Learning to Love Richard Nixon

La visite de Mme Secrétaire d’État Hillary Clinton à Pékin aujourd’hui rappèle souvenirs du premier séjour dans la République Populaire de Chine du Président Richard Nixon il y a exactement 37 ans. Nixon était à cette époque l’auteur de la politique de réalisme dans les relations internationales, un concept qui reste toujours très exceptionnelle en Amérique, malheureusement.

Une Note par Gilbert Doctorow


Learning to Love Richard Nixon





By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The political commentators at the BBC have been doing their homework. On this morning’s radio news broadcast, BBC World reminded listeners that the ongoing visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the People’s Republic of China comes on the 37th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s dramatic first trip to Beijing that changed the landscape of Sino-American and international relations. The BBC even aired several minutes from an archival recording of Nixon speaking about what he hoped to achieve.


I am by nature rather indifferent to nostalgia, and in any case my recollections of Richard Nixon were never very complimentary. His vicious partisanship and exploitation of the Communist threat for personal political advantage were not very likable behavioral traits. His savage pursuit of the hopeless war in Viet Nam poisoned the political atmosphere in the United States for more than a decade. And yet his political legacy in the form of The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. and the related publication, The National Interest, today surprises and commands my respect by its rigorous, independent thinking – thinking that is so clearly out of step with the ideologically blinded mainstream of the American foreign policy establishment. Perhaps the best thing Richard Nixon left to future generations was not his personal deeds or misdeeds as President but a way of approaching international relations disseminated today by the executors of his political will.


In the lexicon of international affairs experts, this approach is called realism. Here the word has little to do with what you will find in the Webster’s unabridged dictionary. It is sometimes described as the billiard ball concept of relations between nation-states, meaning that one cares very little about the political, economic or social structures inside those billiard balls, whether they are democratic or authoritarian, capitalist or communist, whether they respect or abuse free speech, religious freedom and other human rights; all that counts for formulating policy is the alignment (or discord) of the respective strategic interests of those billiard balls That is how Richard Nixon was able to turn a blind eye to many features of the PRC which contradicted American beliefs for the sake of the overriding common strategic interests he…and they as well identified. In this sense, realism is a direct interpretation of the Continental notion of Realpolitik. Richard Nixon was its greatest practitioner among recent American presidents. His security adviser, later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was its high priest and intellectual support.


We know that Kissinger’s credentials in this domain go back to his doctoral thesis at Harvard on the politics issuing from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. It has always been asked whether Dr. Kissinger was Nixon’s thinking apparatus or merely the diploma-bearing spokesman for an architecture and policies to guide a presidential administration thought up by his boss. After Watergate, Richard Nixon was in disgrace and not many people had a good thing to say on his behalf, while Henry Kissinger was a Nobel Prize for Peace laureate and went on to publish multi-volume memoirs in which he portrayed his contributions to the positive achievements of the Nixon years in a manner that may be described as flattering to himself and less charitable to the former commander-in-chief.


Working in tandem, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon earned a vast amount of political capital for the United States when they made the China connection in 1972. The great pity is that they frittered so much of it away on the prosecution of the Viet Nam War.


Readers of my blog articles hosted on the portal of La Libre Belgique may be perplexed by my very critical remarks about hegemonic U.S. foreign policy, about an American Empire, about the neo-Conservatives who inspired the Bush Doctrine and about the Clinton liberals who now fill the security and foreign policy positions in the Obama White House. And then there are my articles dealing with Russian affairs which may strike the casual reader of international affairs articles as being overly friendly to the Kremlin party notwithstanding all of its widely publicized failings.


May I direct you all to the websites www.nationalinterest.org and www.nixoncenter.org to better appreciate why the positions I have taken may be characterized as realist or conservative within the spectrum of the American foreign policy community.


Dimitri K. Simes, President of The Nixon Center and Publisher of its bi-monthly foreign policy magazine The National Interest is the only Russian affairs expert I know of who has come to an identical position to the one I set out on this portal in September with respect to the Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008, namely that Georgia was at fault and the Russians were merely acting defensively. Simes goes on to ask why the United States insists in taking sides in the Russian-Georgian dispute over the secessionist rights of two ethnic communities that historically were never part of Georgia. Meanwhile, across the board, intellectuals and politicians on what is both the nominal Left and nominal Right of American politics lined up and, to a man, blamed the Russians for an act of aggression or, at the least, for applying such disproportionate force as to alter the assumptions about the future of Western relations with Russia. And with that came Jupiter-like thunderbolts of rhetoric calling for exclusion of the Russians from the civilized world.


This is only the most recent instance of Simes’ going against the current in seeking an understanding of events and possibilities for doing business with Russia on the basis of common strategic interests whatever our differences elsewhere maybe, a classic case of realism in the Nixon tradition. The fact that Simes himself is Russian born, a graduate of Moscow State University who emigrated to the United States in 1973 has little to do with his ‘going easy’ on Mr Putin’s Russia.


More to the point, Dimitri Simes was handpicked by Richard Nixon for his present position. He had previously served Richard Nixon as an informal foreign policy advisor and traveled with him regularly to Russia and former Soviet states, as well as European countries. And he had served as professor, researcher and senior administrator in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University.  At National Interest magazine, where he is Publisher, Henry Kissinger is listed as Honorary Chairman and Kissinger associate Helmut Sonnenfeldt is a member of the Advisory Council.  Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, whose writings I have mentioned very favorably in these pages, is one of the Contributing Editors.


Realism and raison d’état, of which national interest is the chosen translation might seem to be unexceptional concepts to drive foreign policy of any nation. However, the sad fact is that neither enjoys much respect in the American foreign policy establishment today, whether on the Republican or on the Democratic side of the aisle.


The word “liberal” or “progressive” when applied to U.S. foreign policy today is as much a misnomer as is the word “neo-conservative.” Both terms conceal a hegemonic vision of America. Both positions are radical in their readiness to overthrow existing “regimes” of nation states in the service of ideological commitments. The difference between left and right in this context is about as real as the difference between fascism and communism was in the 1930s. It is not for nothing that Jane Fonda and Laura Bush could link arms (metaphorically) and weep over the fate of Buddhist monks in Myanmar.


Both poles of the American political spectrum are authoritarian – by which I mean ready to impose an American Diktat on the rest of the world. In his recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joe Biden chose his words very carefully: he spoke precisely about a new, more accommodating “tone” to American policy, not about a new policy as such. As North Korea heard today from Mme Secretary of State Clinton and as Hamas heard yesterday from the visiting American delegation to Gaza under the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, there is no change in U.S. policies inherited from the Bush administration which are described as ‘hard-line’ but might be better described as ‘pig-headed’.


In this context, one can only wish Richard Nixon’s political heirs well. They are doing a fine job rehabilitating his memory and keeping the flame of pragmatism alive in an age of ideology.



© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.