A Tale of Two Cynics: Nixon and Obama

By Frank Gregorsky Published on March 31, 2015

President Richard Nixon’s historic gamble with Mainland China turned out well. When he was elected in 1968, it was an out-of-control society and regime, subverting its neighbors and condemning the United States. Today we have a similar regional foe — Iran. Will President Obama be in Tehran a year from now, celebrating the start of a similar moderation by the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism? Or will he have rewritten yet another campaign pledge ushering in an Islamist nuclear power with apocalyptic ambitions?

The Nixon/Obama parallels are instructive. Richard Nixon was, and Barack Obama is, a loner with many admirers and few friends. Both preferred to speak to the electorate in heavily scripted settings. Both were lawyers. Both were also charged — nearly every week — with violating the Constitution. Both tolerated substantial cuts in U.S. military spending while inflating social-welfare and environmental obligations.

And both did whatever they had to do to appeal to a consistent enemy of the United States and its key allies.

 One-Man Leadership Assaults the Conventional Wisdom

In October 1967, Communist (or Mainland) China was offered a deal by private-citizen Richard Nixon. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he called for “a policy of firm restraint [and] creative counter-pressure designed to persuade Peking that its interests can be served only by accepting the basic rules of international civility.” Longer run, that meant “pulling China back into the world community — but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution.”

In 2008, presidential candidate Obama pledged to meet with Iran’s theocrats and cited no preconditions. Although not “carrot and stick” like Nixon’s, it was also a big gamble.

In 1969 — President Nixon’s first year — the Soviet Union proposed that the U.S. and U.S.S.R conspire to eliminate Mainland China’s nuclear forces. Nixon said back to the Kremlin: Don’t even think about it. In 2009 — President Obama’s first year — a fraudulent presidential election kept Iran’s extreme Islamists in power. Thousands took to the streets. Obama gave them zero support.

Forty years apart, Nixon and later Obama sent early and strong signals: “Count on the new guy to head off anything that will rock your boat….”

By 1972, Nixon was breaking bread with mass-murderer Mao Tse-Tung. The joint communiqué said “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” Rather than seek repeal of the 1955 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan — then as now the “Republic of China” — Nixon pretended it did not exist. Traditional Republicans faced shell-shock.

To woo Mainland China, Nixon ignored Congress and blindsided our allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and of course Taiwan. Since 2009, to reassure Iran, Obama has alienated not just Israel but also Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the U.A.E.

Now, what about the differences? I only have space for two:

(1) When President Nixon secretly tasked NSC Director Henry Kissinger to set up his first China trip, those ’72 discussions were going to be about everything except China’s nuclear facilities. (Nixon adhered to what he wrote in that historic ’67 essay in Foreign Affairs.)

With Iran today, the U.S. objective is only about whether and if so how that outlaw state can acquire nuclear weapons. Everything else — sponsorship of terrorism, hatred of Israel, regional imperialism — is apparently off the table.

Nixon and Kissinger had the better method. They could expect to be in power for four more years to nail down the new global framework, not just with the Chinese dictatorship but also the Soviet Union on arms-control. Legitimacy plus blunt deal-making might make these two Communist superpowers behave. America facilitated cut-rate grain shipments and technology transfers to help the Soviet economy.

(2) The other huge difference: time. We know what happened with U.S.- China relations. Taiwan is still independent. The other surprise: After the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979, this communist state, now led by Deng Xiaoping, went all in for a strange mix of corporatism and capitalism. Eventually they would become major investors in U.S. Government bonds.

 Devious Loners with Little Faith in Freedom’s Advance

Amazing, don’t you think? Each of these lone-wolf Presidents turned U.S. foreign policy inside out and had little use for the State Department or for Congress.

But their fundamental defect goes far beyond a shared method of operating. Nixon in power was a “Declinist.” Obama has been a Declinist since his twenties. Neither articulated faith in freedom. Both displayed pride in being cold-blooded Pragmatists and Realists — a mindset that can lead to some spectacular surrealisms.

For Nixon, it was a “Generation of Peace,” his ’72 re-election slogan. Some peace. Some generation. Starting with the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, the Soviets exploited every advantage.

Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was no Declinist. He wisely avoided hiring the balance-of-power cynic Henry Kissinger. Asked for his Cold War policy, he said: “We win, they lose.” In current dollars, the defense budget nearly doubled from 1981 to ’86. A decade later, Reagan had the last laugh. With the Soviet Union no longer around to play ATM machine and arms merchant, several of the world’s cauldrons, including South Africa, Southeast Asia and Northern Ireland, stopped their bubbling.

Unlike Reagan a decade later, President Nixon was focused on shrewd coping rather than transcending. He bought time for troop withdrawals, rather than making investments in freedom. He assumed Big Communism was here to stay. He couldn’t see past his own realism. But — unlike President Obama — Nixon never went on an apology tour. Nor did he even hint that America somehow deserved the domestic and global grief it was experiencing in the late 1960s.

If what Nixon in ’67 called “creative counter-pressure” is in order for Iran today, the U.S. wouldn’t spurn that country’s chief foes. President Obama disdains Israel, has undone a 40-year alliance with Egypt, and had to be forced — by a Senate vote of 99 to zero — to put economic sanctions on Iran.

Obama operates like Nixon did, but the current President’s Declinism is enriched with Determinism: America is a mistake-prone superpower that not only deserves a demotion but should get ready for a big one in the Middle East. As with Nixon, so with Obama: another big U.S. bet is playing out, driven by one man. But Richard Nixon, unlike Obama, at least knew not to make weakness the essence of this country’s negotiating posture. 


Frank Gregorsky covers U.S. economic and governmental history in his capacity as a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute.

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