The current on-going review of the history of APPEASEMENT during the 1930s and the lessons, if any, that can be applied to current geopolitics, has reminded some of the Nixonian philosophy of DÉTENTE. And there may appear to be a surface similarity.
The argument goes something like this: “Well, Nixon sat down with Chairmen Brezhnev and Mao, is that so different from Barack Obama wanting to break bread with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?”
Actually, it’s very different. There’s very little, if any, real comparison between the neophyte dreams of an inexperienced political celebrity and the well thought out and executed policies of our nation’s thirty-seventh chief executive.
One cannot imagine Richard Nixon sitting down with a volatile, mercurial, and visibly unstable foreign counterpart early on in his administration. Nor is it easy to envision Mr. Nixon promising to do so during a campaign. His penchant for appropriate secrecy and his practiced unwillingness to telegraph punches before they needed to be thrown would have inhibited him from that kind of political pandering.
He never said that he had a “secret plan” to end the War in Vietnam, nor can anyone remember him talking about the possibilities of having a steaming bowl of pho with Ho Chi Minh.
Also, his détente-driven overtures to the Soviets and Chinese were part of a STRATEGIC worldview, not mere tactics designed to impress American voters or assuage crazy warlords. In fact, Mr. Nixon risked his conservative political base with the China initiative – and could only pull it off BECAUSE of his bona fides as a Cold Warrior and anti-communist (“only Nixon could go to China”).
Years after leaving office, while writing a book about leaders (my personal favorite of all his writings), he reviewed the concept of DÉTENTE in light of the failed policies of Jimmy Carter and the increasingly successful ones of Ronald Reagan. “LEADERS: Profiles and Reminiscences of Men Who Have Shaped the Modern World” was written in 1982.
Here’s what he said. This applies, I think, to the argument that APPEASEMENT and DÉTENTE are essentially the same. They are not:
“…to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings with the Soviets is dangerously naïve. President Carter, with the best of intentions, tried unilateral restraint in the hopes that the Soviets would follow suit. The result was disastrous. As he cut back on American arms programs, the Soviets stepped up theirs. Consequently, President Reagan has had to institute an arms buildup to restore the nuclear balance of power.
There are two kinds of détente: hard-headed and soft-headed. Hard-headed détente is based on effective deterrence. This kind of détente encourages the Soviets to negotiate, because it makes the cost of Soviet aggression too high. Soft-headed détente, by contrast, discourages negotiation, because it makes the cost of Soviet expansion so low that the Soviets find the rewards of aggression too tempting.
Hard-headed détente, backed by the force to make deterrence credible, preserves peace. Soft-headed détente invites either war or surrender without war. We need detente, but it must be the right kind of détente.”