Russian armies are on the road to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, even as the United States and its European allies provide and pledge to provide more military equipment to Ukraine’s military. At the other end of Eurasia, China publicly warns other nations against providing military aid to Taiwan. Russia and China, the two most powerful countries on the Eurasian landmass, are shaking the post-Cold War global order.
In 1979, the historian and diplomat George F. Kennan wrote a book about the European diplomacy that preceded the crises that led to the First World War titled The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order. He followed that up in 1984 with The Fateful Alliance, which took the story up to the establishment of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894. Kennan recognized that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was the most impressive statesman of his era. His achievements included the forging of German unification and the creation of a structure of European peace and stability that was squandered by the great powers after he left the scene. Eighty years later, Bismarck had a pupil and imitator in the United States — his name was Richard Nixon. Future historians who look back on the current international scene and the decades preceding it may well refer to this period as the decline of Nixon’s global order.
George Kennan viewed the First World War as “the great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. It spawned Russian communism, German Nazism, and the Second World War. And the First World War’s origins, Kennan believed, could be traced back to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894. That “fateful alliance,” according to Kennan, transformed a regional crisis in the Balkans into a global war.
Kennan called Bismarck the “towering figure” of this time period who used all of his diplomatic and strategic gifts to impede the movement toward a Franco-Russian alliance. “Bismarck’s treaty structure of the 1880s,” Kennan writes, “… [sought] to prevent wars of aggression either among Germany’s neighbors or by any of those neighbors against Germany.” He wanted to maintain good relations with Russia, including the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty, which “bound Russia to neutrality in the face of another war between Germany and France”; to preserve the Austro-Hungarian empire; to reach an entente with Great Britain; to foster closer relations between Britain, Italy, and Austria-Hungary in the Mediterranean; and to effectuate the political-military isolation of France. He recognized that it was in Germany’s — and Europe’s — interest to prevent a security alliance between France and Russia.
When Bismarck was forcibly retired by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, the European order he constructed gradually faded away, culminating in what he feared the most — an alliance between France and Russia. Bismarck’s fall, Kennan wrote, was “by far the most important, and even fateful, of the events of … 1890, from the standpoint of Russo-German and Franco-Russian relations.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see in Richard Nixon’s diplomacy between 1969 and 1974 a Bismarckian grasp of the realities of international politics and an insight into the geopolitics of peace and stability. Nixon’s achievement was arguably greater than Bismarck’s, for he acted on a global stage in which Europe was just one piece on the diplomatic chessboard. Nixon ended U.S. participation in a war in Southeast Asia that was tearing apart American domestic politics and inhibiting our ability to focus on the larger geopolitical issues. He simultaneously conducted “triangular diplomacy” with Soviet Russia and China even as both of those Eurasian powers were assisting our enemies in the Southeast Asian war. He engaged in hard-headed detente with the Soviet Union while forging an entente with China that successfully exploited the already existing Sino-Soviet split to America’s and Europe’s benefit. He oversaw skillful diplomacy in the Middle East that dramatically reduced Soviet influence in that region. He nurtured U.S.-NATO ties when some powerful Democratic members of Congress were recommending a drastically reduced American commitment to the alliance. And he lessened the negative impact on American foreign policy of the Vietnam War by formulating and implementing the “Nixon Doctrine,” which supplied and relied more on regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Nicaragua) to protect and advance U.S. interests.
Nixon’s opening to China ultimately shifted the global balance of power against the Soviet Union. And as Henry Kissinger pointed out in the third volume of his memoirs Years of Renewal, Nixon’s diplomacy, although nearly squandered by the inept Carter administration, set the stage for the West’s victory in the Cold War in the 1980s. And Nixon’s post-presidential writings, especially The Real War (1980) and Real Peace (1983), show that he understood what the Reagan administration needed to do to win the Cold War.
In his masterful book Diplomacy (1994), Henry Kissinger noted the Bismarckian qualities in Nixon’s statecraft. Both were practitioners of realpolitik. Both statesmen in conducting diplomacy “possessed an extraordinary sense of proportion” and exercised “tactical flexibility” without “the constraint of ideology.” Both were able, Kissinger wrote, “to evaluate ideas as forces in relation to all the other forces relevant to making a decision.” Both were committed to their respective nation’s interests. Both had a “magnificent grasp of the nuances of power and its ramifications,” according to Kissinger. Nixon, like Bismarck, “counted on a balance of power to produce stability.”
Ironically, it was in 1994 — precisely 100 years after the Franco-Russian alliance ushered in the end of Bismarck’s European order — that Nixon’s global order started to come apart. It was not evident at the time as America was celebrating its “unipolar moment” as the world’s only superpower. But 1994 witnessed the first in a series of diplomatic steps by successive U.S. administrations that at worst gradually pushed Russia into the strategic orbit of a rising China, or at best did nothing to prevent the emerging Sino-Russian entente. Nixon’s diplomacy that had kept Soviet Russia and China strategically separated — as Bismarck had once kept Russia and France apart — gradually came undone. And we are today faced with the consequences of the end of Nixon’s global order: the two strongest Eurasian powers are united in seeking to end America’s global preeminence. As Russia wages war against Ukraine and threatens Finland and Sweden, and China seeks to lessen if not end U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific, we can only hope that the decline of Nixon’s global order does not lead to a catastrophe similar to that which resulted from the decline of Bismarck’s European order.