Obama’s ‘Nixon Goes to China’ Moment


In the history of the Obama Presidency, last Monday may well be seen as one of those historic “break points” in history: a “Nixon goes to China” moment. The President had his Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announce that the Army would shrink to its pre-World War II level.

Henry Kissinger once wrote, “it is above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency, and continues to march to this day.”

Obama has essentially announced the end to that hundred-year march. We are abandoning the Wilsonian obsession with “making the world safe for democracy” which has led our country into the quagmires in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. We will not try to impose Uncle Sam’s will in Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, Sudan or any of the hundreds of countries (including our own) that have never quite mastered Wilson’s idealized democracy.

I was a very early Obama supporter and like many people who call themselves classic liberals (freedom and equality of opportunity), the NSA revelations poisoned my admiration of Obama. After all he was a constitutional scholar so don’t tell me he didn’t think the NSA work was violating the Fourth Amendment. But he turned out to be a creature of the establishment, which any decent reading of his college CV would have told you. But this disappointment in our heroes is something we Democrats get used to. Just ask anyone who worked for Bill Clinton, after he passed Citigroup’s dream financial legislation in 1999.

But Obama’s move to put an end to an almost 100 year quest on the part of Democratic and Republican administrations alike to play the world’s unpaid policeman needs to be welcomed by citizens of all political persuasions. We have been Uncle Sucker too long. Time to fix our own broken country. Now it is obvious that incredibly powerful interests will be arrayed against Obama as he tries to fight the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. Already the old Neo Con wing of the Republican coalition is railing on about Obama’s “weakness” in Iran, Syria and Ukraine, with more sure to come about Venezuela.

I don’t know how big a fight Obama will face on this radical rethink of our military spending. But whatever disappointment I may have over the President’s embrace of the establishment thinking on wiretapping or Wall Street reform, his decisions on foreign policy and defense could be the basis of a legacy that redounds to the benefit of our country for the next century. There are so many signs that an America freed of the burdens of empire can flourish in the next global age of innovation driven by 5 Billion people connected to a global broadband network that will furnish education and commerce at unimagined scale. Perhaps our only fear is that Obama’s successor might not continue to embrace this new defense posture. The greatest irony of the 2016 campaign might be a face off between Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul, where the Republican Candidate embraced this new Obama Doctrine and Hillary ran to his right towards the Military Industrial Complex.

Jonathan Taplin is a Professor and the Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California.