When Doves are More Aggressive Than Hawks (and Vice Versa): The “Nixon to China” Phenomenon and President Obama

Can President Obama pursue aggressive foreign policy actions with greater latitude than any Republican?

An interesting paradox of world politics is that sometimes leaders who are known as “hawks” (hardline, confrontational leaders) are better able to appease foreign adversaries and make peace than their more “dovish” (cooperative and accommodative) counterparts. This also works in reverse: doves sometimes have more freedom to use aggressive tactics, including military force, than their hawkish colleagues. How can this be?

The classic example is Richard Nixon, the diehard anti-Communist who in 1972 became the first American president to visit Communist China and who strengthened American ties with China as part of his policy of detente (“relaxation of tensions”).  Ronald Reagan likewise made a career of fighting Communism, only to pursue a strategy of cooperation and conciliation (including sweeping arms control agreements) with the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  It was often said that “only Nixon could go to China.”  Many have also argued that only Reagan, among contemporary American leaders, could have moved toward Gorbachev in the way he did, hastening the end of the Cold War.  The reason why these leaders were uniquely positioned to reach out in cooperative ways to their enemies is that their hardline credentials were unquestioned, which gave them political cover on the right (the conservative end of the political spectrum).  If a more dovish leader, such as President Jimmy Carter, were to take the steps that Nixon or Reagan did, he would have faced withering attacks from the right as an appeaser who was “soft on Communism.”  But Nixon and Reagan could not be credibly attacked in such terms, freeing them to take steps that were more in line with the preferences of many on the political left. 

The same dynamic appears to be happening today with President Obama.    Stephen Walt’s recent blog post “Why Hawks Should Vote for Obama” makes this case as follows:

“So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it’s because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It’s the flipside of the old “Nixon Goes to China” meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don’t have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government’s permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.”

What do you think?  Is this “Nixon to China” paradox the answer to Obama’s surprisingly hardline foreign policy actions in the above cases?  Would he really be a more hawkish president than any of the Republican challengers, as Walt seems to suggest?


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