Courtesy Reuters

Between the Old Left and the New Right


By the summer of 1974, when Gerald R. Ford took over as president, Richard M. Nixon's foreign policy had become controversial. Liberals chastised him for inadequate attention to human rights. Conservatives depicted his administration as overeager for accommodation with the Soviet Union in the name of detente, which, in their view, compounded bad policy with French terminology.

Each of these criticisms owed something to the discomfort evoked by Nixon's ambiguous personality, but the overriding cause of the complaints was that his foreign policy raised two fundamental philosophical challenges. Nixon sought to extricate the United States from Vietnam on terms he defined as honorable at a time when most of the intellectual and much of the political community wanted to get out of Indochina essentially unconditionally.

Even more important was Nixon's effort to guide the transition of America's role in the world from hegemony to leadership. For much of the postwar period, the United States was preeminent because of its nuclear predominance and economic strength. By the time Nixon took office, our nuclear monopoly was dwindling, Europe was regaining vitality, Asia was entering the international arena, and Africa was being swept by independence movements. Dominance reflects power; leadership requires building consensus. But the attempts, inseparable from consensus-building, to balance rewards and penalties ran counter to the prevailing philosophy of Wilsonianism, which tried to bring about a global moral order through the direct application of America's political values undiluted by compromises with "realism."

Over two decades later, as these lines are being written, many of the themes of the debates of the 1970s have reappeared in the contemporary argument over America's role in the post-Cold War world.


A nation's foreign policy inevitably reflects an amalgam of the convictions of its leaders and the pressures of its environment. To understand the Nixon administration's approach to East-West relations -- and the controversy that bedeviled Ford -- it is necessary to describe the situation that Nixon inherited.

Richard Nixon took

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