Four Years of Achievement and Failure

Trying to evaluate the foreign policy of the Nixon administration during its first term, one must, as always in foreign policy, distinguish between rhetoric and policy. Rhetoric and policy may by and large coincide, one reflecting the other, or a wide gap may separate the two. In the latter case, what governments do is more important than what they say they are doing or are going to do. However, even here the kind of rhetoric used, in conjunction with the kind of policy pursued, can give a clue to the government's intention.


What is striking and new in the rhetoric of the first Nixon administration is the virtually complete absence of ideological argumentation, let alone crusading fervor. Gone is the division of the world into good and evil nations with the assurance that the good shall prevail. The administration does no longer argue that we have been fighting in Vietnam in order to "stop communism," but in order to prevent a government to be imposed upon the South by force of arms. The Nixon administration has achieved the precondition for a sound American foreign policy: general and complete ideological disarmament.

What is more important is the correspondence of its policies with its ideological indifference. It has dealt with Communist nations in a businesslike manner. That is true particularly of those nations with which the United States has had hostile relations of long standing; the Soviet Union and China. One can even argue that, as concerns manner. President Nixon went from the extreme of uncompromising ideological hostility to the other extreme of indiscriminate exuberant friendliness. One can raise the question as to whether President Nixon's trip to China was really necessary and whether the political results, of historic importance in themselves, could not have been achieved in a less spectacular manner.

There is a more general risk and an already visible tendency that those—and there are very many since this was not so long ago the official orthodoxy—who thought of our relations with Communist nations primarily, if not exclusively, in ideological terms will conclude that, since ideological differences are no longer politically important, nothing of importance stands between the United States and the Communist nations. Both attitudes miss the political point in the relations of nations. Yesterday's ideological cold warriors become today's political pacifists, in either incarnation misunderstanding what foreign policy is about. It is about the reconciliation of hostile, and the recognition and creation of common, interests.


Judged by this standard, President Nixon's policy toward China has four achievements to its credit and one failure to its debit. It has given up the position that the issue of Taiwan affects the legitimacy of the government of mainland China and has accepted the settlement of the issue by the two governments immediately concerned. In consequence, it has been able to begin the normalization of our relations with China, 20 years overdue. This process of normalization has broken down the wall of isolation which the United States erected and tried to maintain between China and other nations. That is to say, the latter's relations with China, too, are being normalized. Thus China has become an active factor in world politics, which has already affected the relations between the United States, on the one hand, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and Japan, on the other. The ability of the United States to disengage from Vietnam has been facilitated by China's disengagement from all-out support of North Vietnam. The interest in a settlement, common to the United States and China, could be translated into policies conducive to a settlement.

China's entry into world politics as an important factor has also affected the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It has provided the United States with a freedom of maneuver between the Soviet Union and China, playing upon their mutual, fears and hostility and promising future advantages. The abatement of hostility between the United States and China has conjured up in the eyes of the Soviet Union the possibility of common Sino-American action. The Soviet Union, in order to forestall such a possibility which has haunted it for many years, must make concessions which otherwise it might not have been willing to make. The consequent improvement in Soviet-American relations, in turn, must disturb China which, in order to forestall closer cooperation between its two major enemies, must be ready to make concessions of its own. Thus we are here in the presence of a typical three-cornered balance-of-power situation in which the United States occupies a favored position as long as the Sino-Soviet conflict lasts.

Apart from this new three-cornered configuration, an understanding, the beginning of which can be traced back to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, appears to exist between the United States and the Soviet Union to keep hands off their respective spheres of influence and, where they overlap, as they do in Indochina and the Middle East, to avoid not only a military confrontation but even coming close to one. The first Nixon administration has taken advantage of this understanding in these two areas. It has escalated drastically the Vietnam war in the air and on the sea without any reaction other than verbal from the Soviet Union, and it has through the same technique it used with regard to China—linkage between American trade and credit concessions with political concessions from the other side—enlisted the support of the Soviet Union for a settlement of the Vietnam war. In the Middle East, the first Nixon administration has supported the territorial status quo of 1967 by arming Israel for a war it could not lose while the Soviet Union armed its Arab allies for a war they could not win. In both areas the administration has been able to turn the understanding with the Soviet Union to its advantage.

While thus the beginning normalization of Sino-American relations has had a beneficial effect upon the interests of the United States, it has had a deleterious effect upon our relations with Japan. The repeated disregard for the interests and, more importantly, the prestige of Japan—entirely unnecessary in view of American interests—has seriously impaired Japan's confidence in, and sympathies for, the United States. Considering the key position Japan occupies in the balance of power among the United States, the Soviet Union and China, the United States has a vital interest in repairing its relations with Japan to prevent it from being absorbed in either the Soviet or Chinese sphere.

The beginning normalization of our relations with China has been the one great achievement of the first Nixon administration, unnecessarily paid for, it is true, by our alienation from Japan. The inability to end American involvement in the Vietnam war has been the one great failure of the first Nixon administration.

The complete disengagement from Vietnam, prepared by the withdrawal of virtually all American combat troops, has been delayed for reasons of personal and national prestige by four years. President Nixon received at the end of his first term somewhat more favorable conditions from North Vietnam than he could have obtained four years earlier. The concession, essentially the retention of President Thieu in power for the time being, has been paid for with 20,000 American lives and the destruction of the human and material resources of Vietnam, North and South, as well as of Cambodia and Laos on a scale that staggers the imagination. If one applies the traditional standards of just war—proportionality between the end sought and the means employed—to President Nixon's Vietnam policies, one can give him credit only—and very small and dubious credit it is—for having shifted the casualties from America to Vietnam.


In the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament, the issue dwarfing all others, the record of the first Nixon administration is extremely mixed. It is as though two contradictory impulses had moved it forward and held it back at the same time. On the one hand, reason tells it that an unlimited and proliferating nuclear arms race must end in catastrophe. Thus it undertakes SALT and agrees to the virtual abolition of ABMs and the regulated competition for offensive weapons. On the other hand, conventional but obsolete modes of thought and action as well as vested military and industrial interests tell it that the quantitative and qualitative nuclear arms race must continue for the sake of American security. Thus it refuses to extend the limited test ban treaty to underground tests, whose nonintrusive control is technically feasible, and it insists upon testing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and making them operational on a large scale, thereby putting a probably insuperable obstacle in the path of SALT II; for while missiles armed with a single warhead are susceptible to nonintrusive control, MIRVs are not.

History may well record that the two most fateful mistakes the United States committed since the end of World War II were President Johnson's refusal in 1968 to start SALT because of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—punishing not only the Soviet Union but also the United States for the Soviet transgression—when MIRVs had not yet been tested, and President Nixon's decision to test MIRVs and make them operational. These two decisions may well have foreclosed the possibility of a meaningful nuclear arms control and disarmament agreement.

The first Nixon administration can take no credit for the normalization and, one might even say, pacification of Central Europe brought about by the treaties West Germany concluded with the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany. While Chancellor Brandt's Ostpolitik was not openly opposed by Washington, it was certainly not encouraged with any degree of enthusiasm, if it was encouraged at all. This attitude of indifference has extended from Germany to all of Western Europe. The attention and energies of the first Nixon administration have been absorbed by Vietnam, and it has preferred the spectacular coup de theatre to the patient day-by-day building of new relationships to replace obsolescent ones. Since our relations with Western Europe require exactly this kind of unobtrusive diplomatic spade work, they have been neglected. When the administration, because of the dollar crisis, could not help paying attention to Western Europe, it dispatched its secretary of the Treasury to exact through brutal tactics some temporary economic advantage without any regard for the long-range political and military interests such tactics might impair. It remains to be seen if the trips to Western Europe President Nixon plans for his second term will be followed by the overdue reconstruction of our political, military and economic relations.

The record of the first Nixon administration is also negative with regard to the United Nations. It is, of course, obvious that many of the weaknesses of the United Nations are beyond the control of the United States, being the result of its constitutional structure and of the policies of other member states. But it ought also to be obvious that the general decline of the United Nations, both in its activities and its prestige, results from the disdain and neglect with which it is treated by the major powers, of which the United States is one. That disdain has been unabashedly expressed in President Nixon's choice of his ambassador to the United Nations. Once we sent senators, a Supreme Court justice, and a former presidential candidate of Adlai Stevenson's distinction to represent us at the United Nations. It is no reflection on Mr. Scali's merits as a journalist to state that obviously he is not in the class of his predecessors.

The paralysis of the Security Council has been primarily the result of the Cold War which found the United States and the Soviet Union frequently on opposite sides of the issues. The improvement in Soviet-American relations could well be reflected in cooperation in the Security Council insofar as the interests of the United States and the Soviet Union coincide or can be reconciled. The first Nixon administration has initiated bi- and multilateral cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations on behalf of the common exploration of space and protection and restoration of the natural environment. But it has not used the opportunities which might have presented themselves for political cooperation within the United Nations.

Thus while the overall record of the foreign policy of the first Nixon administration has been mixed, its initiatives have drastically changed American relations with the Soviet Union and China. It is probably not too hazardous a premature historic judgment to say that it has opened a new chapter in American foreign policy and in world politics in general. That judgment is likely to remain true even if these initiatives should prove to be merely spectacular in their immediate effects rather than lasting in their consequences.

If the latter should turn out to be the case, world politics might well revert to the pattern which both Roosevelt and Stalin envisaged when World War II drew to a close: a condominium of the super powers, each respecting the sphere of influence of the other and both either keeping out of conflicts between third powers or cooperating in settling them. If and when China has become a super power itself, it might well join such a government of the world.

Such a world government by the super powers would be a far cry from the government by the great powers which followed the Napoleonic Wars under the leadership of Metternich. For that government tried to preserve and restore the legitimacy of Christian conservative governments, which the Napoleonic order had temporarily impaired and which did not survive the liberal revolutions of 1848. Not even the semblance of common principles of legitimacy exists today in which the super powers could find moral and political standards for common political action.

Yet two principles, derived from the distribution of power in the contemporary world, have taken the place of the missing principles of legitimacy: the inability to make their will prevail over most nations of the second and third rank and the certainty of total destruction in case of war between them. Total destruction has taken the place of the primary enemy, and it is the enemy of all, more particularly, the super powers. The awareness of these two principles has already called forth unprecedented restraint in their relations with each other and with nations of the second and third rank. If this restraint should continue to dominate the relations of the super powers, we would be in the presence of the paradox of the stability of the great-power relations in an unstable world.


However, regardless of whether its initiative will have such long-range results, the first Nixon administration has completely failed in that task, peculiarly American, without whose achievement successes in foreign policy will remain in the long run but hollow victories: to restore those exemplary qualities of America where throughout its history the lasting roots of its powers have lain. America no longer sets an example for other nations to emulate; in many respects it sets an example of what to avoid. We are feared because a nation which is capable of doing what we have been doing to Vietnam appears to be capable of anything; but we are no longer admired for what we are capable of doing. We are no longer looked upon as different from other nations. In the eyes of the world and in our own we have become a nation like all the others, perhaps even worse than some because our great power is at the service of intentions that are so good, and in consequence the use of our power is so lacking in restraint.

What is true of the relations between America and the rest of the world has also become true of the relationship between the American government and its citizens. Contemplating the American scene in these pages in 1967, I pointed to "the disarray of foreign and domestic policies, the violence from above and below, the decline of the public institutions, the disengagement of the citizens from the purposes of the government, the decomposition of those ties of trust and loyalty that link citizen to citizen and the citizens to the government" as the ailments of America. Far from curing these ailments, the first Nixon administration has greatly aggravated them and may well have rendered them incurable except by undemocratic means. "A society threatened with disruption or disintegration," I wrote, "can maintain itself in two ways: through a creative effort at reconstruction or through violent repression. The former is the democratic way, of which America and modern England provide examples. The other is the fascist way through which Germany, Italy, and Spain maintained themselves as integrated societies. Yet these examples show that the two choices are available only in the initial stages of the crisis, that is, when the powers-that-be are tempted to close their eyes to the potential seriousness of the crisis. Once the destructive results of disruption and disintegration have become obvious, it is likely to be too late for democratic remedies. There is, then, an element of tragedy in such a crisis of democratic society: When it could still be saved by democratic measures of reconstruction, there appears to be no need for them, and when the need has become obvious, it is too late for them."

In the vital area of the imponderables of moral leadership, of the reconstruction of disintegrating society, of the restoration of trust between citizen and citizen and citizen and government, the first Nixon administration has been an utter failure. Having failed in that creative task, President Nixon in his second term will be tempted to rely on the other remedy available to governments which must keep together a society threatening to fall apart: repression.

Thus what the first Nixon administration has been able to achieve in foreign policy may well be negated by what it was unable to achieve in the domestic sphere. For what will it avail an America that is no longer dedicated to the ideal of equality in freedom and, in consequence, has lost its soul, if it will be able to improve its relations with nation A and prevent a revolution in nation B? In the long perspective of history these successes will then be like the defense or the conquest of a province by a Roman emperor: footnotes to the history of the decline and fall of a once great nation.

Hans J. Morgenthau is Leonard Davis distinguished professor in political science, City College, of the City University of New York.

This article originally ran in the January 6, 1973, issue of the magazine.