Jacob Heilbrunn

The Importance of Nixon for Today's GOP

As today's Republican presidential candidates jockey for their party's nomination, they would do well to look to the past. So would Democrats. Specifically, they should start looking at Richard Milhous Nixon and his foreign policy legacy. So argues Tom Switzer, a research associate at the United States Studies Center at Sydney University, in a probing op-ed in the New York Times.

It's no secret that Nixon sought to act prudently, that he believed America had reached its apogee as a great power. Henry Kissinger, his key adviser in foreign affairs, inclined to a realist view of the world in which the great powers reached a kind of condominium. Stability, not superiority, was Kissinger's credo. It was Nixon's as well. Indeed, a very strong case could be made that Nixon played a critical role in winding down the cold war by pursuing detente with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. Absent the ties that were developed would the cold war really have ended peacefully? Wasn't Ronald Reagan really following in Nixon's footsteps when he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev and signed sweeping arms-control agreements?

Switzer's contribution is not only to remind us of this valuable record, but also to unearth some historical nuggets. Speaking to media executives in Kansas City in July 1971, for instance, Nixon predicted that the world was becoming multipolar and suggested that this was not "a bad thing." Quite the contrary. Why should America try to shoulder the entire cold war burden? Nixon's views could not have been further removed from the triumphalism that swept tsunami-like over the GOP in the 1990s and issued in the George W. Bush presidency. Switzer records:

“I think of what happened to Greece and Rome, and you see what is left — only the pillars,” Nixon concluded somberly. “What has happened, of course, is that the great civilizations of the past, as they have become wealthy, as they have lost their will to live, to improve, they then have become subject to decadence that eventually destroys the civilization. The U.S. is now reaching that period.”

Imagine if President Obama or leading Republicans today welcomed the end of U.S. pre-eminence and the rise of global multipolarity. The American body politic would denounce them as declinists, defeatists, perhaps even un-American. Yet Nixon’s speech sparked no outrage in July 1971.

Nor was it an isolated incident. A few months later, he told Time magazine: “I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other. ...”

President Obama has already made it clear that one of the presidents he admires most is George H.W. Bush. But the Republican party has long looked askance at its Nixonian pedigree (which dates back to Dwight Eisenhower--my own suspicion is that the influence of Ike on Nixon has been underestimated). Ever since the Reagan years, the GOP has been stuck on automatic pilot, denouncing as appeasement any attempt to reach an agreement with a foreign adversary. In a sense it sounds like the proto-Nixon of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But Nixon quickly abandoned such rodomontade.

Whether Nixon was always right is another matter. It could be argued that he took too dour a view of America's future. But he may also have been prescient. At a moment when America is mired in misery, at home and abroad, his sagacious counsel should not be airbrushed out of the history of the GOP. Back in 1973, one of Nixon's longtime critics, Walter Lippmann, so Switzer observes, praised him for being the great liquidator of American adventures--the war in Vietnam, the Great Society--were "beyond our power." Nixon was pleased: "wise observation," he jotted down.

Such wisdom should make a comeback in the GOP. Will it?