Richard Nixon Is Dead
“There is an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China.” – Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country
Richard Nixon’s foreign policy achievements of 1972 deserved nearly every ounce of praise they have received for the last fifty years. Unfortunately, people who should know better are imposing Nixonian assumptions on a world that hasn’t seen him in physical form since 1994 (you can still follow him on Twitter, though).
Our 37th president is being posthumously used by the “realists” who would still insist that somehow, some way, the division between the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai that he exploited still exists today. It doesn’t. That isn’t to say that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are Stalin and Mao. Those telling us this isn’t 1949 are correct. The realists, however, are not noticing that the real world is telling them it isn’t 1972 either.
Much of the American right is fixated on a “reverse Kissinger” – using Putin as a blocker against Xi. By contrast, some of the left and center, such as Fareed Zakaria, would prefer we use Xi as a blocker against Putin. Both groups patently ignore just how good a fit these two tyrants are.
Zakaria’s assumptions about what separate Putin and Xi are shared by his opposites – they just come to different conclusions about the proper reaction. Zakaria does an admirable job detailing Putin’s attempts to throw the post-Cold-War democratic hegemony into the dumpster:
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a geopolitical spoiler state. It has invaded two neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, and occupied territory in those countries, something almost unprecedented in Europe since World War II. It has reportedly used cyberwarfare to attack and weaken more than a dozen democracies, including the United States. It has supported allies such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad with brute force. It has murdered its opponents, even when they are living in countries such as Germany and England. And as a petrostate, it actually benefits from instability, which can raise oil and gas prices.
It’s where Xi is concerned that Zakaria parties like it’s 1999 (and no, not in a good way):
China is different. It is a rising world power that seeks greater influence as it gains economic strength. It has been aggressive in its policies toward some nations, but as a big economic actor, it can credibly claim to want stability in the world.
In the past, Beijing has voted for and supported sanctions against rogue regimes such as Libya, Iran and North Korea, though that cooperative spirit has been waning, especially in recent months. It has used its veto on the U.N. Security Council far less frequently than Russia or the United States. China poses a critical challenge to America, but much of what we need to do to combat it is in the realm of domestic policy, enacting measures that would unleash U.S. innovation and competitiveness.
Again, for the isolationist right, norm-breaking Russia is the hero; for the naive center/left, the Chinese Communist Party is playing nice on the global stage and thus deserves our friendship. The facts on the ground, however, show both regimes are willing to destroy the order America built. Zhongnanhai is just better at lying about it.
Yes, the CCP has allowed sanctions to be agreed against regimes like Tehran and Pyongyang – but they also help those regimes get around them. It’s “claim to want stability in the world” do not apply to the Spratley Islands, or the Senkakus, or neighboring India for that matter.
It is true that the CCP has been somewhat less threatening toward Taiwan than the Kremlin has been toward Ukraine, but there is good reason for it. Putin’s bellicose commentary on his neighbor has led to talk of sanctions and pressure on Germany to reconsider Nord Stream 2.
By contrast, former and current Japanese officials are openly talking about intervening in a cross-strait conflict on Taiwan’s behalf. Beijing’s behavior is not driven by better intentions, but rather by far higher cost of invasion that anything Putin is facing. Meanwhile, when Xi et al do not have such problems (such as East Turkestan), their viciousness is sickening.
The deeper problem for the “realists” on either side is their lack of historical perspective. Zakaria again reveals the mistake:
And ever since President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger drew China away from the Soviet Union in 1972, for decades, the United States was closer to Russia and China than they were to one another.
At the start of the Cold War, when ideology also dominated over strategy, Washington lumped all communist states together. It took the United States 25 years (and the Vietnam War) to learn that we should treat Moscow and Beijing differently.
Actual Cold War historians would find these assertions bizarre. Zhongnanhai wasn’t “drawn” away from the Kremlin in 1972; they began drifting apart sixteen years earlier. The two tyrannies were actually shooting at each other in 1969.
Tensions finally came to a head in March 1969, along the Ussuri River, the poorly demarcated border between the USSR and Northeast China. The world had been amused by colorful reports of Chinese border guards “mooning” their Soviet counterparts, who would in turn “defend” themselves by holding up portraits of Chairman Mao. But it was no laughing matter when the border harassment escalated into a shooting match on March 2 and 15, resulting in heavy casualties.
Armed skirmishes continued into the spring and summer, with both sides contributing to a massive military buildup in the region. For several harrowing months, as the world watched, China and Russia teetered on the brink of a nuclear conflict. Repeatedly, Moscow hinted at the possibility of a preemptive strike against Chinese nuclear installations, while China built up a vast underground network of tunnels and shelters to be used in case of nuclear attack.
Putin and Xi have had no such conflict.
So why are so many willfully blind to the Putin-Xi axis, even as it presents itself happily to the world? Much of it comes from internal inertia. To admit that this antidemocratic alliance is real means America is facing far bigger problems than our dopamine-rush culture wars. Even domestically, the issues we need addressing would take far greater importance than scoring points against the other tribe.
I suspect there is also fear involved. The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were formidable opponents. Together, they frightened an entire generation. America itself seemed to be coming apart at the seams in the years before 1972. Might there be a creeping sense that America wouldn’t have been able to win the First Cold War against Moscow and Beijing – and thus we can’t defeat them both in the Second Cold War either?
The problem with that analysis is that is ignores the rest of the world. Iron Curtain II falls far further eastward than its 1940s predecessor did. In the Pacific, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are vibrant democracies that are increasingly finding themselves closer to the United States – not from our actions but rather in response to the CCP’s behavior. Even the one regime that famously beat us during Cold War I – Vietnam – would rather be on our side these days.
American history is replete with dictators trying to impose tyranny on the world: from Napoleon to the Nazis, from Wilhelm the Kaiser to the Vladimir Lenin. We have resisted and defeated them before; we can do so again, if we recognize that we have to keep fighting them rather than pretend we don’t have to do so.