Trump, Putin, and Nixonian Geopolitics

Trump, Putin, and Nixonian Geopolitics
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The media, commentary, and political noise in the aftermath of the Trump-Putin summit missed the most important takeaway from the event: the return of Nixonian geopolitics. The historical parallels are eerie.

In 1969, incoming President Richard Nixon and his top national security adviser Henry Kissinger inherited a lengthy and unpopular war and sought to end that war without undermining American credibility throughout the world. Nixon implemented “Vietnamization” of the war in Southeast Asia, which was a component of the “Nixon Doctrine” that substituted military assistance to key regional allies for direct U.S. military involvement.

Simultaneously, Kissinger began secret talks with Communist China to begin a process that eventually resulted in China becoming a de facto ally of the United States against Soviet Russia in the latter stages of the Cold War.

Nixon also pursued détente with the Soviet Union, which involved negotiating arms control agreements, improving trade relations, and a general relaxation of tensions.

The ideological aspect of the Cold War was de-emphasized, but the geopolitical aspect remained. Nixon improved relations with Yugoslavia’s communist dictator Tito and Rumania’s communist dictator Ceausescu. Despite détente, the U.S. mined Haiphong harbor where Soviet ships supplied weapons to North Vietnam and initiated a nuclear alert to deter Soviet intervention in the 1973 Middle East war.

Tensions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ran high. Some NATO allies were critical of Nixon’s military moves in Southeast Asia, and France and Germany conducted independent foreign policies toward the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders pressed our NATO allies to spend more on defense.

In the second volume of his memoirs, Years of Upheaval, Kissinger explained that Nixon’s approach to Russia and China was “to be closer to either Moscow or Peking than either was to the other.” America’s geopolitical position, Kissinger reiterated in his book Diplomacy, “would be strongest when America was closer to both communist giants than either was to the other.” 

Nixon’s policy was a sophisticated balancing act which combined engagement and containment concerning both Soviet Russia and China. Nixon wrote in The Real War that the most important geopolitical developments in the post-World War II world were the formation of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the early 1950s, the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, and America’s opening to China in the early 1970s.

Nixon understood the teachings of classical geopolitics: Who controls Eurasia—the great continent—commands the destinies of the world. The political pluralism of the Eurasian landmass is essential to American security. The United States is an insular sea power that requires unmatched naval power and allies on the Eurasian periphery to maintain access to the great continent.

The Trump administration today faces a lengthy and unpopular war in Afghanistan and decades of failed policies towards North Korea. President Trump wants to end the war and resolve the North Korean nuclear threat without undermining U.S. credibility. He also wants our NATO allies to increase their share of the common alliance defense burden.

During the Bush II and Obama administrations, Russia and China moved geopolitically closer than any time since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration must, therefore, deal with the threat posed by Sino-Russian rapprochement as well as China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, its military and naval build-up, and its pursuit of the One Belt, One Road policy in Central Asia and beyond. The best way to deal with the world as it is today is Nixonian geopolitics.

The United States should mix engagement and containment to maintain closer relations with Russia and China than either power has with the other. Yes, Putin is a ruthless dictator, but he is no more ruthless (and much less murderous) than Mao Zedong was when Nixon launched the opening to China. At the time of the opening to China, Nixon was criticized by both the Left and the Right for conducting amoral foreign policy. But sentiment and a fierce moralism is no basis for effective foreign policy. Kissinger, quoting Bismarck, wrote that “a sentimental policy knows no reciprocity. . . and predictability is more crucial than … idiosyncratic moralistic rhetoric.”

Nearly one hundred years ago, the greatest of the classical geopolitical thinkers, Sir Halford Mackinder, urged the world’s democratic statesmen to adjust their ideals to the “lasting realities of our earthly home.” That sage advice applies equally to the 21st century world.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.

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