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The Geopolitics of Richard Nixon

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The Geopolitics of Richard Nixon

In two important books, the former president foresaw the end of the Cold War, the rebalance, and much besides.

The Geopolitics of Richard Nixon
Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Richard Nixon was one of the world’s foremost visionaries of global geopolitics. Between 1980 and 1994, the former American president wrote six volumes on international relations, all of which demonstrated his knowledge of history, grasp of international political realities, and insight into future trends in international politics. The most insightful of those books were The Real War (1980) and Beyond Peace (1994). In The Real War, Nixon examined the geopolitical foundations of the Cold War and recommended policies that over the next eleven years led to the defeat and break-up of the Soviet Union. In Beyond Peace, he foresaw the U.S. pivot to Asia and the importance of the struggle within Islam to 21st century global politics.

When Nixon wrote The Real War, the Soviet Union was on the geopolitical offensive in the wake of America’s defeat in Indochina and the rise to power of President Jimmy Carter, who in his first major foreign policy address told Americans that they had an “inordinate fear of communism.” Soviet proxies gained power in Nicaragua, Grenada, Angola, Mozambique and South Yemen. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to prop up a tottering friendly regime. The United States lost a key ally in Iran as the Shah fell and was replaced by a fundamentalist Islamic regime that held hostage U.S. embassy staffers and promoted a global Islamic revolution. The strategic nuclear balance was shifting in the Soviet’s favor due to an emerging “first-strike” capability that threatened to undermine the U.S. strategy of extended deterrence.

Nixon called for a U.S. response to the Soviet challenge that would “integrate long-term and short-term measures,” and would encompass economic, military, diplomatic and political power. Echoing the great British geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder, Nixon viewed the Soviet Union as the world’s dominant land power “situated in the center of the Eurasian heartland,” and called the United States “an island country” that relied primarily on sea power to project its influence around the world. The Soviets could project power in all directions toward Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, while the United States needed to support allies in key regions abutting the Soviet heartland.

Echoing the American geopolitical theorist James Burnham, Nixon described the U.S.-Soviet conflict as “World War III” that began even before the end of World War II, and was the “first truly global war.” “No corner of the earth,” he wrote, “is beyond its reach. The United States and the Soviet Union have both become global powers, and whatever affects the balance between us anywhere affects that balance everywhere.” The conflict “is waged on all levels of life and society,” Nixon continued. “Military power, economic power, willpower, the strength of a nation’s galvanizing ideas and the clarity of its sense of purpose – each of these is vital to the outcome.”

The most insightful part of The Real War was Nixon’s policy recommendations that had a remarkable similarity to the policies pursued by the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations that resulted in the relatively peaceful break-up of the Soviet Empire.

First, Nixon recommended a significant build-up of U.S. nuclear and conventional forces and the need to maintain clear-cut naval superiority vis-à-vis the Soviets. Second, he emphasized that the U.S. should continue to nurture its strategic relationship with China as a counterweight to Soviet land power in Asia. Third, Nixon called for the reinvigoration of the “Nixon Doctrine” to provide military, economic and political assistant to allies situated in key areas of the globe. Fourth, he advocated providing U.S. assistance to governments under siege by Soviet proxies in the Third World, foreshadowing the Reagan Doctrine. Nixon urged policymakers to recognize the important differences between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, echoing the sentiments of Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. Fifth, he advocated waging a more aggressive propaganda war against the Soviets. Sixth, he advocated supporting liberation movements inside the Soviet sphere; or as he put it, “We should declare that henceforth we will consider ourselves as free to forage on the Soviet side as they have been to forage on ours.” Seventh, Nixon urged the U.S. and its allies to exploit Soviet economic and political vulnerabilities. Finally, he believed that the United States could achieve victory without war by combining all of the above with skillful diplomacy and negotiations – precisely what Reagan did in the final years of his presidency, and what President George H.W. Bush did in successfully managing the end of the Cold War.

Beyond Peace was Nixon’s last book, written in 1994 shortly before his death. It was forward looking in a world no longer dominated by the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. At the outset of the book he warned Americans that the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of conflict or the beginnings of permanent peace. The world, he reminded readers, “is not a blank canvas on which we can paint our vision.”

Russia, warned Nixon, “remains vulnerable to extreme nationalists and reactionaries intent on reversing free-market and democratic reforms” and maintains the capacity to once again become a threatening power, while “Asia is threatened with conflict based on competing interests and traditional rivalries.” The Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, he noted, remained rife with conflict based in part on religious and ethnic hatreds. Ruthless and aggressive dictators – he mentioned Saddam Hussein, Kim Il Sung, and Muammar Qaddafi – still posed threats to their neighboring countries.

More specifically, Nixon predicted that a Russia that reverted to authoritarianism would likely seek to extend its power and influence over Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe – precisely what has happened under Putin. He called for a reinvigorated NATO “as insurance against a renewed threat from the East in the event that extreme Russian nationalists come to power.”

“China,” Nixon wrote, “will become an economic and military superpower in the next century.” He anticipated that the inevitable rise of China would result in a “delicate balancing act” among Japan, Russia, China and the United States “that will determine the Pacific Rim’s future.” The U.S. must play a strong “balancing role” in Asia, he wrote, for to do otherwise could “trigger volcanic regional instability.” Clearly, Nixon, the president who forged the U.S. strategic relationship with China in the early 1970s, envisioned the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century.

Finally, in Beyond Peace, Nixon called upon U.S. leaders to take a sophisticated approach to the Muslim world. The U.S. he wrote, “must learn to view the Muslim world not as a unified, radical geopolitical force bent on confronting the West but rather as a diverse cultural and ethnic grouping bounded by a faith in Islam and a legacy of political turbulence.” The Muslim world, he noted, sits astride key areas of the globe such as the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Malacca. He expressed concern that “throughout the Muslim world . . . there are rapidly growing fundamentalist movements . . . whose first loyalty is to the extreme Muslim fundamentalist religion with its roots in Iran.” The major long-term threat in the Muslim world, wrote Nixon, is Iran. The U.S. must not only contain Iran’s influence, he continued, but also “be prepared to assist ethnic and religious factions in Iran that oppose the Tehran regime.”

We are in a “clash of civilizations” with a portion of the Muslim world, Nixon explained. Fundamentalist Islam, he continued, “is a strong faith. Its appeal is religious, not secular. It appeals to the soul, not the body. Secular Western values,” he further warned, “cannot compete with this faith.” Nixon believed, however, that if the peoples of the Islamic world “are able to chart their own destiny,” instead of submitting to the rule of fundamentalist regimes like Iran’s that seek to “turn back the clock to the twelfth century,” then Islamic extremism will not triumph.

In these two great geopolitical works, Richard Nixon charted a path to victory in the Cold War and foresaw the world that would emerge from the end of that conflict.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) andAmerica’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force QuarterlyAmerican Diplomacy, the University BookmanThe Claremont Review of BooksThe DiplomatStrategic Review, 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.