What Nixon/Kissinger Got Right

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger operated in an amoral world where they traded lives and principles for power. But their cold “realism” enabled them to function more effectively in foreign policy than many of their successors who let passions and politics color their thinking, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Perhaps the most successful U.S. diplomacy of the past half century was the management by Richard Nixon, aided by Henry Kissinger, of relations with other major powers in the early 1970s, and in particular the triangular diplomacy involving the Soviet Union and China.

Although some of what Nixon and Kissinger did was specific to the issues and circumstances of the great power politics of their time, their performance holds some transferable lessons. We should think carefully about the major attributes of their diplomatic approach and strategy.

President Richard Nixon with his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1972.

They were not stuck in a bipolar mold, even though the Cold War was widely perceived as a world-shaping bipolar confrontation. They did not conceptually divide the world into good guys with whom to cooperate and bad guys to be opposed or shunned.

They did not let diplomacy be limited by repugnance over someone else’s domestic policies. The U.S.S.R. of the 1970s was a sclerotic and intolerant dictatorship, and China at the time was still wracked by the volatile extremism of the Cultural Revolution. They had no particular attachments to other states that got in the way of their diplomatic maneuvering. Alliances were tools to be employed when appropriate in pursuit of U.S. interests, not impediments to that pursuit.

They used relations with each power as leverage in managing U.S. relations with other powers. The Soviets probably would have preferred that there had not been a rapprochement between the United States and China, but it was not up to the Soviets to determine that. The U.S. administration did not let any foreign state veto initiatives it made toward other foreign states.

The lessons can be applied to global great power politics of today, but the lessons also are scalable. They can be scaled down to a single region. The great power diplomacy of Metternich, an object of Kissinger’s early studies, was practiced within the confines of Europe. Moreover, the principles apply not just to triangular contexts such as the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese dynamic of the 1970s but to situations with more than three centers of power and action. Applying those principles to any region in which there are such multiple players, each of which is important to U.S. interests, is the best way to advance U.S. interests in the region in question.

The Middle East of today is such a region. It is more fractured than Metternich’s Europe or Nixon’s global great power world, but it has several players that each present to the United States elements of both conflict and cooperation. Each has interests that parallel those of the United States, but each also has other pursuits and practices that cause problems for the United States. The players could be counted and grouped in different ways, but the principal ones are fairly obvious.

There are, for example, the Persian Gulf monarchies and especially the most sizable and significant one, Saudi Arabia. On one hand the Saudis share with the United States interests in the physical security and stability of the Gulf region, stability in the oil trade, and checking extremist violence. On the other hand they have an agenda that diverges from that of the United States and leads to some sharp disagreements with Washington and even troublesome behavior, such as with how the Saudis’ sectarian concerns shape their policy toward Syria and how their opposition to democratization (and hang-up about the Muslim Brotherhood) shapes their policy toward Egypt.

There are the Arab republics, which demonstrate a wide range of current problems and opportunities but of which Egypt is the most important by virtue of size and weight. The shared interests with the Egyptians center on stability and countering violent extremism, as well as other ones having to do with military cooperation. The divergent interests currently have mainly to do with Egypt’s sharp turn away from democratization and political rights. The problem in this regard for the United States is not one of American repugnance over someone else’s domestic policies but instead of the United States being associated in many other people’s minds with this type of harsh authoritarianism.

There is Israel, where again there are shared interests involving counterterrorism, as well as some involving military and technical cooperation. The divergent interests have to do most of all with Israel’s clinging — for religious or economic reasons the United States does not share — to occupied territory seized in war. The United States shares in the opprobrium and the costs, including ones involving the motivation of extremist violence, of this occupation, which is widely considered in the Middle East and beyond as profoundly unjust. The Israeli proclivity for quick use of military force in surrounding territories and states also is contrary to U.S. interests, both because of similar opprobrium and because of the destabilizing effects within the region of such military action.

There is Iran, which still has some of the same basis for parallel U.S. and Iranian interests as there were at the time of Nixon and the Shah. Today there are, for example, important shared interests regarding stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Divergent interests have mostly to do with Iran’s relations with clients and allies elsewhere in the region, which have helped to shape its policies in places such as Syria.

Nixon and Kissinger worked a bit of their multipolar magic in the Middle East during and in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East war. Their deft diplomacy managed to strengthen a security relationship with Israel while also shepherding Egypt’s remarkable turnaround from a Soviet to a U.S. ally — while also keeping the Soviets out of the action in other respects.

But since the late 1970s (and since Jimmy Carter’s follow-up at Camp David of Anwar Sadat’s grand redirection of Egypt), U.S. policy in the Middle East has mostly been stuck in an inflexible and essentially bivalent mold. Partly this has been a reversion to Americans’ traditional Manichean way of looking at the world. Partly it has been reflexive reaction to outside events. The year 1979 brought the double whammy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, thrusting the Cold War itself back into Southwest Asia and leading to the Carter Doctrine in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian revolution, leading to a new bête noire for America, ready to assume that role fully once the Soviet Union collapsed.

Later we had feckless attempts to align and mobilize regional “moderates” who disagreed among themselves about matters most important to them against “extremists,” and George W. Bush’s reductionist for-us-or-against-us framework for thinking about Middle Eastern politics and much else.

The frozen-frame distrust and hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly one of the biggest hurdles between the situation we have now and the sort of enlightened, flexible, multi-polar Middle East diplomacy that would be far better at protecting and advancing U.S. interests in the region. That in turn is one of the biggest reasons the nuclear negotiations with Iran, resumed this week under new Iranian leadership, are so important.

The nuclear issue has to be tackled now because it has assumed, for better or worse, an outsize salience. But an agreement on this issue also would help to lead to a more normal relationship in which Washington and Tehran would deal with all of the issues that either divide them or on which they can make common cause, and in which they deal with each other as one of several relationships each has in the region rather than as a single all-consuming fixation.

A more normal relationship with Iran would provide the United States useful leverage in managing its other relationships with Middle Eastern states, whether those states are customarily counted as foes or as allies. It is this sort of liberation of American foreign policy in the Middle East that ultimately will be much more important than details about spinning centrifuges, break-out capabilities, and the like.

A second very large hurdle is closely related to the first one. It is the passionate U.S. attachment to Israel, leading to the abetting of damaging policies by the Israeli government and based on fears, habits and taboos in domestic American politics. The two hurdles are related because it is the Israeli government that is leading efforts to torpedo any U.S.-Iranian agreement and to prevent any deviation from unremitting punishment and ostracism of Iran by the United States.

With recent tentative signs of slight thawing in the frozen U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Israeli effort has intensified. Benjamin Netanyahu’s language on this subject has become so strident and extreme, with unrelenting talk of apocalyptic, messianic regimes and how one state is determined to destroy the other, that he is demonstrating some of the very qualities that he attributes to the country that is the object of his calumnies.

This second hurdle is the more formidable one, greater even than the legacy of the many years of mistrust and non-communication between America and Iran. Such a legacy can be overcome, if not continually reinforced by an outsider. The United States did not even recognize the Soviet regime until 15 years after it came into power. It would take World War II to bring about cooperation with Stalin, and several more decades of Cold War before detente under Nixon. The opening to China was more than 20 years after the People’s Republic was created, and full diplomatic relations were not established until several years later under Carter.

Some have argued that emulation of Nixon should go so far as the kind of presidential trip he made to Beijing. That certainly would be quite a boost toward getting U.S. Middle Eastern policy into a new and much more productive phase. It certainly would be dramatic; it would make believers of some who questioned why Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and it would provide great material to John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, for a new opera.

But it is very unlikely to happen, and it shouldn’t be necessary. What the United States needs is not Nixon’s drama but rather observance of Nixon’s strategic principles, including the principle that none of the foreign interlocutors of the United States should have a veto over the shape of relations with any of its other interlocutors. Observe those principles, and U.S. interests in the Middle East will be far better served than they have been for a long time.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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3 comments on “What Nixon/Kissinger Got Right

  1. Eric Bischoff on said:

    I don’t think so. What America needs today if it wants to survive, lead and regain respect is a complete about face. Close the bases, bring the fleets and the troops home and dismantle nuclear weapons. Remove NSA and CIA from all embassies. Profess a change in foreign policy and a Declaration of Interdepence. Then convert the military to a Disaster Relief, Ecological Restoration and Enforcer of Environmental Laws to protect the Earth’s Commons for All. Before it’s too late. Peace Out!

  2. I’m sorry, but Nixon and Kissinger just did TOO MANY negative things (which I won’t even bother to recount to my fellow
    ‘choir members’ who read this) where too many people died for me to cut them some slack for a couple of seemingly-pragmatic political moves that they made, and which were actually only done to divert attention from the rising criticism at home on other policies. When Nixon was a rising, rabid anti-Communist in the late 40′s/early 50′s, he certainly couldn’t be bothered to show some even-handedness.

    Yes, ‘we’ (read: political figures) should “… think carefully about the major attributes of [their] diplomatic approach and strategy”, but forget the “their”. Diplomacy should be done for its own inherent value, NOT because Nixon/Kissinger did it once or twice for Machiavellian purposes – - -which unfortunately probably gave it a bad name via guilt-by-association.

  3. El Duce made the trains run on time…passion had everything to do with the murder and vendetta which defined Kissinger/Nixon policy. India, the largest democracy, was snubbed for Pakistan, which was busy burning schoolgirls in their dorms. My dead cry out from their graves.