Throughout history, U.S. global primacy has been in danger when it has overextended itself politically, economically, and militarily, exhausting the American spirit, and eroding its influence abroad.
The solution to the international issues that have plagued the U.S. does not require the Wisdom of Solomon, but a pragmatic foreign policy.
Speaking during his 1968 Presidential campaign, Richard Nixon laid out his vision for foreign policy, using Vietnam as an example:
“[The war in Vietnam] requires a new strategy, which recognizes that this is a new and different kind of war. And it requires a fuller enlistment of our Vietnamese allies in their own defense.”
Forty four years ago today, during informal remarks to the press corps, President Nixon reinforced his foreign policy when responding to a question about the role of the US military in Asia.
“I believe that the time has come when the United States, in our relations with all of our Asian friends, be quite emphatic on two points: One, that we will keep our treaty commitments, our treaty commitments, for example, with Thailand under SEATO; but, two, that as far as the problems of internal security are concerned, as far as the problems of military defense, except for the threat of a major power involving nuclear weapons, that the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.”
This policy became popularly known as Vietnamization. However, President Nixon’s call for less direct military engagement should not be confused with advocating an isolationist policy. In fact, following the Nixon Doctrine would require a greater exchange between the U.S. and regional allies.
A country that bases its foreign policy on the brute strength of its military power will only realize limited success. Its expansion of power will inevitably be brief, because it cannot sustain itself without the cooperation of foreign countries. Alternatively, a country that engages with others through economic, diplomatic and political relationships will not only have multiple channels through which to achieve its goals, but these channels foster mutual cooperation and growth.
The United States and the Soviet Union epitomized these two dramatically different approaches to foreign policy; each using a different method for spreading and maintaining either capitalist and communist ideologies abroad. The U.S. built open economic partnerships with countries in Western Europe and elsewhere that were sustained and strengthened through trade. Conversely, the Soviet Union’s relationships were coercive, based on heavy handed military tactics, and imposed command economies on satellite countries. The result seems inevitable in hindsight; Soviet Union’s power collapsed, the U.S. emerged from the Cold War more powerful than before.
To say that the policies of the Cold War are no longer relevant in today’s international conflicts, misses the fundamental lesson the Cold War demonstrated: force is not a long term means to power or global influence.
In a world where conflicts are escalating in number and intensity, (there are currently 35 countries with State Department travel warnings) it would be impossible for the U.S. military to take a direct role in each. There is still the ability for countries to establish regional balances in the post-Cold War era, as President Nixon strived to create. As America faces its current challenges, and those to come, one hopes that the lessons of the Cold War are not forgotten, and that economic, political and diplomatic tools will play a greater role in molding our future, as they did under the pragmatic foreign policy of President Nixon.