Documents & Debates: Nixon, China, and the Origins of Today's World Order

November 29, 2023

Documents & Debates: Nixon, China, and the Origins of Today's World Order

In this week’s episode, we delve into the historical context and the relationship between the United States and China, particularly during the Nixon Administration. The period known as the “China opening” was a pivotal moment in international relations, where diplomacy played a crucial role. We’ll examine the circumstances, the international environment, and the unique partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that shaped US-China relations.

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A Changing International Landscape

During the late 1960s, the international landscape was undergoing significant changes, and the United States found itself facing several challenges:

  • Europe’s growing independence from the United States, with European allies pursuing policies that sometimes diverged from American interests.
  • The German economy’s rapid growth, leading to a stronger and more independent West Germany.
  • Discontent among America’s allies, like Great Britain, over the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which they considered both a moral and strategic mistake.
  • The global wave of protests and demonstrations in various parts of the world, including China, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and Western Europe.

Furthermore, the United States was experiencing a relative decline in power, which was a shift from its previously dominant position in global affairs. These factors set the stage for Nixon and Kissinger to navigate a complex international situation.

Nixon and Kissinger’s Approach

Nixon and Kissinger’s approach to addressing these challenges was multifaceted:

Exploiting the Sino-Soviet Split

A pivotal moment was the Sino-Soviet split, revealing that communism was not a monolithic force. This presented an opportunity to play China and the Soviet Union against each other, using their differences to America’s advantage. Nixon and Kissinger recognized that this approach could reshape international relations.

The Unlikely Partnership

Nixon and Kissinger formed an unlikely partnership. They had significant differences in personality and background, with Nixon often speaking disparagingly of Kissinger behind his back. However, they shared a deep respect for each other’s intellectual capabilities. Kissinger’s intellect and creativity made him an invaluable asset to Nixon’s administration, and Nixon’s access to power was precisely what Kissinger needed to make a substantial impact on foreign affairs.

Despite their mutual contempt and personal quirks, the partnership between Nixon and Kissinger worked because they both had a degree of megalomania and paranoia. This common ground allowed them to navigate the complex world of international politics with a shared understanding of the pursuit of power.

The Nixon-Kissinger partnership during the era of the “China opening” was a testament to the power of diplomacy and the recognition of opportunities in a changing international landscape. Their ability to exploit the Sino-Soviet split reshaped the course of US-China relations, setting the stage for the world we see today. This unlikely duo’s approach to foreign affairs left a significant mark on history, showing how personal dynamics and intellectual prowess can shape the destiny of nations.