It happened today - July 15, 2015

Nixon in ChinaOn this day in July 1971, Richard Nixon stunned everyone by announcing that he would visit Communist China, which he duly did in 1972. It gave rise to the cliché that “Only Nixon could go to China” and not much else, at least in the popular mind.

It was not true that only Nixon could go to China. Trudeau could, and did. It just didn’t matter. Trudeau actually went after Nixon, in 1973, but he recognized the regime in Beijing in 1970, nine years before Jimmy Carter did it. Which some tritely put forward as proof of our superior enlightenment.

It is nothing of the sort. Nor was Nixon’s trip to China the sort of cynical, or pragmatic, about-face some commentators believe, given Nixon’s “red-baiting” past. Even his red-baiting past is not quite what it seems; Nixon was alert to Communist penetration of the American government in the 1940s, most notably in the Alger Hiss case. But since Hiss was guilty it’s not exactly red-baiting to expose him. (People who object to Communist “witch hunts” overlook that the reason we disapprove of witch hunts is that classic evil child-eating fairy tale witches who’ve sold their souls to the devil in return for occult powers to harm the rest of us don’t exist. If they did, I think we’d be alert to them). The main point about the trip to China, however, is that it reflected Nixon’s geopolitical sophistication, something Trudeau could only fake by wearing trendy 1970s clothes that now look preposterous.

Nixon was actually a deep thinker on foreign policy, systematic and profound as well as informed on details. And he believed that nations were basically “black boxes” in geopolitical terms, driven by internal processes and desires we could neither change nor fully understand but that didn’t really matter because, in their conduct of external affairs, they all pursued “interests” that were the same for everyone regardless of their ultimate goals. They were playing geopolitical chess and everyone agreed on how the pieces moved, which were more powerful and what constituted checkmate.

Thus, for instance, Nixon believed that whoever ruled the land mass called “Russia” would very much want to control access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. It wouldn’t matter whether they were reactionary Tsars, wild-eyed Bolsheviks or liberal reformers. Power was to him a universal language.

For that reason, his read on Mao and his allies wasn’t that they were nice or reasonable men. He regarded their ultimate goals as abhorrent. But he regarded their situation as awkward because they were threatened by the Soviet Union and had no real friends. And therefore he assumed that they could see as well as he could the advantages of a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing to discomfit Moscow. As indeed they could.

Now Nixon was not totally consistent in this view. Like many practitioners of Realpolitik he felt that democracies often misunderstood the arithmetic of power and played geopolitics with exceptional clumsiness. And if that’s true, then it cannot also be true that all nations, or their governments, see the world in the same terms instrumentally. And it’s also true that Ronald Reagan, by grasping that morality matters in geopolitics, added a dimension Nixon lacked. But Nixon certainly got better results with this theory than either the rigid anti-Communists or the amorphously pacifist liberals who sharply criticized his methods while praising his results, and held off expansive Communism when it was a lot fresher and more dangerous, making Reagan’s job of finishing it off much easier.

That Nixon’s geopolitical thought gets less attention than it should, and less respectful attention, is partly his own fault, both for his domestic sins and crimes and for his frequently petty and vindictive personality. But he really was onto something that Trudeau was not with his sophisticated vision of how what he liked to call the “real world” worked.

That “Only Nixon could go to China” does not simply mean it’s easier to advocate a certain policy if you’ve long advocated a different one. Nor would it be useful if it did. Under other circumstances we call that sort of behaviour flip-flopping and deplore it. It can mean a reformed sinner is most credible on doing the right thing (as for instance Bob Rae on overspending, though he could usefully be less sanctimonious). But in this case it means only someone who understands power can be agile, clever and effective in defence of the national interest.

For all his faults, Nixon is a shining example that way.