IF GOING on the offensive against Russia and China makes little sense under these circumstances, how then should we approach our great power rivals? History provides us with food for thought.
In 1968, Richard Nixon faced a situation reminiscent of our current circumstances in the wake of his first presidential victory. America was sharply divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and changes driven by the rising influence of the Baby Boom generation. Protests and assassinations shook the country, and rioting burned numerous cities. Nixon’s campaign promised a return to law and order at home and an end to the Vietnam War abroad. But America’s maneuvering room was sharply constrained. An increasingly powerful Soviet Union was on course to push past parity with the United States in nuclear weapons, and it already enjoyed an overwhelming numerical advantage in conventional forces in Europe. How could the United States extract itself from Vietnam and focus on domestic healing, yet still prevent the Soviet Union from intimidating Western Europe and spreading communism around the world?
Nixon’s answer, conceived in tandem with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, was a masterwork in defensive realist strategy. Perceiving an opportunity to exploit rising tensions between the USSR and China, Nixon reached out to Maoist China, despite it being one of the most odious regimes in history—still in the midst of the bloody Cultural Revolution—and began a process leading to formal diplomatic relations, helping to counterbalance Soviet power and complicate the Kremlin’s foreign policy outlook. In parallel, the United States pursued détente with Moscow, producing a set of trade, arms control, human rights, and confidence-building agreements that helped to constrain the Soviet military build-up and made the superpower rivalry more manageable and predictable. The approach was excoriated by Ronald Reagan during the 1976 campaign for being too soft on Moscow, but he had it wrong. It bought badly needed time for mending the country’s domestic wounds and rebuilding the strength that later served Reagan so well.
Could the United States pursue a similar approach today? By comparison to 1968, the country’s domestic injuries appear more severe, our middle class more disaffected, our ability to produce a coherent foreign policy strategy more limited. Statesmen of Kissinger’s caliber seem to be in short supply. Even the foundational principles of the country—the American Idea itself—are being called into question. But America’s capacity for innovation and regeneration should not be discounted. A modest foreign policy aimed at buying time for that rebound is overdue. But we will have to recognize that we are no longer in a position to dictate outcomes in many foreign arenas, and that some degree of compromise—long a dirty word in the American political lexicon—will be necessary to manage the dangers posed by our rivals. The vital first step in our recovery, in other words, is to acknowledge that we have a problem.
George Beebe is the Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency, and author of The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.