A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

Nixon Brezhnev

“More historic than I knew,” H.R. Haldeman wrote years later of the presidential “press backgrounder at the Officer’s Club” on Guam, which he recorded in his meticulously kept diary. In 1969, having begun his first international trip as President of the United States, Richard Nixon faced a very different world than he would have had he won the 1960 presidential election. The bipolar world of the early Cold War was fragmenting and the strategic calculus was no longer so favorable to the United States, burdened as it was with searing divisions at home and an unpopular war in Vietnam that it was unable to win.

On Guam, where the presidential party stopped after greeting the Apollo 11 astronauts returned from the Moon aboard the USS Hornet, Nixon laid out for reporters a dramatic shift in foreign policy. He proposed to reorder American strategic ends with more realistic and limited ways and means, thus outlining a doctrine that later bore his name. No longer would America “pay any price, bear any burden” to oppose the threat of “monolithic” Communism. Instead, while honoring our treaty commitments to defend against attacks by major powers, the United States would expect Asian countries to assume, with American assistance, the primary responsibility of defending themselves. In Nixon’s words:

Asians will say in every country that we visit that they do not want be dictated to from outside, Asia for Asians. And that is what we want, and that is the role we should play. We should assist but we should not dictate.

At this time the political and economic plans that they are developing are very hopeful. We will give assistance to those plans. We, of course, will keep the treaty commitments that we have.

But as far as our role is concerned, we must avoid the kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one we have in Vietnam.

Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end:

…Because we live in a new world, many of the old institutions are obsolete and inadequate. The UN, NATO, foreign aid, USIA were set up to deal with the world of twenty years ago. A quick trip around the world will show how different the problems are today.

Twenty years ago Western Europe was weak economically and dependent on the United States; it was united by a common fear of the threat of Communist aggression. Today Western Europe is strong economically and economic independence has inevitably led to more political independence. The winds of detente have blown so strongly from East to West that, except for Germany, most Europeans no longer fear the threat from the East. The consequences of this change are enormous as far as NATO is concerned. As Harold MacMillan puts it, ‘Alliances are kept together by fear, not by love.’ Even without de Gaulle, the European Alliance would be in deep trouble.

Let us look at the Communist world – twenty years ago the Soviet Union dominated a monolithic Communist empire. Today, the Soviet Union and Communist China are in a bitter struggle for leadership of the Communist world. Eastern Europe turns West, though we must recognize that the dif­ferences in Eastern Europe still cause less trouble to the Soviet Union than the differences in Western Europe cause to the United States. The Soviet economic system is turning away from the enforced equality of Marxism to the incentives of capitalism.

China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance.

In his remarks, Secretary Laird boldly laid claim to the mantle of realism for the Nixon Doctrine as a national security strategy for peace in the context of US-Soviet superpower rivalry, Vietnam and mutual interdependence with allies and adversaries. Rejecting the role of global policeman or unipolar hegemon, Laird postulated the United States as a pivotal but restrained superpower in the global system:

Our strategy for peace is based upon three pillars. Willingness to negotiate is one of those pillars. The other two – the pillars that can change meaningful negotiations from an elusive hope to a recognized reality – are strength and partnership. The Nixon Doctrine and the strategy of realistic deterrence are derived from the strength and partnership pillars of President Nixon’s strategy for peace.

The Nixon Doctrine and its supporting national security strategy strike a balance between what America should do and what our friends can do, without doing or attempting to do too much….we will provide a nuclear shield….But it does not call upon us to do everything ourselves.

“Polycentrism” made the Nixon Doctrine both possible as well as necessary in Laird’s view, it was the right doctrine not only for the objective conditions prevailing in the Communist bloc but also because of the political timing:

The Sino-Soviet rift, our greatest evidence of emerging polycentrism, has been under our noses for some years. But the time for recognizing this and moving to improved relations with both of these nations was not ripe until the last year or two. Both China and Russia probably feel more self-confident, more willing to go their own ways as full participants within the avenues of correct international behavior. China has signaled a new independence in world affairs, particularly in modifying its militant animosity to the United States.

Laird’s definition of polycentrism, as applying only to shifting power centers in the Communist bloc, was a good deal narrower than what Nixon and Henry Kissinger assumed in private, or even than what Nixon had articulated at Bohemian Grove. It was also a statement for domestic consumption to ease a public habituated to belief in a vigilant policy of containment into accepting Nixon’s carefully calibrated orchestration of Detente. The State Department, of course, had long been aware of friction within the Communist bloc – antagonism between Romania and Moscow, the severity of the Sino-Soviet split and prior to that, Tito’s break with Stalin and the USSR. Unfortunately, American leaders had repeatedly failed to diplomatically exploit these differences to American advantage, even when a subtle and sophisticated thinker as George Kennan was ambassador in Belgrade.

Nixon’s opening to China, by contrast, had caught Soviet leaders completely off guard, as he had hoped, and re-shuffled what communists termed “the correlation of forces” to the detriment of the USSR. Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet Ambassador to the US, confessed:

The Soviet government, given the long history of unfriendly relations between the United States and China….had not even considered it a possibility….No one was more surprised and confused than the Kremlin when it received the news of Nixon’s plan to go to China

Nixon and Kissinger had pulled off a coup in international relations, but the new strategy would only succeed in the long run if it was politically supported at home. This required that decades of anti-communist rhetoric be softened. New language about mutuality and cooperation had to replace brinksmanship and confrontation from the earlier era when John F. Kennedy, lacking Nixon’s reputation as an anti-communist hardliner, had felt compelled to demonstrate his “toughness” by campaigning on foreign policy and defense to the ideological right of Richard Nixon.

Thomas Schelling’s prepared response to Laird was churlish in tone, acknowledging the importance of Nixon’s achievement while denying that Nixon deserved much in the way of credit. In Schelling’s view, the China opening was a culmination made possible by consistent Cold War policy across many administrations, of which Richard Nixon was the fortunate beneficiary. Still, Schelling’s analysis during this discussion contained two important insights: first, that the Nixon Doctrine implied the United States had real flexibility in its commitments, secondly, that our “credibility” as a superpower would not be impaired by sensible strategic retreats from untenable situations. Specifically, Schelling was referring to the Shanghai Communique and American acceptance of Taipei’s replacement with Peking as the representative government for China in the United Nations and as a permanent member of the Security Council. It was, he argued, a momentous reversal of longstanding US policy:

I think this is a splendid accomplishment, and it suggests that you do not always lose credibility around the world when….you say, ‘Enough is enough, we’re going to turn around.’

I suspect that the motivation that led President Nixon to abandon Chiang Kai-shek might earlier possibly have led to the abandonment of South Vietnam which, with luck, might have been part of the Nixon Doctrine now….

Schelling’s comment caused Secretary Laird great consternation, largely because it was absolutely true. Nixon had weighed the strategic value of South Vietnam and found it paled next to that of China as a prize and hoped Peking might be leveraged to get America out of Vietnam on the best terms possible. When Nixon wrote his Foreign Affairs essay “Asia after Vietnam,” he signaled that Saigon could be written off as expendable. Unsurprisingly, the peace accords later negotiated by Kissinger with Hanoi were delivered as a diktat to South Vietnamese leaders. While it was never Nixon’s intention that a Democratic US Congress would cut off all military aid and American air support to Saigon, that act ultimately followed the same strategic logic.

What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. Our reluctance to face facts does not impress the rest of the world today any more than it did a generation ago, which is why American prestige is at such a low ebb. The sooner we get our orientation aligned with reality, the sooner we will cease being a global laughingstock in foreign affairs.

Secondly, the world is more “polycentric” now than even in Nixon’s day. There are many centers of gravity in international affairs and no longer are all of them states on the Westphalian model. This is a challenge to the United States, but it is also an opportunity. Nixon’s genius was of a Machiavellian sort; dealt a weak hand as president, he sought to play his cards to maximize leverage to secure American interests, reward our friends and punish enemies. Nixon could make necessary geopolitical choices ruthlessly in secret, even as he dissembled about them in public. A dynamically shifting, polycentric environment can be an advantage for statesmen capable of making bold choices. Opportunities multiply when they are seized.

Third, the Nixon Doctrine had a healthy aspect of not regarding allies or potential allies as indispensable to the United States. Unless we seek to create future Malikis or Karzais, parsimony will serve American interests better than generosity. This may garner us fewer clients, but the ones we have will be more likely to be robust allies than dysfunctional welfare cases posing as states. Our military help goes much further when the recipients are eager to help themselves, which means writing off corrupt regimes with incompetent leaders who won’t. Bet on the strong horse or cut your losses early.

It is a much more effective foreign policy for the United States, as well as a lot more fun, to be on the winning side.


Mark Safranski is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, LLC. and is a contributor to Pragati: The Indian National Interest. He is the publisher of the national security and strategy group blog, Zenpundit.com.


Photo credit: That Hartford Guy