The Return of Great Power Politics: Re-Examining the Nixon Doctrine


The recent crisis between Russia and the West over Crimea, and the ongoing tensions between China and Japan, are ushering a return of Great Power Politics where U.S. power and influence is challenged. The U.S. is finding that it is no longer in the dominant position, but is still expected to lead.  As a result, it is time to re-examine the Nixon Doctrine as a foundation of preserving U.S. global leadership in an increasingly multi-polar world. 

The Nixon Doctrine

In Henry Kissinger’s seminal work on foreign policy, Diplomacy, he summarizes the position President Richard Nixon inherited of “having to guide America through a transition from dominance to leadership.” When Nixon came to office, the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War, its longest war to date, and was undergoing domestic upheaval as a result of both the anti-war and the civil rights movements.  He faced fiscally challenges as a result of  the cost of the Vietnam War, President Johnson’s Great Society Initiatives, and the space program.  Additionally, as the leader of the free world, the United States was still engaged in a global ideological power struggle with the Soviet Union. His understanding of the limits of American power led to the Nixon Doctrine.   Underpinning this doctrine was the realization that the United States simply could not afford to solve every global problem and had to determine which issues it could solve within the limits of its diplomatic, military, and economic means. Key to Nixon’s doctrine was his effort to extricate the United States from Vietnam and to exploit the growing tensions between the Soviets and China by opening diplomatic relations with Mao’s China.

According to Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s perception of “peace and harmony were not the natural order of things, but temporary oases in a perilous world where stability could only be preserved by vigilant effort.” Nixon was a believer in the Balance of Power concept as a means for stability, and believed that equilibrium required a strong U.S.  In the January 3, 1972 Time magazine edition, President Nixon articulated his doctrine, focusing on the need for a balance of power where the U.S. had to lead, rather than merely dominate a collection of powerful states:

We must remember the only time in history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been balance of power.  It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises.  So I believe in a world in which the United States is powerful.  I think it will be a safer world and better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.

President Nixon used this philosophy to conduct his opening to China which created a balancing of sort against the Soviets, who no longer could threaten or coerce China that would lead to a Sino-American Alliance that would threaten the Soviets with two large military alliances on its western and eastern fronts.  He wanted to ensure that the U.S. did not tear itself apart by doing more than it could afford or than the people would accept.  According to Kissinger, the Nixon Doctrine sought to navigate between over-extension and abdication by establishing three criteria for American involvement:

  • The United States would keep its treaty commitments.
  • The United States would “provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security.”
  • In cases involving non-nuclear aggression, the United States would “look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defense.”

Present Day Challenges

Today, President Obama is confronted by challenges similar to those that President Nixon faced.  He continues to extricate the United States from Afghanistan, where it has fought the longest ground war in its history. In Obama’s case, this challenge takes place only a few years after the mission ended in Iraq, even as he struggles to improve an economy severely weakened by the 2008 collapse.  Additional challenges include the unknown consequences of the “Arab Spring” which has impacted events in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, while fomenting continued instability in Iraq where a resurgence of al-Qaeda threatens Maliki’s government.  As a result of an inconsistent strategic concept for our foreign and national security policy, the United States has been reacting to events rather than shaping them to provide global stability.

Unlike President Nixon, President Obama faces two challengers to U.S. dominance, Russia and China, along with a domestic fiscal crisis.  To shape China’s rise and deal with its increasingly assertive and combative territorial disputes, in 2009 President Obama’s administration announced its “Asia-Pacific Rebalance”; however, continued instability in the Middle East and fiscal constraints have prevented the administration from allocating the resources such a rebalance might require.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea further challenges the rebalance as attention returns to the question of European security and the unraveling of the unipolar order the U.S. enjoyed since 1991.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov highlighted the unraveling in a tweet he sent on March 20, 2014, quoting a statement made by President Putin:  “The end of the bipolar system failed to enhance stability, while competition is on the rise.”  Additionally, he tweeted “The geopolitical balance is shifting.  Many Western nations are seeking to slow these processes and retain global leadership.” Lavrov’s tweet reflects the reality that Russia and China view themselves as competitors that are working to upend the unipolar world led by America.  Moreover, this reality has challenged President Obama decision making to use force in situations like Syria where the unintended consequences of action could lead to tensions with Russia that had close diplomatic, economic, and military ties with the Assad regime, and further strain efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

As the Crimea incident was unfolding, Senator McCain accused the administration of having a “feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” This was an indictment of the administration’s policies towards Libya and Syria, where the determination to use military force appeared inconsistent.  However, for President Obama, the challenge has been reconciling the decision to use military force and the unknown consequences that followed.  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked: “Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action?”  These lessons, along with the realization that the U.S. is supported by a militarily weak NATO, suggest that President Obama should take the key tenets of the Nixon Doctrine and update it for today’s challenges.

Applying the Nixon Doctrine to a new emerging Obama Doctrine

President Obama must clearly articulate a foreign policy doctrine that accounts for the increasing constraints applied by rising powers and its own fiscal debt problems.  As the administration develops a new National Security Strategy, it needs to clearly specify what our core national security interests are and how we intend to defend them.  Some guiding principles for President Obama’s National Security and Foreign Policy Doctrine should be:

  • Re-affirmation of our defensive treaty obligations to NATO and our Asian allies; however, we must also stress that the U.S. will no longer shoulder the unbalanced burden of providing for their defense, which allowed them to divest capabilities after the Cold War.
  • Clearly articulate what our national security interests are and our intent to work with other regional powers in areas where friction may occur while retaining unilateral right to secure our interests which are deemed vital.
  • Recognition that areas of instability in Africa, South America, and Central Asia will persist due to the actions of non-state actors or as a result of friction between competing major powers. However, not all areas and situations can be considered vital to our interests.  In less vital areas, the U.S., working in concert with its allies and partners, can provide a helping hand by building capacities of countries in governance and internal defense.
  • A focus on developing a balanced joint force capable of deterring other major powers from threatening our vital national security interests while seeking to shape events in order to prevent minor instabilities from rising to the crisis level.  Accomplishing this while restrained fiscally will require new innovative thinking by the Department of Defense as articulated by General Dempsey in the 2014 QDR.

In an era where America’s primacy is being challenged by other great powers, it must consider using the balance of power concept to maintain stability.  This is a concept Americans have historically had an aversion to as Henry Kissinger highlighted in Diplomacy when he states:

Despite America’s historic aversion to the balance of power, these lessons are relevant to the post-Cold War American foreign policy.  For the first time in its history, America is currently part of an international system in which it is the strongest country…The United States therefore finds itself increasingly in a world with numerous similarities to nineteenth-century Europe, albeit on a global scale.  One can hope that something akin to the Metternich system evolves, in which a balance of power is reinforced by a shared sense of values.  And in the modern age, these values have to be democratic.

As President Obama’s administration confronts these challenges, it should take note of Kissinger’s sage advice and seek to reshape our national security and foreign policy aspirations in ways that are better aligned with our fiscal realities.  The U.S. is and should remain the world’s leader, but only in a system where other great powers operate and where the U.S. carefully chooses how and when it expends it power.  Doing so will allow the U.S. to focus on our most pressing national security interests.  Utilizing and updating the Nixon Doctrine will be a useful start.

Major Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist in the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC).  Major Pillai recently served as a Special Assistant to the Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the 38th Army Chief of Staff.  Major Chad Pillai received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2009.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States government. 

Image: CIA