Paul Pillar

Nixon's Great Departure

David Ignatius has a column noting that this month marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the landmark events in the history of U.S. foreign policy: President Richard Nixon's trip to China. Observing the anniversary is appropriate. Nixon's opening to China was one of the truly great foreign policy initiatives by a U.S. president. Regardless of what else it is appropriate to think about Nixon, he deserves much credit for this achievement.

I differ with Ignatius, however, in his couching of the China initiative as a demonstration of the virtues that come from a political leader demonstrating inconsistencies over time. Ignatius even seems to draw a comparison between Nixon's move of four decades ago and the flip-flopping of presidential candidates today. In fact, there is no comparison at all. Sure, Nixon had an earlier reputation as a fervent anti-communist, going back to his days on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. And “Nixon to China” has joined the political lexicon as a phrase applicable to any move by a leader whose previous reputation pointing in a different direction gives him political cover to make the move. But what led to Nixon's China opening was less a change in Nixon's own outlook than in geopolitical circumstances that he was striving to exploit. The careful thought that Nixon put into his China gambit was the antithesis of the flip-flopping and pandering that we hear on the campaign trail today.

Nixon's initiative had its roots in his cogitation while out of power about great power politics and how it could be reshaped to America's advantage. When he entered the White House in 1969 it was with one of the most fully formed strategic outlooks about foreign affairs of any incoming U.S. president. A fundamental aspect of the China initiative that Ignatius does not mention is that it was one leg of triangular diplomacy in which Nixon intended to use the relationship with Beijing to gain leverage in his dealings with the Soviet Union. On the China part of his strategy, Nixon was even ahead of his geostrategic partner Henry Kissinger.

Nixon personally planned the negotiating approach toward China, inventorying on his yellow legal pad the objectives of each state and where they might find common ground. It was a thorough thought process that—especially in taking account of the perspectives and interests of the other side—is sorely missing from much of what passes for public debate about foreign policy today. Nixon and Kissinger's super-close-hold manner of handling the initiative, in which even Secretary of State William Rogers was kept in the dark, had its disadvantages. Some signals from the Chinese were missed, and there were some avoidable stumbles in the drafting of what became known as the Shanghai Communiqué. But to the extent the result was a positive accomplishment, which it was, the credit was all Nixon's.

This history differs starkly from the foreign policy rhetoric of today's campaigns because it had a firm strategic foundation and was not flip-flopping, and also because it certainly was not pandering to popular public images of a foreign power. And that gets to one of the ingredients of a great foreign policy decision: not that it represents a departure from what the statesman who makes it said in the past, but that it is a departure from what may be well-entrenched popular perceptions—of foreign powers, of perceived good guys and bad guys in world politics, and of what is and is not possible in shaping relations with each. That is apt to require some political courage, which is another ingredient that is often lacking today.