Assessments of President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy continue to evolve as scholars tap new possibilities for research. Due to the long wait before national security records are declassified by the National Archives and made available to researchers and the public, only in recent decades has the excavation of the Nixon administration’s engagement with the world started to become well documented. As more records are released by the National Archives (including potentially 700 hours of Nixon’s secret White House tapes that remain closed), scholarly understanding of the Nixon presidency is likely to continue changing. Thus far, historians have pointed to four major legacies of Nixon’s foreign policy: tendencies to use American muscle abroad on a more realistic scale, to reorient the focus of American foreign policy to the Pacific, to reduce the chance that the Cold War could turn hot, and, inadvertently, to contribute to the later rise of Ronald Reagan and the Republican right wing—many of whom had been part of Nixon’s “silent majority.” While earlier works focused primarily on subjects like Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, the historiography today is much more diverse – now there is at least one work covering most major aspects of Nixon’s foreign policy.
Luke A. Nichter
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy legacy remains hotly contested, and as new archival sources come to light, those debates are more likely to intensify than to recede into the background. In dealings with the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration set the superpowers on a course for the (largely) peaceful end of the Cold War. Reagan began his outreach to Soviet leaders almost immediately after taking office and enjoyed some success, even if the dominant theme of the period remains fears of Reagan as a “button-pusher” in the public’s perception. Mikhail Gorbachev’s election to the post of General Secretary proved the turning point. Reagan, now confident in US strength, and Gorbachev, keen to reduce the financial burden of the arms race, ushered in a new, cooperative phase of the Cold War. Elsewhere, in particular Latin America, the administration’s focus on fighting communism led it to support human rights–abusing regimes at the same time as it lambasted Moscow’s transgressions in that regard. But even so, over the course of the 1980s, the United States began pushing for democratization around the world, even where Reagan and his advisors had initially resisted it, fearing a communist takeover. In part, this was a result of public pressure, but the White House recognized and came to support the rising tide of democratization. When Reagan left office, a great many countries that had been authoritarian were no longer, often at least in part because of US policy. US–Soviet relations had improved to such an extent that Reagan’s successor, Vice President George H. W. Bush, worried that they had gone too far in working with Gorbachev and been hoodwinked.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it. A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West. These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.