The Nixon Principle: Only Nixon can go to China

2 December 2008

It is sometimes said that only Nixon can go to China. This was true during the Cold War, because anyone else going to China would have been called a commie. Since Nixon’s anti-communist credentials were impeccable (after all, didn’t he poke Khrushchev in the chest?), he could go to China and not be called a commie.

Nixon earns his anti-communist "street cred"

Nixon earns his anti-communist "street cred"

John Lewis Gaddis, who has been called the “Dean of Cold War historians”, in his most recent and comprehensive book, The Cold War: A New History, quoted Mao as saying that Mao preferred dealing with rightists: “They say what they really think – not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.” (p. 149 of the 2005 edition)

Today the Cold War is over and China is capitalist in everything but its ruling political elites, but ideological struggles persist. However, they are not the ideological struggles of the Cold War. The global struggle for hearts and minds continues apace, and today we have different Nixons and different Chinas. For example, the president of Brazil, Luiz da Silva, has been hailed as a champion of the left. Da Silva has appeared at “alternative” global economic summits. But when he goes to the official economic summits, he does not lecture the industrialized world on the benefits of socialism and the nationalization of industry. On the contrary, da Silva advocates free trade. And with da Silva as president, Brazil has been holding the line on economic policies that would be controversial if maintained by anyone else. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Luiz da Silva could make structural adjustment happen in Brazil. And he can make it happen because the people believe that he is on their side: he has credibilty. If exactly the same policies were pursued by a rightist president of Brazil, there would be riots in the street. Such is the power of opinion, and such is the fickleness of “people power,” the currently fashionable term for mob rule.

We need not go to Brazil to see the Nixon Principle at work. An editorial in today’s Financial Times reads as follows:

Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments – Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates as defence secretary and James Jones as national security adviser – have won praise from the moderate centre of the Democratic party and even from many Republicans. So far, it is mainly those on the left of the Democratic party who are expressing doubts.

As well they might. They campaigned for Mr Obama this year believing him to represent – in foreign policy above all – a clear alternative to Mrs Clinton, to the administration of George W. Bush (in which Mr Gates currently serves as defence secretary), and to John McCain (with whom Mr Jones, a former commandant of the marines, appeared during the campaign). Mr Obama has chosen a centrist if not centre-right team which, whatever its merits, calls into question the posture he adopted during the campaign. Has Mr Obama been subverted even before taking office?

Obama showed from the outset that he has what it takes to get elected, including making pragmatic and non-ideological decisions (like opting out of federal campaign funding) when and where necessary. Strategic Forecasting wrote that, “The brilliance of Obama’s presidential campaign was that he convinced his hard-core supporters that he intended to make a radical shift in policies across the board, without ever specifying what policies he was planning to shift, and never locking out the possibility of a flexible interpretation of his commitments. His supporters heard what they wanted to hear while a careful reading of the language, written and spoken, gave Obama extensive room for maneuver. Obama’s campaign was a master class on mobilizing support in an election without locking oneself into specific policies.”

I noted in the initial post to this blog, and in subsequent posts, that no one should expect transformational or revolutionary change from an Obama administration. And what we see in Obama’s “centre-right” foreign policy team is a “Nixon” who can go to “China”. That is to say, because Obama has credibility on the Iraq War issue (regardless of what his detractors say), he is enabled to pursue policies that another administration (for example, a McCain administration) could not credibly pursue, or, if such policies were pursued by others, those others would not receive the benefit of the doubt.

By the perverse logic of political credibility, only a popular Democrat like Bill Clinton can cut welfare benefits without being pilloried, and only a Republican with spotless “tough on defense” credentials can cut military spending or cut military programs, as when Donald Rumsfeld (certainly one of the greatest Secretaries of the Defense in the nation’s history), cut the Crusader artillery gun against stiff opposition from the Army.

Clinton and Rumsfeld used their credibility as "soft power" to accomplish ends that would have been "politically impossible" for others.

Clinton and Rumsfeld used their credibility as "soft power" to accomplish ends that would have been "politically impossible" for others.

On a side note, it is amazing to see how Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), has gained popular currency, once it was put out that Obama was reading this and had been influenced by it. I have heard it mentioned on television several times, and even a reporter asked a question at a news conference about the possibility of constituting a cabinet as a “team of rivals”. The phrase itself is so suggestive, like the phrase “river of grass” that transformed perceptions of the Everglades, that it brings with it a surfeit of meanings, from which each and every one can pick and choose that which he prefers. Who would have imagined, after the plagiarism scandal of 2002 over her book on the Kennedy clan, that Goodwin would be where she is today?

Can these rival legacies form a team?

Can these rival legacies form a team?

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