift hardened into a permanent split.
This diplomatic masterstroke ensured the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. It acted as a dream catcher—forestalling, at least for the moment, Halford Mackinder’s nightmare of a hostile, politically-unified Eurasia. In hindsight, it was the first crack in the Berlin Wall that fell twenty years later.
Meanwhile, the Nixon Doctrine replaced direct military involvement with aid and material support to key regional allies like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and South Vietnam. This was a prudent concession given the realities of domestic American politics. Vietnam had drained what was left of America’s willingness to volunteer its military for proxy conflicts—to “support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” in the words of President John F. Kennedy. Nixon recognized that American domestic opinion had abandoned Kennedy’s political vision for that of John Quincy Adams: America, though a “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
The Nixon doctrine had mixed results. It failed in Southeast Asia, largely because congressional Democrats ended funding for our longtime ally in the region. But it succeeded in stabilizing the Persian Gulf region (that is, until President Jimmy Carter effectively abandoned the Shah’s regime and it was toppled by an Islamic fundamentalist regime). And it succeeded in the Middle East, by largely diminishing Soviet-Russian influence in the region for decades.
What Nixonian geopolitics got right was eschewing global moralizing. Previous presidents who gave in to this temptation—Wilson, Carter, and Obama—ended up with disastrous or ineffective foreign policies. Nixon realistically appraised the threats America faced and the strategies available to him, and came up with an effective foreign policy.
We’re in dire need of similar pragmatism today.
UNFAVORABLE “STRATEGIC ALLIANCES”
2019 is looking more and more like the Cold War world of President Nixon, with China taking the place of the Soviet Union. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and decades-long military build-up are aimed at supplanting the United States as the preeminent world power. A China-led world order is on the horizon.
It is time to revive Nixonion geopolitics for the 21st century: American foreign policy should seek to position the U.S. closer to Russia and China than they are to each other.
This threat is exacerbated by the warming relations between China and Russia, a shift that was largely ignored by the Obama administration. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently described the relationship as a “strategic alliance.” The words unnerved policy analysts who were familiar with the late geopolitical thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 2016 warning that U.S. policymakers “must be wary of the great danger that China and Russia could form a strategic alliance, generated in part by their own internal, political, and ideological momentum, and in part by the poorly thought out policies of the United States.”
Recently, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats noted, in the intelligence community’s most recent threat assessment, that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” The grounds for concern are mounting: Mackinder’s geopolitical nightmare may be reemerging. It is time to revive Nixonion geopolitics for the 21st century: American foreign policy should seek to position the U.S. closer to Russia and China than they are to each other.
This won’t happen overnight, but there are potential rifts in the Sino-Russian relationship that should be exploited. China’s aggressive economic and diplomatic moves in Central Asia targets a region traditionally seen by Russia as within its sphere of influence. China’s growing population and influence in Russia’s Far East is another domain of potential political conflict. Most fundamentally, Russia, more so than the United States, has no desire to live in a China-led world order. Putin’s dream of a Neo-Soviet Empire in present-day Russia cannot be realized if China becomes the primary economic partner of the nations of Central Asia.
INTERVENTIONISM GETS US NOWHERE
When President Trump when he took office, in January 2017, he inherited the longest war in American history: Afghanistan. The U.S. objective to make Afghanistan a stable democracy was always a pipe dream—an unrealistic goal promoted by President George W. Bush. The September 11th attacks transformed President Bush into from a foreign policy realist into a utopian Wilsonian, determined to spread democracy to the entire region.
Americans today, much like in 1969, have grown weary of war. President Trump, like Nixon before him, appears to grasp this, and that American national security depends not on overt displays of military might, but on encouraging and ensuring the geopolitical pluralism of Eurasia. He has wisely refrained from publicly demonizing Russia or China. That serves no functional geopolitical purpose (though it seems to make many in Washington feel good about themselves). Of course, this has earned him the ire of the mainstream media, whose hatred of the Trump exceeds their vitriol of Nixon.
But President Trump should stay resolute in seeking pragmatic, peace-driven solutions to today’s challenges to American interests—by taking a page out of Richard Nixon’s playbook.
Editor’s note: the text of this article has been lightly revised at the request of the author. No substantive changes were made.