Moscow Summit May 1972
The Ukrainian Crisis has evoked strong responses from across the American political spectrum. There are cries for President Obama to take unilateral action and impose sanctions against Putin while others urge the President to avoid overreacting to the international crisis.
Amidst this clamor of advice, President Obama should turn to the career of Richard Nixon. The first U.S. President to set foot in the Kremlin and negotiate substantial arms control agreements with the Soviet Union while delicately maintaining a global balance of power structure, President Nixon deftly engaged a generation of Russian leaders ranging from Nikita Khrushchev to Boris Yeltsin.
If President Nixon were in the arena, he would undoubtedly urge President Obama to seek a diplomatic solution appealing to the strategic interests of Russia, the Ukraine, and the United States.
First, President Nixon would have urged President Obama to take the initiative and convince the U.S. public of the necessity of recognizing our own limits as a strategic interest.
As President Nixon reminded President George H.W. Bush in 1992 on providing aid to Russia, “the mark of great leadership is not simply to support what is popular but to make what is unpopular popular if it serves the national interest.”
In the shadow of two divisive wars and a global economic calamity, President Obama needs to utilize the power of the presidency to convey to the public the benefits and gains of establishing a diplomatic solution vis-à-vis the Ukraine and Russia.
To a great degree, President Nixon accomplished this task by convincing the public to support the American engagement of unpopular leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Tse-Tung during the Cold War.
As President Nixon accomplished with Brezhnev and Mao, President Obama’s engagement of Putin does not signify an approval or endorsement of Russia’s policy. President Nixon emphasized to Mao during his 1972 trip to China:
Mr. Chairman, I am aware of the fact that over a period of years my position with regard to the People’s Republic was one that the Chairman and Prime Minister totally disagreed with. What brings us together is a recognition of a new situation in the world and a recognition on our part that what is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us. That is why—this point I think can be said to be honest—we have differences. The Prime Minister and Dr. Kissinger discussed these differences. It also should be said—looking at the two great powers, the United States and China—we know China doesn’t threaten the territory of the United States; I think you know the United States has no territorial designs on China. We know China doesn’t want to dominate the United States. We believe you too realize the United States doesn’t want to dominate the world. Also—maybe you don’t believe this, but I do—neither China nor the United States, both great nations, want to dominate the world. Because our attitudes are the same on these two issues, we don’t threaten each others’ territories. Therefore, we can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads. That cannot be said about some other nations in the world.
Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, President Obama also recognized the significance of President Nixon’s diplomatic overtures and necessity of engaging countries that have deep differences with the United States:
The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door. In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.
During the early post-Cold War years of U.S.-Russia relations, President Nixon recognized the need to dispense of American cultural and political assumptions equating the Russian people with Soviet communism.
In 1994, as the first American to address the Russian Federation Duma, President Nixon described “profoundly disturbing developments” in U.S.-Russian relations and warned, “If you follow our media you will find as a result of the exaggerated reaction to the (Aldrich) Ames spy scandal, there has been a resurrection of some anti-Russian attitudes carrying over from the Cold War.”
In op-eds and speeches throughout the early 1990s, President Nixon continued to condemn the resurrection of Cold War assumptions toward Russia and urged the American public to “stop treating Russians as a defeated enemy.” Today, President Obama inherits the task of convincing the American public to stop comparing Post-Cold War Russia to the Soviet Union.
Secondly, President Nixon would impel President Obama to impress upon Putin the strategic benefits of resorting to a diplomatic solution with the Ukraine. A long drawn out conflict or attempt to subjugate the Ukraine would create great strains on Russia and damage its standing in world opinion.
Confronted by perpetual border disputes with Georgia and Estonia, the impact of international condemnation, and possible economic sanctions, a military occupation or attempt to transform the Ukraine into a satellite state would imperil the geopolitical integrity of Russia and, indeed, destabilize the entire region.
While in office, President Nixon faced paramount domestic and international crises but reacted in a manner that maintained American prestige.
In 1973 as Egypt and Syria invaded Israel with Soviet aid, President Nixon supplied essential material support to Israel and through intense negotiations deterred the Soviet Union from directly intervening in the war. While President Nixon did not support the Soviet role in the conflict, he still engaged the Soviet Union and laid the framework for the Carter administration’s Camp David Accords in 1977.
In this telephone transcript, President Nixon—despite suffering from the domestic turmoil of Watergate— advised Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to provide essential aide to Israel and engage Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin:
Nixon: Exactly. I think we should say—I think a personal message now should go. I mean you have been sending messages, but one should go from me to Brezhnev saying….
Kissinger: Everything I am sending too goes in your name.
Nixon: Good. But I think he should know now look here. The peace of not only this area but the whole future relationship is at stake here and we are prepared to stop if you are and we are prepared—you know what I mean. I don’t know—have you got anything developed along those lines so that we just don’t have . . .
Kissinger: I have—I am developing it now and I think I could call Dobrynin and point it out to him.
Nixon: Right, right. Put it in a very conciliatory but very tough way that I do this with great regret because—great reluctance but that we cannot have a situation that has now developed and we are prepared to tit for tat. The situation which regard to nothing on the battle so far.
The following document shows Kissinger relaying the message to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin:
Kissinger: And he wanted me for the benefit of your leadership to know two things—to tell you two things. One, we are now engaged in an airlift as you know of equipment to Israel.
Dobrynin: Is it heavy equipment or consumables?
Kissinger: It is mostly at this point consumables and we are keeping some restraints at the moment on heavy equipment. Considerable restraints on heavy equipment and a little but very little. We are prepared to stop the airlift immediately after a cease-fire if you are prepared to stop your airlift. But if not we can first of all increase it considerably and include heavy equipment. I mean we are not going at our maximum capacity or anywhere near.
Dobrynin: No, I understand. It is not that you will continue intermittently.
Kissinger: Well, if it goes on we will be forced into it sooner or later. As you know, we are already as you know under massive pressure on the Phantoms. We are sending a few but not like anything that we are asked to do.
Dobrynin: Yes, I understand. Yes.
Kissinger: You know those were the major items he wanted me to . . .
Dobrynin: At the beginning you said you begin an airlift, yes?
Kissinger: Beginning—it is in process. It is beginning now. Yes.
Dobrynin: Well, that is a matter of information.
Kissinger: Well, it is a matter of information proposal. If you are prepared to stop your airlift after a cease-fire, we are prepared to stop ours immediately.
Dobrynin: Alright, but it is connected with the cease-fire you mentioned, yes.
Kissinger: In connection with the cease-fire, yes.
Dobrynin: O.K. I’ll pass it on right away.
Kissinger: You know, Anatoly, we all know now what is at stake because if this goes on much longer…
Finally, President Obama must convince Ukrainian leadership of the benefits of working out an internal solution to their disputes.
While this will not be an easy task, President Obama should emphasize Russia’s and the Ukraine’s interdependence on one another for the past twenty-three years. Russia and the Ukraine have been one another’s most profitable trading partners and contribute to one another’s economic and political stability.
The argument as to whether the Ukraine is a Western European or Eastern European ally is irrelevant and only serves to resurrect the ghosts of the Cold War. Ultimately, President Obama must make a greater effort to instill in the Ukrainian people and leadership class a determination to establish their independence of NATO and Russia.
In his final book, President Nixon wisely advised “finding ways to be pro-Ukrainian that do not appear to be anti-Russian and by stressing that our policy is based on the manifestly correct view that our interests and those of Moscow and Kiev will benefit from both nations being strong, open, and free.“