Thank you, President Biden. Thank you for having the sense and sagacity to waive the aggressive sanctions against those involved in constructing the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to ship Russian natural gas to Germany and the West under the Baltic Sea while bypassing the old and unstable Ukrainian transit network.
The American effort to thwart that project, initiated by Barack Obama and maintained by Donald Trump, was a misguided and short-sighted policy that was destined to fail. And it did fail when Biden simply recognized the reality that the pipeline, nearing completion, couldn’t be stopped. So the president put the best face on it and accepted defeat.
Thus, he ended the spectacle of America seeking to pressure Germany, a key NATO ally, into foregoing an energy deal it considered beneficial to its own economic interests. This was another distilled example of the foreign policy arrogance that has fueled America’s approach to international relations since the end of the Cold War. As the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial specimen of this disjointed reasoning, “Giving a revisionist power more influence over Europe’s economy doesn’t help U.S. interests.” (Never mind the right of the Germans and Europeans to determine their own interests.)
This development has a deeper meaning, however. The ostensible reason for U.S. opposition to the pipeline was the fear that it would increase Russia’s economic and political leverage over Western Europe. But clearly Germany doesn’t share this concern or the broader anti-Russian hysteria that is a hallmark of America’s foreign policy establishment. Otherwise it would not have accepted such an arrangement, however beneficial it might have been in short-run economic terms.
What this tells us, beyond the suggestion that perhaps America should butt out of such matters, is that it should also perhaps give further thought to its own anti-Russia obsession and seek prospects for finding common ground with that regional power on matters worthy of exploration.
Which calls to mind President Richard Nixon’s famous outreach, in the early 1970s, to the country that he previously had referred to derisively as “Red China.” Nixon, the anticommunist partisan, gave the country a stunning example of new thinking and new flexibility in policymaking on the international scene. China and America viewed each other as implacable enemies. Nixon set out to change that. And he succeeded.
The result is that today, when we say “it’s like Nixon going to China,” it signifies a breathtaking break-out from intellectual rigidities that are seen in retrospect as holding the country back. But seldom does the analogy reach the level of Nixon’s own imagination and audacity.
Before traveling to China, Nixon pulled out one of his famous yellow legal pads and labeled three columns at the top: “What They Want”; “What We Want”; and “What We Both Want.” Then he filled in the columns with thumbnail descriptions that fit those categories. This clarified that Nixon had no intention of bringing to this epic negotiation the kind of foreign policy arrogance that America projects these days. He genuinely wanted to pursue China’s fundamental interests, to the extent that he could, because he knew that if he didn’t the trip wouldn’t have much point.
He also knew that the one thing Chinese leaders wanted above everything else was a U.S. recognition that Taiwan belonged to China. So he gave it to them. “Principle one,” said Nixon, “there is one China, and Taiwan is part of China. There will be no more statements made—if I can control our bureaucracy—to the effect that the status of Taiwan is undetermined.”
This was astonishing. He added that America wouldn’t support any Taiwanese independence movement, that the United States would support any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, and it would draw down on U.S. forces on the island as the situation in Vietnam allowed. Then he spent the rest of his time on the topic talking about how they could explain this bold departure to the public in ways that would protect Nixon from getting crunched politically back home.
Of course, the attacks back home were furious, but Nixon weathered the storm and brought about a complete change of U.S. policy in Asia. He was accused of selling out the Taiwanese, and yet the Taiwan government has survived to today. Now it’s half a century later, and it has become clear that this bold policy, which led to the U.S. concept of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, is coming to a close. Also, for the past 25 years America has allowed itself to be seduced and traduced by China in the economic and financial realms. But in the meantime, the Nixon policy helped pacify a region that had been, before World War II and after, a roiling cauldron of instability.
Let’s apply this big foreign policy lesson now to the U.S. attitude toward Russia. If Germany is willing to enter into a pipeline deal with that country and brush aside dire U.S. warnings of likely Russian treachery, perhaps that’s a signal that a little of Nixon’s boldness could be worth the candle in the U.S.-Russian relationship. One might ask: What do we have to lose?
Well, clearly there are risks. Russia could seize on U.S. flexibility to position itself for actions designed to undermine America’s position in the world. But Nixon had a lot to lose, too, and yet pressed ahead and ended up with a giant contribution to global stability. With Russia today, the risks are mitigated by the reality that the E.U. has a population of 512 million, compared to Russia’s 145 million; and a GDP of some $18 trillion to Russia’s $1.6 trillion. Just given these numbers, the Russia hysteria at the highest levels of official Washington just doesn’t make sense. Then add the economic and military might of America as a backup, and it becomes clear that the U.S. establishment’s habitual Russia fear is fundamentally unfounded.
So why not pursue a gambit based on a recognition that, for today’s Russia, the equivalent of China’s 1972 Taiwan issue is Ukraine—not that Russia sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia itself (as China did Taiwan), but it does see it as part of Russia’s cultural heritage, within its centuries-long sphere of influence, and part of its crucial geopolitical security zone. And so if Biden wanted to emulate Nixon’s boldness of vision and action, he would sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin and say:
Principle one, the United States and the West have no designs on Ukraine, which we now view as part of your sphere of influence. We will not seek to recruit into NATO the countries of Ukraine, Georgia, or Belarus. We will not seek to lure those countries toward the West. We will not send NGOs into those countries, or into Russia, to influence those political systems or their leadership selections. NATO will cease its policy of admitting new nations on or near the Russian border. At the same time, we expect you to respect with equal solemnity the sanctity of all Western nations, including the Baltic states.
Now that would be like Nixon going to China, but it won’t happen. There are no Nixons on the horizon, but these musings raise a question: What would the U.S.-Russia relationship look like today if America and NATO hadn’t embarked on that incendiary policy of encircling Russia through NATO expansion and if America hadn’t taken actions to upend the duly elected Ukrainian regime back in 2014?
We can’t know the answer to that, but it’s worth pondering. In the meantime, we are left to console ourselves with the thought that Biden’s action on Nord Stream 2, even if merely a recognition of reality, represented at least a recognition of reality. That’s better than we got from Obama or Trump on that issue.
Robert W. Merry, former Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy, including most recently President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).