Thirty years ago on Aug. 9, Richard M. Nixon resigned as president. The moment stands as a constitutional triumph, lamented by almost nobody. Yet one facet of Nixon's tenure continues to prompt a twinge of admiration, even a sigh of nostalgia: his foreign policy.
Its architect was Henry Kissinger, the Harvard professor turned national security adviser. Kissinger had studied the 19th-century diplomacy of Metternich and Bismarck, and famously sought to emulate their principles of realpolitik the hard-boiled pursuit of state interests and a "balance of power," coupled with a deliberate disdain for moral crusades.
There was something bracing about watching him in action. Whether or not you liked what he was doing, he most of the time knew how to play the game. Amid today's muddle, this appeal is magnified. Many epithets could be hurled at the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, but "incompetent" isn't one of them.
So is it time for a round of revisionism? Should we be scouring their playbook for guidance on how to deal with the world today? Yes and no. If the Kissinger of the 1970s had been magically transported to the White House these past three years, George W. Bush might have handled his own crises quite differently. Kissinger would not have refused to negotiate over North Korea's nuclear weapons as Bush has just because it is ruled by a loathsome dictator. He would not have disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as Bush did in his first months of office.
Would the Kissinger of the '70s have favored invading Iraq? It's unclear. He would have voiced concerns about a war's impact on regional stability. The horrors of Saddam Hussein's tyranny would not have much bothered him, much less stirred him to battle. Certainly, he would have ridiculed the neoconservative notion that toppling Saddam would unleash some inherent impulse for Western-style democracy. In his 1994 book, "Diplomacy," Kissinger derided, as a touching but naive American fantasy, this "image of a universal man living by universal maxims, regardless of the past, of geography, or of other immutable circumstances."
It is, in any case, inconceivable that he would have blown off traditional allies, much less boasted of the rift, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did by touting the "new Europe" of Bulgaria and Poland over the "old Europe" of Germany and France. Alliances play a central role in any vision of balance-of-power politics, and in Kissinger's, alliances with France and West Germany were indispensable.
In "Diplomacy," he foretold that alliances would grow more important with America's emergence as the sole superpower after the Soviet collapse. During the Cold War, a common threat cemented Western alliances. Now nations pursue their own interests and confront their own perception of threats. The United States is the largest military power, but it's not powerful enough to impose its will unilaterally. Security can thus best be ensured, he wrote, by "establishing close relations with as many parties as possible, by building overlapping alliance systems, and by using the resulting influence to moderate the claims of contenders."
This is the Nixon-Kissinger lesson worth learning: National security depends on shrewd, active diplomacy. Beyond that, their legacy has its limits. Their brand of realpolitik assumes nation-states are the basic units of power. It offers no special insight on dealing with stateless powers, like al-Qaida, that are driven less by tangible interests (which might be negotiable or self-constraining) than by a millenarian ideology. Nor does it provide a framework for planning, fighting or assessing this new type of conflict, which must in part be a war of ideas.
Even in its heyday, the Nixon-Kissinger approach tended to ignore, or shortchange, small nations as well as small entities within big nations: repressed ethnic groups, minority parties or people in general. The cold calculations that inspired Kissinger's triumphs detente with the Soviet Union, opening relations with China, "shuttle diplomacy" in the Middle East also sired the secret bombing of Cambodia, covert support of the military coup in Chile, and the green-lighting of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor.
If the world is viewed as a delicately balanced scale, human happiness or an upstart's claim to self-determination takes a back seat to maintaining equilibrium. (Kissinger's disdain for small powers also led him to underestimate his North Vietnamese counterparts at the Paris peace talks.) By the mid-1970s, Kissinger like Nixon before him had lost favor across the spectrum of American politics. The left loathed him for Cambodia and Chile. The right loathed him for coddling communists in Russia at the expense of human rights.
The tensions drove a wedge into the Republican Party, splitting conservatives, who cherished stability, from neoconservatives (as they were later tagged), who called for rolling back communism and actively spreading Western ways. The neocons won in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and after a pause in the 1990s reascended into the administration of George W. Bush. This revolt did yield some payoffs. Had a Nixon-Kissinger acolyte been president in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev started to push reform in the Kremlin, the Soviet tilt toward the West might not have been taken seriously, and a chance to end the Cold War peacefully could have been missed.
A balance-of-power statesman would not have expected or really wanted a Soviet collapse. To a statesman of this school, the biggest nightmare is cataclysmic change. This may be why the elder George Bush seemed so oddly ambivalent when the Soviet Union imploded; his first instinct would have been to worry in retrospect, properly about the ensuing disorder.
Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate.