Could Trump Try a Reverse Nixon Strategy With Russia and China?

Chinese leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands / Wikimedia Commons

Politicians and reporters in the United States have been clamoring since the 2016 election about President Trump warming bilateral relations with Russia. Some experts have embraced this possibility, suggesting that Trump improve U.S. relations with Moscow to counter a rising and increasingly assertive China.

But while driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing sounds appealing in theory, it will likely fail in practice. Furthermore, the historical basis for this diplomatic move–former President Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China in 1972–was largely a failure.

Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, thawed bilateral relations with Beijing to counter the Soviet Union by cutting the tenuous thread that linked the world's largest communist states.

The effort was about more than Moscow. Nixon wrote in 1967 that China had to be opened to the world, arguing the Asian power would pose a grave danger if left to remain in "angry isolation." Perhaps most urgently, Nixon and Kissinger thought improving ties with China was necessary to engineer a face-saving American exit from the Vietnam War.

Forty-five years later, analysts are debating if Trump will try the same strategy in reverse: embracing the Kremlin to balance against Eurasia's other great power–which the White House appears to view as a greater threat.

While Russia and China are destined to be in perpetual rivalry because of their size and geography, they are bonded by a desire to work against what they view as an unfair international order dominated by the United States. This is the foundation on which all the economic deals (mainly on energy) and greater military cooperation in recent years rests.

Moreover, Russia and China are authoritarian states that fear the spread of Western values such as democracy and human rights. Both governments believe the West, led by the United States, is working to subvert their legitimacy and political systems. Autocrats want to stay in power above all else.

In other words, Moscow and Beijing are linked ideologically. (This differs from 1972, when the Soviets and Chinese, despite both being communist, had competing visions for how revolutionary communism would spread throughout the world.)

These arguments are all secondary to the most basic point of all: In 1972, China viewed the Soviet Union as a greater threat than the United States. (Indeed, Beijing and Moscow fought a border conflict in 1969.) Today, however, Russia views the United States as a greater threat than China. So long as this dynamic holds, a reverse Nixon strategy is impossible.

None of this takes into account the unacceptable terms Vladimir Putin would surely demand from the United States to separate Russia from China—lifting sanctions and accepting Moscow's annexation of Crimea, or further, guarantees on missile defense in Europe and limitations on NATO expansion and shale production—and the belligerence from Beijing that would likely follow.

There is a deeper problem with the recent spate of analyses on this topic—for both sides of the argument. There is a general assumption that Nixon's China visit was a success that benefited American interests. This assumption is flawed.

China was willing to entertain a rapprochement with the United States in the early 1970s only after the Soviet Union pressured it militarily and an American administration showed a willingness to abandon Asian allies. Secret talks between Kissinger and Chinese officials reveal the White House wanted a reduced footprint in East Asia and was willing to disparage allies Japan and Taiwan.

America's primary cost for rapprochement with Beijing was to downgrade relations with Taiwan—which still undermines Washington's commitment to the island today. Nixon ordered the Seventh Fleet to leave the Taiwan Strait even before he visited China and began withdrawing U.S. forces from the island—which had been there since the 1950s.

Then, in the 1972 Shanghai Communique, Beijing stated its "one China principle" that Taiwan is part of China and would later be "reunified" with it—by force if necessary. Washington used the document to articulate its own "one China policy," which effectively endorsed China's position.

Nixon and Kissinger ignored the strategic value of Taiwan and granted China's wishes without getting anything in return for the United States.

The other key cost for Washington was to accept a settlement to the Vietnam War that favored Hanoi and Beijing. Nixon and Kissinger wanted China's help in securing an honorable American retreat from Vietnam, but China never stopped its flow of support to North Vietnam during negotiations. The United States eventually retreated and Hanoi enveloped South Vietnam.

Again, Nixon did nothing to stop China from carrying out its objectives in Vietnam and got nothing in return for a humiliating retreat.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Soviet Union changed its global ambitions or hostility to the United States because of the improved U.S.-China relationship. Nor is there any indication that China's economic reforms in 1978-79 to shift away from pure communism had any connection to Nixon's visit. Beijing's support for revolutionary movements in the developing world did not cease, either.

One should also remember that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths than any individual in human history, and Nixon broke bread with him without demanding any change on human rights inside China.

Nixon himself made the strongest case against his greatest diplomatic achievement after leaving office. The former president became increasingly less optimistic about his and Kissinger's China policy and its implications for the future.

As early as 1978, he warned of the danger of not getting U.S.-China relations right.

"We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential," Nixon wrote in his memoir. "Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world."

Nixon wrote in his memorandum to congressional leaders in 1989, titled "The Crisis in Sino-American relations," that "Sino-American relations are in the worst condition they have been in since before I went to China seventeen years ago." He added that the "gap in perceptions over Tiananmen ‘is totally unbridgeable,'" according to Joseph A. Bosco.

Nonetheless, Nixon argued that Beijing and Washington should put aside "irreconcilable differences" to form a united front against the Soviet Union, describing the dangers that China could pose otherwise.

Before his death in 1994, Nixon told his former speechwriter, William Safire, that his gambit with China might have completely failed.

"Before Nixon died, I asked him–on the record–if perhaps we had gone a bit overboard on selling the American public on the political benefits of increased trade," Safire wrote in the New York Times. "That old realist, who had played the China card to exploit the split in the communist world, replied with some sadness that he was not as hopeful as he had once been: ‘We may have created a Frankenstein.'"

Nixon even changed his attitude on Taiwan, writing in 1994 that the island and China are "permanently" separated politically.

"The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically," Nixon wrote.

The former president appeared to later doubt the merits of his China visit—unlike Kissinger, who has consistently argued the United States should do little to upset the delicate balance struck between Beijing and Washington.

To be sure, China has liberalized its economy and is now a stakeholder in the international system, in part because of Nixon's visit. But it is also in a stronger position today to undermine American interests. Its steadily increasing aggression does not indicate a positive trajectory for Sino-American relations.

Because Nixon's "strategic gamble" with China was not the success that many assume, it should not be blindly imitated. Forty-five years later, a reverse version of it will not work—especially when conditions are less conducive for such an endeavor.

President Trump should engage with Moscow and Beijing when it is possible and mutually beneficial. But he should above all work to maintain and improve close relationships with allies in Europe and Asia. America's greatest strategic asset is its network of alliances in an era of renewed great power competition. It is the biggest boost to American power and can help bring some order to an increasingly chaotic world.

Trump should be willing to take foreign policy risks, but trying to separate Russia from China will not work. It will hurt American interests.