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Nixon and “Taking the Long View”

Dan McCarthy points to this old John Judis description of Nixon’s changing foreign policy views. Judis wrote:

Yet sometime in the mid-1960s, while he was practicing law in New York and campaigning for Republican candidates, Nixon began to look more dispassionately on international relations—what he called “taking the long view.” It was possible for him to do so because of his distance from political decision making, which allowed him to view the world outside the immediate framework of domestic anti-Communism and missionary moralism.

One possible advantage of “taking the long view” is that it might offer some measure of perspective on the scale and nature of contemporary dangers. It would probably reduce the tendency towards alarmism and threat inflation. Foreign threats, to the extent that they’re real, wouldn’t routinely be treated as “existential” nightmares, but instead would be seen as the manageable dangers that they are. Hard-liners tend not to take the “long view” because they benefit from creating a feeling of urgency and intolerable danger, and because there are normally domestic political advantages to being perceived as “tough” on X rather than “soft.” The latter isn’t as true as it used to be, but the short-term incentives inside the GOP still favor erring on the side of too much hawkishness. Unfortunately, it was Nixon’s earlier hard-line record that made it politically feasible for him to “evolve” once he was in the White House. The pattern seems to be that the only presidents that are permitted to “evolve” into being less hard-line than they once were are the ones that established a reputation for being very hard-line before they took office.

I’m not sure that these issues need to be approached dispassionately, or at least no more so than any other kind of policy, but for people with a certain kind of temperament that may be the best cure for excessive hawkishness. A lot of hard-line and hawkish posturing seems to feed off of indulging in and displaying outrage, and cultivating passionate, almost idolatrous attachments to the causes of other nations almost seems to be a requirement. As a general rule, approaching these issues with less emotion would not only allow for more flexibility in setting policy, but it should also make it easier to separate what America’s genuine interests are from the rhetorical exaggerations and ideological cant that so often obscure them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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