Seize the Moment, by Richard Nixon
Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World.
by Richard Nixon.
Simon & Schuster. 352 pp. $25.00.
Richard Nixon’s ninth book continues and extends a unique public career. Aside from Theodore Roosevelt, no other former President in this century has written regularly on the major events of the day after leaving office. Most—including Eisenhower, Truman, and johnson—have maintained something close to silence on public-policy issues, emerging only to bless their party’s candidates. Jimmy Carter has been active but not reflective. And unlike even Teddy Roosevelt, who after completing his autobiography confined himself to newspaper articles, Nixon has written book after book that takes the longer view.
In Seize the Moment, Nixon tackles the end of the cold war, that period with which as a politician he is perhaps most closely identified and whose passing has presented him with an irresistible opportunity to explain what American foreign policy should now be. The book is divided into sections on the former USSR, Western Europe, the Pacific, the Southern Hemisphere, and the Islamic world, tied together by opening and closing chapters on the United States.
On the Soviets, Nixon displays great clarity of vision. Seize the Moment was written last year, before the fight between Yeltsin and Gorbachev was over and before the entire country had collapsed. Nixon unmistakably saw both these events coming, and, more to the point, welcomed them both as conducive to American interests. While his final judgment on Gorbachev is overly generous (“one of the great leaders of the 20th century”), he understands fully that the Soviet leader was irredeemably wed to Communism and thus unable to carry the reform process forward. Criticizing the “many Western diplomats and leaders . . . obsessed with supporting Gorbachev,” Nixon argues that “a helping hand to Gorbachev would have hurt the cause of democracy.” The American “experts” who shunned Yeltsin as a boor he dismisses as “political amateurs”; an old political pro, he comments that “Gorbachev dazzles a crowd, Yeltsin moves a crowd.”
The “stability” that was sought here by the Bush administration, Nixon writes, was at odds with our proper goal, namely, democracy. This required the “defeat of Moscow’s imperial rule.” Under Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he reminds us, the United States supported nationalist movements and helped force the demise of the French and British empires: “it makes no sense,” he observes, “to have pressed for the dismantling of the British and French empires, which were based on the values of European civilization, and yet to have attempted to prop up the Soviet empire, which was based on the ideology of Communism.” He is critical of the State Department for missing this point and for picking the wrong horse in the Yeltsin-Gorbachev race, although—perhaps out of vestigial party loyalty—he never manages an unkind word for the authors of the American policy, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker.
With regard to Western Europe, Nixon emerges as a member in good standing of the postwar foreign-policy establishment. American economic and security interests in Europe and in adjacent areas like the Middle East are simply too large to trust to fate, or to the Europeans—even with their new confederal arrangements. “Europe needs a security structure,” he writes, making a persuasive case that increased economic cooperation alone will not produce it. “In foreign policy, a single point of executive authority is indispensable for decisive action.” That lesson, learned by Nixon the hard way in his own battles with the U.S. Congress, is applicable as well to Europe’s new multilateral institutions.
For this reason Nixon wants to reform and strengthen NATO, and believes that a U.S. military presence in Europe is a central guarantor of post-Soviet stability. He would like to see the East European democracies integrated into NATO over the coming years, and he envisions a large “out of area” role for NATO covering the Persian Gulf and other trouble spots. On the latter point, his thinking is tactical as well as strategic: the American people backed expenditures for NATO and European security because of the Soviet threat; unless they see some other justification now that that threat is gone, their support for NATO will quickly fade.
Nixon writes as convincingly about the Pacific, a region he knows very well. Despite amazing economic progress, which he describes in detail, the region is threatened by political and military instability. Unlike many American observers who view the area as a relatively calm environment, Nixon is aware of the disputes which could re-emerge and turn violent—particularly if the American presence is diminished. Given the lack of any formal organization like NATO, only American power, he argues, can successfully reassure most Asian countries that aggression against them is unlikely and that disputes will be resolved peacefully.
While offering no striking insights into Japan, Nixon has interesting things to say about China. Since the Shanghai Communiqué and the opening to China in 1972, he has been regarded as a sympathetic figure in Beijing, and has sometimes been accused here of being “soft” on the regime. Seize the Moment puts such apprehensions to rest. His goal is clear: “to keep the process of reform alive until the current hard-line leadership passes from the scene.” The “moment of truth” will come, Nixon believes, when Deng Xiaoping dies, and a power struggle ensues between the orthodox Communist-party leaders now in their sixties and a younger and less ideological generation.
Where he surprises is in his suggestions for the interim. Taking a much tougher line than the Bush administration, he argues that while isolating China would be a mistake, human rights must be central to Sino-American relations. Nixon thinks we can foster peaceful political change in China through, for example, large cultural and educational exchange programs. He would put pressure on the regime by establishing a Radio Free China that would report not only the international news but especially on China’s internal situation. Even more strikingly he calls for a Radio Free Tibet, a move he knows would infuriate the Chinese regime. Nixon also favors improving American relations with Taiwan, and enhancing that country’s international standing. All in all, his views on China deserve careful attention—in Beijing and in Washington.
Throughout Seize the Moment Nixon expresses scorn for the liberal media, the State Department, and the academic foreign-policy “experts.” It is therefore disappointing to find that he adopts precisely their view of the Arab-Israeli conflict—and all the more disappointing since his section on the Muslim world begins with a promise of originality. Thus, Nixon reminds us that the world of Islam is extremely large in geographical extent and population and very diverse, and he cautions against the error of confusing “Muslim” and “Arab.” He finds only two threads linking the entire Muslim community, political turbulence and Islam itself. In the Muslim world, “demographic, economic, and political trends make conflict increasingly inevitable”; our fears about the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction are, he notes, rightly centered on Islamic countries.
Nixon’s strategy for dealing with all this is sensible: build special relationships with the most modern and moderate Islamic countries, so that they may become “poles of attraction” in the Muslim world. The four countries he selects are Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan; over a generation, he believes, their success could have a profound effect on political evolution elsewhere.
But then he founders. “The Arab-Israeli conflict,” he writes, “poisons our relations with the Muslim world, and undercuts our ability to cooperate with countries with modernist, pro-Western leaders. . . . [It] polarizes and radicalizes the Muslim world.” This is a bizarre conclusion for someone who has just urged us to focus on Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Only one of those four countries is Arab; we do already cooperate closely with the leaders of all of them; and in none of them or in any other Muslim country, as Nixon himself admits, does the Arab-Israeli dispute lie at the root of domestic violence and political turbulence.
Nevertheless, he portrays that dispute as the “central obstacle” to a proper U.S. policy in the Middle East, the goal of which is to “ensure the survival of Israel and work with moderate Arab states to enhance the security of the Persian Gulf.” Yet when real threats to the security of the Gulf have arisen, as from Iran or Iraq, the dispute with Israel has hardly prevented any Arab state from cooperating with the U.S. Did Iraq turn down American help against Iran in the 1980′s? Did the Saudis or the other Gulf states in 1989 and 1990, when they were threatened by Iraq? So obvious is it that the strife between Israel and the Arabs neither produces nor much complicates the real threats to Gulf security that one is left wondering what Nixon can be talking about.
In his opening and closing chapters, Nixon offers an overview of the current international situation, and suggests how the United States should deal with it. In general he dismisses the “end-of-history” school, arguing that it overstates the triumph of liberal democracy. Instead, he believes that international conflict will continue to be a fact of life: “in a world of competing states, clashing interests and national conflicts are inevitable.” Military strength will thus in his view remain a significant measure of national power. In the face of these realities, he rejects any form of American isolationism, urging activism and world leadership.
To what end? Now that Communism is dead, we must, Nixon writes, redefine the “American global mission.” The goal of U.S. policy must now be the expansion of freedom; we have “a moral imperative to use our awesome capabilities as the world’s only superpower to promote freedom and justice.” He dedicates Seize the Moment “to the democrats.”
There is an obvious tension here, between Nixon’s vaunted realism and this frankly idealistic goal. But he insists he has not jumped from Realpolitik to the camp of the “idealistic internationalists.” Scoffing at John F. Kennedy’s pronouncement that America would “bear any burden, fight any foe,” Nixon notes that “Americans usually respond to the lifting rhetoric of ideological crusaders, but just as often balk at staying the course when the crusade hits tough going.” This has been a key worry throughout his career, and he tries to explain here that he has always sought a difficult balance between engagement and overcommitment.
As he tells it, the Nixon Doctrine, establishing proxies of American power around the world, was no blueprint for deserting American commitments, but “actually outlined the only sound basis for a sustained U.S. engagement in the third world as a whole and the Persian Gulf in particular.” His views have remained unchanged since the doctrine was formulated in 1971. What has changed is world politics. When nuclear war was the risk, and the challenge of Communism was before us, security problems left little room for elevating issues of human rights. Now, however, we are freer to underscore the moral element in American foreign policy.
It is an interesting calculation: there is a limited American tolerance for engagement abroad, and in Nixon’s days as President our security concerns pushed that tolerance to the limit. While not offered as such, this is Nixon’s response to critics who attacked his foreign policy as insensitive to human rights at best and amoral at worst. It is certainly the best answer he has given.
With the debate on realism and idealism in U.S. foreign policy heating up, Nixon’s move in the direction of the idealist camp (“practical idealism” is his preferred term) is an event worth noting. A clearer statement from him on this issue would thus be very welcome. Was his policy as President fashioned with a view more to Americans’ resistance to foreign commitments than to anything inherent in the cold-war struggle against Soviet Communism itself? Does he believe that realism itself now requires an enhancement of the moral element in foreign policy? Perhaps there is a tenth book taking form on his famous yellow pads that will answer these questions.