Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of the Nixon Doctrine

Ambassador Richard A. Grenell

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Yorba Linda, California – July 16, 2019


Thank you all for coming.

Like many Americans, I was taught that the only thing worth knowing about Richard Nixon was Watergate. In school, we didn’t cover the upheaval he started in American foreign policy. We never learned, for example, that in less than two years, Nixon ended the Vietnam War, opened relations with China, laid the groundwork for Israel’s peace with Egypt, and weakened the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, not far from where I live today.

How Nixon achieved such stunning results in foreign policy is history worth teaching, because it resonates for us today.

Caught in the tragedy of Vietnam, Americans had split into two ideological camps: those who wanted America to renounce its global leadership, and those who wanted to expand the range of America’s military engagements.

It was left to Nixon to find what Henry Kissinger described as a third way between abdication and overextension. He decided that there was a sound principle that could guide the United States in the midst of the Cold War, while reconstructing the public support that was lost in Vietnam. That principle was the national interest.

What would have been common sense in most other societies, the national interest was a difficult concept for a people as idealistic as Americans. Americans had long been intoxicated by the belief that the arc of history bends towards justice. That regardless of national histories, traditions, and values, all societies eventually transform into democracies and market economies.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson, Americans had grown attached to the idea that the United States should make the entire world safe for democracy. For Wilson’s ideological descendants, the only question was whether the United States should administer the inevitable by actively intervening, or by simply getting out of the way.

But this type of missionary foreign policy makes two costly mistakes. The first is the assumption that all foreign societies must eventually reflect the American model. The second, and more dangerous mistake, is that American foreign policy does not necessarily need to match our political, military, or financial capabilities.

Nixon watched both mistakes lead the United States to defeat in Vietnam, and to a total rupture of social cohesion at home. In his first annual report on foreign policy, he broke with that tradition:

“Our objective, in the first instance,” he said, “is to support our interests over the long run with a sound foreign policy. The more that policy is based on a realistic assessment of our and others’ interests, the more effective our role in the world can be. We are not involved in the world because we have commitments; we have commitments because we are involved. Our interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.”

American politics had become a struggle between those who wanted to retreat from the world, and those who wished to expand our interventions in it. Nixon offered a third way, based on the national interest as the core motivation of U.S. foreign policy.

But Nixon failed to realize that America is, at its core, an idealistic society motivated by the promise of a better future. We believe that the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are endowed to all human beings, not just to the citizens of one particular country. A cold, some might say ruthless foreign policy, based only on the U.S. national interest, failed to establish an emotional connection with a people reared on hope.

Any lasting change in foreign policy must, like the American people, have a strong moral center. Without that, Nixon was unable to lead an enduring change in foreign policy thinking, and the catastrophe of Watergate ensured that even his achievements would be obscured by history.

Until a few years ago, it had been several decades since the United States had placed the national interest at the core of its foreign policy. In an attempt to replicate Reagan’s moral victories without possessing his strategic insight, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations learned too many wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War.

In fact, they made the same mistakes Americans had made a generation before.

They assumed that the increase in the number of democracies in the world was both inevitable and irreversible. And they believed that the new era of democratization eliminated the need for old concepts such as the national interest, geopolitical competition, and the balance of power.

As a result, we spent another generation making foreign policy on the basis of moral and political maxims, without really considering the U.S. national interest, or maintaining stability in the world’s most vital strategic theaters.

Thus we counted on illusive “transitions to democracy.” We conducted humanitarian interventions without regard for the inevitable humanitarian fallout. We signed resolutions and protocols we never had the ability to implement.

And we committed ourselves to war without a clear understanding of the threat we faced or the outcomes we could realistically achieve—an experience which, as U.S. Spokesman to the UN during the first five years of the Iraq War, eventually convinced me that a costly military engagement without a clear benefit to the American people carries profound social and political risks.

Today, we see the consequences of some of these mistakes.

With Russia, we see the costs of assuming that the fall of communism was a permanent moral triumph, rather than a temporary strategic victory that required constant tending.

With China, we see the drawbacks of believing that integration into the global order, and participation in international institutions like the World Trade Organization, makes all regimes responsible stakeholders.

With Iran, we are watching the consequences of treating nuclear proliferation and economic sanctions as if they could be separated from the spread of terror and the regional balance of power.

For decades, the Washington establishment made foreign policy without the national interest as its primary concern, and then apologized to the world—rather than the American people—when its policies failed. By 2016, the American people had grown tired of being told that the national interest was an immoral consideration.

Then came President Trump.

We hear a lot about nationalism and what that word does or does not mean. At times the word has been manipulated for personal gain and deployed as a political weapon. But nationalism, or the national interest, does have a specific application in foreign policy. Summed up by what I’ll call the Trump Doctrine, it actually represents the marriage of strategy and moral clarity that eluded Nixon.

Let me begin to explain that by offering a definition:

The Trump Doctrine puts the security and prosperity of the American people before everything else.

There are of course other important goals of our foreign policy—such as human rights and democratization—but none are pursued at the expense of our national defense and economic well-being. In other words, the President of the United States works for the American people.

That’s the Trump Doctrine. It’s that simple. It is the pursuit of the U.S. national interest without pretext or apology.

Now, as I said, this is not just a sound basis for foreign policy. It is also a moral foreign policy. Let me tell you a few reasons why.

The first is that it is a pure expression of representative government. It places, above all else, the interests of the sovereign and self-determining American people.

The second: It forces policy makers to be clear-eyed—to see the world as it is, not as they think it ought to be.

Moving the world toward greater freedom and liberty is and always will be an important goal for the American people. But the Trump Doctrine forces policy makers to align our objectives with our capabilities—to match our goals with what is truly attainable in the world in which we live.

If you wonder why that’s moral, ask yourself a question. How can America create more wealth and opportunity in the world: By trying to transform the internal structure of foreign societies? Or by trying to grow our economy at 4 percent?

The third reason: An honest admission of our national interests in fact makes our foreign policy more stable. A foreign policy based on the national interest, reasonably defined, is more durable, and more predictable, than one based on the passions and furies of the moment.

The fourth reason this is a moral foreign policy is that, as Secretary Pompeo said recently, “America First” does not mean that America succeeds “at the expense of others.” It means we succeed “to the benefit of our people, and by extension, the nations that share our values and our strategic goals.”

This is exactly right. By openly pursuing our interests, the United States can build consensus among other countries whose own interests reflect similar ideals and objectives. “America First” does not mean “America alone.” Indeed, America’s alliances are one of our greatest advantages in an era of renewed geopolitical competition with China and Russia.

That is the basis of our policy with regard to Europe. Because the United States and Europe share the values of security, peace, and free trade, we ask our European allies to share the burden of transatlantic security. We expect them to cut rather than grow their dependence on Russian gas. And we want them to renegotiate trade agreements to make our relationship more balanced and fairer.

Notice that we are not asking China or Russia to increase their defense capabilities. We are asking our friends. The United States wants Europe to become a political and military power because we are confident that our shared values will provide the fuel for that power.

As the largest economy and de facto leader of Europe, Germany will ultimately decide the strength of NATO, and thus of European security. It is for the sake of Europe’s security that we hold our German partners to their NATO obligations.

Likewise, when President Trump reviews America’s security arrangement with Japan or trade relationship with India, it is not because he questions the value of our partnership with those two great allies. On the contrary, it is because he wants to encourage our Indo-Pacific partners to become more confident and to play a more active global role in defending our shared values.

Whether they admit it or not, those in the establishment who criticize this approach advocate for keeping our allies subdued and passive. But President Trump does not believe that American or global security will benefit from keeping nations which share our interests in a position of perpetual dependency. It is only by having nimble and outward-looking allies that the United States can continue to play the role of global superpower effectively.

For those countries which do not share our values and goals, President Trump is not waiting around for the arc of history. He does not make regime change a precondition for negotiations. Instead, the President is determined to outcompete our adversaries, but he is also willing to cut deals where American and global security will benefit. He is incentivizing our adversaries to change their behavior, not mobilizing to replace them. You are watching this policy play out in real time with China, Iran, and North Korea.

The strength of the U.S. armed forces; the dynamism of our economy and financial system; the dollar’s unchallenged role as the world’s reserve currency; and the revolution in our energy production all combine to give the United States a new era of leverage in global affairs. This is what allows President Trump to pursue a “dual track” diplomatic approach: Using the stick of economic pressure, while offering the carrot of negotiations without preconditions.

This is also why President Trump has removed the limits imposed on American power by moralistic agreements and institutions which do not advance our interests. American power should first and foremost be used to bring our adversaries to the negotiating table—even as we maintain the most credible and formidable military deterrence on the planet.

In my view, this is the Trump Doctrine. And this is what—in the real world—a moral foreign policy looks like.

When our rhetoric surpasses our resources; when our policy exceeds our capabilities; when our expectations cloud our judgment; and when our desire to remake the world overtakes our duty to the American voter—that is when you get pointless and costly wars. That is when you send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way without a plan for what comes next. That is when you make disastrous trade deals and sign dangerous nuclear agreements. That is when you get massive inequality, and a divided society.

That is when you get an immoral foreign policy.

That may seem counter-intuitive to some of our friends in the elite. But I believe it is common sense to the American voter.

The national interest, or as the president says it best, “America First,” is simply the best means of ensuring the security and prosperity of the American people; cooperating with those who share our values; and outcompeting our adversaries.

It is the best way to retain public support, without which no foreign policy can survive for long.

And it is the only way public support can be legitimately called upon, when—as does happen in the course of our history—we are locked in a confrontation which we must use all of our power and strength to win.

The Trump administration’s ability to defeat ISIS—without a large use of boots on the ground, without triggering a conflict with Russia, and without causing a new wave of terror—is proof that this strategy works. And it salvaged the public support that our predecessors lost in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

Now, the critics of this strategy have called it everything from ‘nativist’ to ‘isolationist’ to ‘fascist.’ So I’d like to close with a few words about what the Trump Doctrine is not.

It is not based on any race or color or creed. It does not advance the interests of one group of Americans at the expense of any other. It has no bias with regard to red versus blue, or urban versus rural. It is not a doctrine based on class or status, nor does it aim to please the members of a professional elite or the Washington establishment.

On the contrary, the Trump Doctrine is the belief that our government must focus on the equality and dignity of every American—From Maine to Hawaii, Texas to Minnesota, Oregon to Puerto Rico—and that this obligation is fulfilled by promoting the security and prosperity of the American people, not by pretending to promote the interests of all humanity.

To me, this is “America First.” This is the Trump Doctrine. This is American exceptionalism for the 21st-century.

As ground-breaking as it is in our time, President Trump has drawn on a great tradition in American foreign policy.

Think of Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements, cautioning us not “to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties,” in the storms of foreign upheavals.

Think of Teddy Roosevelt’s caution that “it would be both foolish and an evil thing for a great and free nation to deprive itself of the power to protect its own rights.”

Or think of John Quincy Adams—the first American to hold the office I currently occupy—who said that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” but “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”

We would have done well to heed these words in years past. Luckily for all of us, now we are.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.