Daniel Sargent’s insighful book analyses American foreign policy from Nixon to Carter

Policy oscillates from realism to idealism and back again, dispelling the idea that, no matter what Henry Kissinger might have thought, the US doesn't remake the world at will.

Jimmy Carter greets supporters in Florida on the campaign trail that would put him in the White House. AP Photo
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When Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, in 1968, he informed his aides that he would entrust the orderly running of domestic policy to an unelected underling, John Ehrlichman.

Domestic policy was small potatoes, a suitable playing field for his liberal predecessors John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but not for a leader with Nixon’s grandiose ambitions. He had run for president with assurances of a plan to extricate the US from its Vietnam morass, and ideas about how to remake the country’s relationship with the communist bloc. Nixon and his new national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed that “national interests could be pursued with little regard to their humanitarian and ideological stakes”.

Daniel J Sargent’s insightful book on American foreign policy in the 1970s documents three differing approaches to global relations in a moment of transition, each as bold as Nixon’s, each flawed in its own distinctive way. The Cold War was receding in importance, not because the Soviet Union was any less powerful (or at least perceived as such), but because the steady alliances that had held for almost 30 years – democracies and their allies to one side, communist countries and their client states to the other – were beginning to fray. Loosely associated with Nixon, Kissinger and Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, each approach sought to adapt the United States to a ­multi-pronged geopolitical sphere in which the simple polarities of the Cold War were seen to be fading into ­irrelevance.

Nixon defined his foreign policy – at least the non-Vietnam part of it – through the pursuit of new relationships with the communist world. Détente with the Soviets was less mushy liberal idealism than hard-headed, morally neutral acknowledgement of the facts as he understood them. The Soviet Union, he and Kissinger believed, had no more likelihood of being defeated or demolished than the United States did. “Sceptical that the USSR had the capacity to change,” Sargent writes, “they sought accommodation, not reconciliation.” Kissinger, in fact, was convinced that the United States was destined to decline in power relative to the ascendant Soviets. His job, he told one US Navy admiral, was “to persuade the Russians to give us the best deal we can get”.

Human rights were to be taken into account only irregularly, if at all. As Sargent insightfully demonstrates, the humanitarian emergency in Nigeria during the Biafran civil war was a matter of concern at the highest levels of the US government, while a similar crisis in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), propagated by American ally President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, was not. “Why is it our business to tell the Pakistanis how to run their government?” wondered Kissinger.

Contrary to his ultra-realist reputation, Kissinger had already begun, with the oil crisis of Nixon’s last years in office, to turn the ship of state around in the direction of multilateral cooperation. As a stealth declinist, Kissinger believed that the United States could no longer dictate policy unilaterally to its allies or enemies. The US had to work with others to keep oil prices from rocketing out of control, and prevent the Opec cartel from holding the rest of the world hostage.

Humanitarianism was another tool in Kissinger’s arsenal as President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, wielded less out of any sense of decency – this was the man, after all, who had seen no problem with the secret bombing of Cambodia – than a late-dawning understanding that perception was foreign-policy reality. The US had been, as critics had it, on “both the wrong side and the losing side” in Bangladesh, failing to keep Pakistan together while also turning a blind eye to rampant government-sponsored killings. “I don’t give a damn about Bangladesh,” Kissinger told his fellow cabinet members during a famine in the new South Asian country. “I want it for foreign policy.”

Kissinger was a foreign-policy mandarin adrift in an era of economic uncertainty. Sargent mentions offhandedly that Kissinger proposed a military seizure of Middle Eastern oilfields to protect American ­interests.

Sargent admirably seeks to balance politics and economics in A Superpower Transformed, but the monetary side of this generally well-written book notably flags. Discussions of the dollar as global reserve currency, or the declining importance of the gold standard, while important to our understanding of the era, lack the concise appeal of its ­foreign-policy segments.

Kissinger’s vision of the world had sovereign states colliding like billiard balls on a vast felt table. The right application of force and spin could send all the right balls hurtling into the corner pockets. But suddenly the table was covered in wiffle balls and ping-pong balls and shuttlecocks, each capable of altering the path of any one of his shots. The ascent of human rights made Kissinger’s precious state sovereignty less critical than ever, increasingly dependent on international support as a condition of legitimacy.

Kissinger was more limber than he sometimes receives credit for, and Sargent makes a useful case for his ability to act against his own beliefs in the service of what he perceived to be American interests, as in his support for majority rule in Rhodesia. But he was still operating in the service of outmoded ­ideas with an all-too-limited playbook.

The ironies abounded. Kissinger, the architect of some of the Vietnam War’s most horrific excesses, was relatively modest in his aspirations for what American foreign policy might be able to accomplish around the world. Meanwhile, Carter and Brzezinski, those sunny idealists, were far more willing to flex American muscle to defend the country’s interests abroad. Carter presented himself as the idealist alternative to Kissinger’s Central European fatalism. He had grown up a pro-civil rights liberal in the violently intolerant American South. Desegregation was, he believed, “something that had to be forced on us from outside”. In the same way, the United States could insist that other countries treat their citizens with dignity and respect, and occasionally impose its will by force. Kissinger’s “prioritisation of international order over universal justice” was no longer inviolate.

World events precipitated a sea change in Carter and Brzezinski’s approach. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the human-rights advocates belatedly became dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warriors. The US sent aid to the decidedly illiberal Afghan mujaheddin (with notably disastrous results two decades further down the road), and sought to align itself with suitably anti-Soviet regimes around the world, their human-rights abuses notwithstanding.

For Sargent, it was less a matter of faulty tactics than poor timing. Carter was declaring an end in sight to the Cold War, culminating not in the mutually assured destruction of Dr ­Strangelove but in Brzezinski's vision of the Soviet Union being forced to adjust to a changing world. "Carter's misfortune, it would appear in retrospect, was his timing; the moment for a post-Cold War foreign policy had in the late 1970s not yet arrived." While there might have been room for some discussion of the effect of 1970s foreign policy on the decade that followed, when the contradictions of communism sharpened to the point of unsustainability, that is perhaps the subject for another book entirely. (One hopes Sargent is preparing a sequel for the Reagan-Bush years.)

Sargent's unstated goal in A Superpower Transformed is to undercut the conspiracists and fantasists insistent on the United States' ability to reset global affairs at will. The men who ran American foreign policy in the 1970s oscillated between reflections on the modesty of their reach, and grandiose desires to remake the world in America's image. Détente or human rights; realism or idealism; iron force or soft power – each was a choice about what face to turn towards the world. American foreign policy in the decade between Camelot and the Gipper took in a changed world, but struggled with a suitably robust approach to adopt.

Sargent does not pick favourites here. Each of the three foreign-policy teams comes in for its share of criticism: Kissinger and Nixon for excessive hardheadedness and fixation on Cold War dichotomies, Kissinger and Ford for their moral shortcomings, and Brzezinski and Carter for fatal slowness in grasping the limitations of a human-rights-first approach. But for each, ideals had a peculiar way of slamming headlong into brute reality. American foreign policy was less a matter of blunt domination than a recurring pattern of “frustration, adaptation, and constraint”. Has anything really changed in the past 40 years?

The book is available on Amazon.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.