At age seventy-five, Richard Nixon still seems to be evading an important truth about himself: the reason he remains such a fascinating figure is not that Americans are looking to him for foreign policy advice. There are plenty of policy experts, but there is only one Nixon. Nixon is engrossing as a politician who has endured astonishing ups and downs, who never gives up, and who still has the mind of a canny political operator. The most interesting and newsworthy parts of his public appearances this spring were not his observations about world affairs but his purely political comments—why Jackson was unexpectedly strong, why Bush remains weak, how big an issue the “sleaze factor” would be for the Democrats. If he wanted, Nixon could be a panelist much in demand on Washington’s political talk shows.
But Nixon has not been content to be seen as just a politician. He wants to be remembered as a foreign policy expert and grand strategist. His new book is the sixth he’s published since leaving office, and like most of the others it resolutely sticks to big issues in foreign policy. Nixon’s desire to cast himself as a statesman is understandable; if he can do so, he could help offset the blemishes on his record. (At one wistful moment in the book, Nixon says that foreign policy experience should be the only criterion in choosing a president. This could be seen as a plug for George Bush, but of course it is mainly a plea for a kinder look at himself.) Still, sticking to the artificially high road of policy makes Nixon strangely less impressive than he could otherwise be. As this book reveals, he doesn’t really have much to say about foreign policy. When his advice makes sense, it’s familiar and conventional—and when it is original, it’s often unbalanced or even wacky.
The main theme of Nixon’s new book is his continuing fixation on US-Soviet relations. This subject takes up only half of the book, but it accounts for about nine tenths of its passion. The only other subject Nixon seems to care about is China, and even there he keeps steering the discussion back to the implications of Chinese developments for the US-Soviet struggle.
Obviously superpower relations are important, because of the threat of nuclear war, because of what the cold war has already done to each country’s economy, and so on. But Nixon seems to have lost his sense of proportion about the other elements that determine America’s place in the world. He plainly could not care less about economics or about the part of America’s strength that depends on trade, capital formation, new technology, and so on. In his hour long Meet the Press appearance in April, he explained the importance of economic strength in one pithy sentence: “Now, we can talk all we want about how we can distribute wealth, but if we don’t have people out there producing wealth, forget it.” But apart from a few superficial comments his book pays no attention whatsoever to America’s difficulties with deficit and debt. He says that the Soviet Union’s economic breakdown, aggravated by its disproportionate military spending, is a tremendous problem for Gorbachev. But it seems not even to have occurred to him that the US might face a related problem as it tries to compete with Japan economically and with the Russians militarily. He sounds as if the US economy is still the one he took over in the late 1960s, when it behaved as if it could afford practically anything it wanted to do.
His description of Japan’s rise has the same condescending “Let’s hear it for the little people” tone that Ronald Reagan often uses when introducing his average American heroes during his State of the Union addresses. Japan, Nixon informs us, is an “ancient storied land whose economic and political success stories in the last forty years can only be described as mind-boggling.” Near the end of the book, in a chapter about helping poor countries, Nixon dutifully tells us,
If the people of the Third World think we are interested only in winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we will lose the war for their hearts and minds…. At least the communists talk about the problems. Too often we talk only about the communists.
Up to this point in the book, of course, third world countries have appeared mainly as potential locations for the US-Soviet struggle, and the title of this very chapter is “Third World Battlegrounds.”
Apart from his obsession with Russia, Nixon’s interpretation of Soviet ambitions and tactics sounds like the slogans of the 1950s. Five pages into the book, Nixon flatly announces that “as a nuclear superpower, Moscow is now militarily stronger than the former dictators of Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo combined and represents an even greater threat to freedom and peace.” Each nuclear superpower is by definition stronger than Hitler’s Germany or Tojo’s Japan—we can destroy the world, they couldn’t—but the overall strength of the superpowers, relative to Western Europe, Japan, and China, is more debatable; and to call today’s Soviet Union a “greater threat to freedom and peace” than the Nazi Germany that exterminated Jews and terrorized Europe, and the Japan that seized most of Asia and attacked Pearl Harbor, is to succumb to foolish rhetoric. Less than ten years after Hitler took power, the world was at war. Seventy years after the Bolsheviks took power, the US and the Soviet Union have never directly engaged each other in combat; and apart from the dubious prize of Afghanistan most of the Soviets’ gains in control over territory took place soon after World War II. (Later in the book, Nixon indirectly tries to shore up his “greater threat” argument by saying that the Soviet Union is insatiable like the Nazis but is more prudent and prefers to win without fighting. That we’ve more or less peacefully coexisted with them, therefore, doesn’t make them any less a threat to peace than Hitler was.)
Nixon devotes one long chapter to the changes Mikhail Gorbachev has brought to the Soviet Union but concludes that so far there is really no change. Gorbachev is younger, smoother, smarter, and more aware of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses than Brezhnev and the intervening nonentities. Therefore, Nixon says, he and his country are all the more dangerous. (“Regardless of the refinements he has introduced into Moscow’s public-relations techniques, he has preserved the long-term objective of pushing for global predominance…. America wants peace; the Soviet Union wants the world.”) In view of the controversy inside the Soviet Union over Gorbachev’s reforms, it is healthy for Westerners to retain a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude toward glasnost and perestroika. But the Soviet Union has, after all, begun pulling its troops out of Afghanistan, agreed to on-site verification of nuclear weapons agreements, somewhat loosened internal economic, political, cultural, and religious controls, and taken other steps that no one thought possible three years ago. “Eight years after the invasion [of Afghanistan], the Kremlin still cannot pull out its 120,000 troops without precipitating a collapse of the communist government in Kabul,” Nixon wrote shortly before Gorbachev announced the Soviet withdrawal. “For the Kremlin leaders, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.” When Nixon says that “we should keep our minds open to the possibility of far-reaching reform in the Soviet system,” he makes it sound as if he were talking about keeping an open mind about the possibility of life on Mars.
In this as in his other foreign policy books, Nixon relies heavily on ex cathedra pronouncements; he offers no notes or references and hardly bothers to try to substantiate what are obviously disputable claims. For instance, he asserts that the Soviets behave the way they do because their aggression is ideologically necessary—it comes straight from their communism. (“The Soviet Union is an inherently aggressive power because its totalitarian system cannot survive without expanding.”) That the old totalitarian pattern is changing he ignores. And what about China, whose intentions he views so much more charitably? China could also be called a totalitarian Communist system, in that the Party has supreme power, despite its dramatic economic liberalizations. Why isn’t it as inherently aggressive? Maybe the difference between Soviet and Chinese policy is the difference between the Russian and the Chinese people (“The Chinese generally, as demonstrated by their success in any country to which they emigrate, are born entrepreneurs. Most Russians are not”). But if Russian culture is what counts, why all the talk about Soviet ideology?
There is a similar gap of logic in Nixon’s discussion of nuclear weapons. For at least two decades after World War II, the US had nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union: we could have annihilated them and suffered relatively little damage in return. When the Soviet Union fielded large numbers of bombers and missiles, the chance of superiority ended for both sides. From that point on, each could annihilate the other. Nixon repeats the familiar and technically implausible argument that the Soviets are now superior, since they could hypothetically launch a debilitating first strike. This change, he says, has more than theoretical impact, since it affects the decisions countries make each day. “When the United States had nuclear superiority, it could deter Soviet expansionism”; now it can’t. But if nuclear superiority is so important and useful, why didn’t it do us any good during the immediate postwar period when the Soviet Union was rapidly expanding, or during the Korean war, the Hungarian uprising, the Cuban revolution, the War in Vietnam? What good has it done the Russians in Afghanistan?
I suspect that Nixon isn’t bothered by such questions because there is a deeper emotional purpose to his fixed view of the Soviet Union. According to the familiar claim that “only Nixon could go to China,” it was much easier for Nixon, with his long record of anticommunism, to open relations with Communist China than it would have been for any Democrat. Nixon did not have to worry about attacks from the right—and so far, apart from minor skirmishes about Taiwan and about China’s coerced-abortion policies, he’s never had to apologize to conservatives for being soft on China. Indeed, he feels confident enough to come down hard against the remaining anti-Chinese conservatives:
Americans on both the left and the right must resist their bighearted urge to lecture the Chinese on human rights. And it is ludicrous for us to attempt, as some in the Reagan administration have urged, to impose our views about abortion on China, an overcrowded country where the choice is between population control and starvation.
The détente of the Nixon-Brezhnev era is something else again. Since the mid-1970s, the conservative and neoconservative movements and their organizations, such as the Committee for the Present Danger, have made much of the charge that détente and the 1972 SALT treaty were based on tragic delusions. Nixon defends détente by saying that it was a useful instrument of containment. (“A reduction in tensions did not mean a reduction in vigilance.”) Unfortunately, “after 1975, detente lost the hard edge of military deterrence.” The difference between good détente and bad détente was intentions—Nixon always meant to contain the Russians, he said, while Carter and the Democrats did not. But the right wing has harshly criticized his intentions, and Nixon’s unyielding line against the Soviets in his books and television appearances is one way to defend himself against attacks from his natural base.
As in the period of détente, the actual recommendations Nixon makes for US-Soviet policy (as distinguished from his rhetoric) are moderate. He often sees himself as a voice of reason between the “superdoves,” who dream of disarmament, and the “superhawks,” who dream of breaking the Soviet economy in an all-out military spending race. The doves should stop romanticizing Gorbachev, he says, but the hawks have to stop saber-rattling, talking about perfect shields against nuclear weapons, and imagining that communism is going to be rolled back inside the Soviet Union itself:
We must develop a new live-and-let-live relationship with the Soviet Union, one that recognizes that while the two countries have irreconcilable differences and will continue to compete with each other across the board, they also have a common interest in avoiding going to war over their differences.
All sides should realize that nuclear weapons are here to stay and look for ways to make the military balance more stable. His recommendations for arms negotiations are familiar but they make sense if one looks beneath his pugnacious rhetoric. The US should concentrate on reducing the numbers of large, multiple-warhead, land-based missiles, of which the Soviet Union has many more than the US and which raise the theoretical possibility of a first strike. It should also negotiate to reduce the European conventional forces on both sides. (“President Reagan should tell Gorbachev about the American aphorism about ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ and suggest that he put his tanks where his mouth is.”)
When he talks about anything except the Soviet Union, Nixon’s boredom is palpable. It shows up clearly in his carelessness about facts. He warns that ten million illegal immigrants from Mexico are “probably” living in the US. By most estimates, the real number is not even half that large. He says that Yasuhiro Nakasone’s international prominence has helped bring Japan out of its shell. Then he adds, “It is to be hoped that his highly skilled successor, Noboru Takeshita, will continue in the new Nakasone tradition.” The tall, handsome, flamboyant Nakasone and the short, mumbling, self-effacing Takeshita could hardly be more different as far as the Japanese are concerned. Nixon’s “hope” is about as realistic as a wish that Harry Truman would continue the FDR tradition of an aristocrat in the White House.
Nixon says, with relief, that “we made the right decision in standing aside while the forces behind Corazon Aquino displaced the government of President Marcos.” “Standing aside” is a novel way to describe what US Ambassador Steven Bosworth, Senators Paul Laxalt and Richard Lugar, and countless other American officials were doing as they helped shove Marcos off the stage (and into US military helicopters) at the end. Nixon even endorses the idiotic idea that Japan had a competitive advantage after the war because of American bombing raids, which cleared away the inefficient old factories and spared Japan the demolition costs. If this is such a great way to modernize, why aren’t we bombing the Midwest? (Japanese factories are the most modern in the world not because they were rebuilt in the late Forties but because they were continually re-rebuilt, without aid of American ordnance, from the Fifties through the Eighties.)
Apart from such gaffes, Nixon’s chapter on Japan includes the most bizarre recommendation in the book: that Japan rearm in order to fulfill its destiny as a great power. (This chapter was inexplicably singled out for praise by Marshall Shulman, of Columbia’s Harriman Institute, in The New York Times Book Review.) “In the long term it is both inevitable and proper that Japan take on a military role in Asia commensurate with its economic power.” Well, Japan’s economic power now makes it the economic master of Asia. What military role would be commensurate with that? Nixon must have forgotten to raise this point with his Chinese friends on his visits there; no “inevitability” would alarm the Chinese more than a militarily resurgent Japan. Nixon writes off such Asian fears as aftereffects of World War II, long out of date. He seems not even to imagine that the Chinese, Koreans, and others see Japan’s power the way Nixon sees Russia’s: as a permanent challenge, if not a permanent threat. This is why America’s “imperial” dilemma—the difficulty of maintaining both its economic and its military power—is much more acute in Asia than in Europe. Western Europe is rich, stable, and increasingly unified. In principle it can do more to defend itself against the Soviets if the US does less. But in Asia, there’s no appealing replacement for the US in the regional policeman’s role. Despite our troubles in Vietnam, despite local complaints about the bases in the Philippines, most Asian countries very much want the US to keep its position as the principal military power in the Pacific. It is costly for America to run all those bases and keep the Seventh Fleet in place. But if American forces weren’t there, Japanese and Chinese forces would be jousting for preeminence, and the results would be much less stable and much more worrisome for everyone.
Nixon should stop trying so hard to sound like a statesman. He’d be more popular and his reputation would be more secure if he used the gift he really has: his canny, lawyerlike, poker-playing instinct for sizing up a situation and understanding the possibilities it allows. His instinct told him that Brezhnev would go ahead with a summit meeting in 1972 even if Nixon was bombing Hanoi. He proved to be right. He thought he could pull off the politically risky opening to China, and he did. His instinct was not perfect, which is why he is the only president to have resigned. (On Meet the Press, he discussed the lesson he learned from Watergate: “When a small thing is there, deal with it, and deal with it fast; get it out of the way. Because if you don’t, it’s going to become big, and then it may destroy you.”) But his sense of how politics works is still sharp and at one or two points in his book, and many times during his recent television appearances, he again becomes the shrewd politician he always was. Don’t waste any time worrying about whether Dole likes Bush well enough to be his running mate, he said, grinning wolfishly: “Believe me, if they win they will be bosom buddies thereafter.” Bush also shouldn’t worry about Meese or the Reagan administration’s numerous indictees:
If you look at the sleaze factor over the years, it does not have a negative effect on a candidate unless it is accompanied by some other issue, for example, a recession or, as was the case in 1952, where the Truman 5 percenters was an issue, with a Korean war issue.
Israel has won five wars, but it can’t win often enough to survive if it doesn’t make a peace agreement: “In the end, the Arabs will learn to fight, and in the end there are going to be more of them, and in the end [Israel] will lose.” If the “Norteamericanos” try to shove Noriega, the other Latin Americans will instinctively defend him:
It’s much better to do it in a way that gets the others to do the work for you…. What we have to do is to get rid of Noriega, but to have the Panamanian people do it rather than the US.
Caspar Weinberger, he said, once issued an exhaustive checklist of the conditions that should be met before the US sends its troops anyplace. “Since Vietnam, the only battle the Pentagon seems ready to wage is the battle to get more money from the Congress.”
The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps are always fighting for their portion of the pie, more than they are usually fighting for some of the other things they should be fighting for. I don’t mean they aren’t very loyal, very patriotic people. But that’s the way the system works.
Was he appearing in public now merely in order to sell his book? “That’s no problem. I got a very good advance on it, and it isn’t going to make any difference whether it sells that much or not.”
The Nixon who talks this way is believable, in touch with himself and with real events. (The publisher may care whether the book sells or flops, but Nixon got his money up front.) This Nixon can be worth listening to, especially if he spares us his course on grand strategy for a world that doesn’t exist.
July 21, 1988