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Austerity and US Strategy: Lessons of the Past

March 5, 2014  • Melvyn P. Leffler, Guest Blogger

This text was originally published as part of the Fifth Annual Ernest May Memorial Lecture and excerpted from The Future of American Defense, a publication of The Aspen Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, edited by Nicholas Burns and Jonathon Price.

“What is so interesting about the policies pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the early 1970s was that they decided to manage the gap between means and ends in an era of austerity by ratcheting down the U.S. commitment to Indochina and by engaging adversaries. Nixon and Kissinger did not change the nation’s basic strategic orientation. The Soviet Union remained the key adversary, and the strategy of containment was not abandoned. Aware of mounting Soviet strategic capabilities and the paramount need to avoid nuclear conflict, they labored to leverage the Soviets to exercise self-restraint. They wanted the Kremlin to stop exploiting crises in Asia and Africa, to curtail efforts to divide America’s friends, and to encourage Hanoi to negotiate.

If you read the many foreign policy statements of Nixon and Kissinger, they often brilliantly illuminated changes in the global environment. They dwelled on the evolution of multipolarity, the revitalization of our allies in Western Europe and northeast Asia, the intensification of the Sino-Soviet split, and the assertiveness of nationalist leaders in the Third World seeking a new international economic order, especially after the Yom Kippur War and the alarming growth of petroleum prices. They articulated a need to extricate the United States from Vietnam with America’s honor and credibility intact. They were beleaguered by partisan acrimony at home, urban strife, racial tension, inflationary pressures, gold outflows, and financial constraints. Although they exquisitely outlined the need for a prudent pursuit of interests in an international order defined by great Soviet strategic capabilities and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, they were tantalizingly ambiguous in their definition of U.S. interests, except the inchoate need to balance Soviet power and the obvious necessity of avoiding nuclear war.

Their challenge was to design a strategy to balance Soviet power in a demanding political, fiscal, and legislative environment. The Nixon Doctrine; the détente with the Kremlin; the opening of relations with Beijing; and the covert actions in southern Africa, Chile, and elsewhere were all efforts to bolster allies, divide adversaries, and contain Soviet power when U.S. officials were acutely aware that Congress would not allocate funds to regain strategic supremacy or support overt U.S. interventionism in critical regions. Nixon himself stated this succinctly in a memo to Al Haig and Kissinger in May 1972: “all of us who have worked on . . . [SALT] . . . know that the deal we are making is in our best interest, but for a very practical reason that the right-wing will never understand—that we simply can’t get from the Congress the additional funds needed to continue the arms race with the Soviets in either the defensive or offensive missile category.” In an NSC meeting, deflecting Defense Secretary Mel Laird’s insistence that the Soviets were seeking superiority, Nixon bluntly stated: “It’s imperative to get a deal. We can’t build and they know it.”

In an era of austerity, Nixon and Kissinger’s approach to strategy was not to rethink the fundamental elements of containment, not to redefine goals or threats, but to engage adversaries and to devolve more responsibility on allies. Indeed, engaging adversaries often exacerbated relations with allies, a tradeoff, however regrettable, that Nixon and Kissinger found acceptable. Nixon and Kissinger did not close the great gap between resources and commitments, between means and ends should détente falter, as eventually it did. They improvised, rather adroitly, in an era of perceived decline, contracting resources, tumultuous politics at home, and eroding strength and credibility abroad.

Melvyn P. Leffler is the Edward Stettinius Professor of American History at The University of Virginia. He is currently working on a book about the foreign policy of the George W. Bush presidential administration.