Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Long Shadow of Richard Nixon: Foreign Affairs

When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors, who was a political historian and an avowed liberal Democrat, said that he expected that if Richard Nixon lived long enough, America would see his final comeback as Secretary of State. Well, Nixon did not live quite that long, but he did survive to become the elder statesman of American foreign policy receiving warm receptions in such surprising quarters as the Clinton White House. Far warmer and more public a reception than Nixon had received under Clinton's Republican predecessors.

Richard Nixon, by virtue of the Watergate conspiracy that forced his unprecedented resignation from the Presidency of the United States, ranks near the bottom of presidents in annual polls of American historians. Yet despite this grand debacle, Nixon's accomplishments as president and politician dwarf all but but those of our most respected chief executives. Richard Nixon stood for a hardheaded brand of realism in foreign policy, a pursuit of American interests executed with an almost Machiavellian level of intrigue, directed as much against his own subordinates or the Congress as at America's adversaries.

Most presidents, being politicians previously interested in domestic policy, come to learn about foreign affairs "on the job" and usually leave office with a different perception of foreign affairs and the exercise of American power than the one with which they were elected. "Doves" like Jimmy Carter grew more "hawkish" under the weight of constant crisis and Cold War "hardliners" like Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all sought peace agreements with " the Evil Empire". Experience tempers preconceptions and ideology through hard lessons.

Nixon is one of the few exceptions who came in to the presidency ready not to learn about foreign afffairs, but to teach.

From his earliest days as a congressman, Nixon thought deeply about foreign policy questions and actively tried to burnish his credentials on international affairs at every step of his career, cultivating foreign statesmen and willing Establishment figures with whom Nixon otherwise had serious political disagreements, like Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. In contrast, Nixon appeared at times to think most of his natural allies on the anti-Communist right, with the exception of Robert Taft, were only little better than fools (in some instances, such as his unsavory colleagues at HUAC or the hapless William Knowland, Nixon was right).

Despite Nixon's strenuous efforts to court the GOP wing of the Establishment that viewed him with disdain, and to keep the loyalty of a conservative wing that increasingly harbored suspicions, Nixon might never have been elected president were it not for the Vietnam War. It was this strategic disaster by the Kennedy-Johnson administrations that ressurrected Nixon from the political grave and divided the majority party sufficiently that a basically unpopular man from a minority party could win in 1968. LBJ, with an assist from the stridently belligerent racism of George Wallace, had managed to make even Richard Nixon look like the candidate of hope.

Nixon's particular genius was to enter office aware not that American foreign policy needed to change but the world had changed and that this shift was transcendant in its importance. Nixon perceived the twilight of bipolarity not as something to be resisted but as an opportunity to be seized and Nixon seized it with a surprising ruthlessness. Nixon penned a critical article in Foreign Affairs in 1967, "Asia after Vietnam" where he obliquely indicated that America's strategic future was not in Europe, or Saigon but north of Hanoi. And Nixon pursued this vision with zeal and daring.

It is sometimes argued, that Nixon's opening to China is an overrated diplomatic event, that restoration of ties between the United States and China were an eventual certainty. These critics lose sight of the fact there is a qualitative difference in diplomatic relations with China today because a powerful United States took the initiative to reach out to a weak and vulnerable China instead of waiting until the day when China itself had grown too powerful to ignore.
Nixon's farsighted acceptance of a distant but emergent multipolarity created a triangulation with an expansionist USSR that created "room" for other centers of power to grow alongside the United States but in opposition to Soviet hegemony. The longitudinal " correlation of forces", to use Communist parlance of the time, that had favored the Soviets for a quarter century, had been at a stroke, reversed.

Richard Nixon was never much of an economist, it was a subject off of his radar screen and he leaned heavily on George Schultz, John Connally and others, but it was Nixon who helped set the geopolitical table for globalization to happen sooner rather than later.

Next, Part IV - Watergate and the Legacy of Richard Nixon
Anyone can look good if he has the luck to draw great cards. Nixon's achievement has to be assessed in light of the piss-poor hand he was holding as he took over the presidency in the Winter of 1969.

We were headed for a humiliating defeat in Vietnam. The Cold War alliance in Europe was looking a lot weaker, with Ostpolitik and appeasement gaining in popularity. The Soviet Union was not yet the decrepit rust heap it became, but a formidable foe on the march, the apparent global leader of the third world armies of national liberation. The correlation of forces seemed to favor the communists and their allies. The US economy was shaky and clearly headed for trouble. American society, due to Vietnam, the draft, race rioting, skyrocketing crime, and all the crap we think of as "the 60s", was in a state of near civil war.

Nixon, to his eternal credit, not only wanted to be President, for some reason, under these rotten conditions, but had the vision to navigate America through this terrible period.

The only two presidents who came to power with the country in worse shape were FDR in 1932 and Lincoln in 1861.
Hi Lex,

You're correct. Nixon played with an incredibly poor hand -both domestic and foreign. (As it happens, Nixon was also a good poker player)

The culture of Congressional Republicans then was one of "go-along, get-along" timidity vis-a-vis the Democratic majority and brainpower was not in any more evidence than political nerve.

They were scared to death of criticism from the NYT, if they supported the administration's positions so they often staked out their own insteadf.Nixon regarded his own Party officials as an unreliable support and not without good reason.

Nixon's problem was that he didn't see the shifting of the domestic political ground as clearly as he did the international conditions. He underestimated the extent to which the unwritten " old rules" presidents had operated under were changing to his disadvantage. A JFK would not have faced impeachment for Watergate but he would not have skated by scott-free as he did a decade earlier either.
Fascinating post Mark. I'm going to the library today to pick up "Beyond Peace", "Seize The Moment" & "In The Arena". The notion of a president who is deeply knowledgeable and perceptive of the world BEFORE he comes to office is profoundly attractive nowadays...
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