- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
After waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, hunkered down in his sunny vacation home far from the White House, a bleary-eyed president of the United States offered a few thoughts to sum up his mood: “Above all else: Dignity, command, faith, head high, no fear, build a new spirit, drive, act like a President, act like a winner,” he wrote in a staccato stream of consciousness. “Opponents are savage destroyers, haters. Time to use full power of the President to fight overwhelming forces arrayed against us.”
While we all adjust to a seemingly new normal of presidential paranoia and vindictiveness, it is helpful to remember that we’ve seen something like this before — for these are not the words of Donald Trump, but Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate.
Like a lot of people trying to get their heads around the Trump era, I’ve been dusting off my frayed copies of dystopian novels. But to better understand what this means for American foreign policy, I’ve been thinking about 1973, another moment when the White House was mired in scandal and instability, yet when the United States also got some big things done abroad. So along with 1984 and Brave New World, I’ve picked up Tim Weiner’s book One Man Against the World and the second volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, appropriately titled Years of Upheaval — and I recommend you do too.
1973 was a rough year. Just months after winning re-election in a 49-state landslide, Nixon found himself drowning in Watergate. The country spent the summer fixated on the congressional Watergate hearings, with the president in a pitched battle with the courts over executive privilege and fighting his own bureaucracy (the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” occurred in October 1973). Nixon’s chief of staff resigned, and his former attorney general and White House counsel were indicted. Also that fall, Vice President Spiro Agnew quit after getting ensnared in a corruption scandal.
On the one hand, remembering events from 44 years ago helps recall America’s resilience (hey, we survived Watergate!) as well as the fact that amid monumental domestic turmoil, America can cobble together an effective foreign policy. In fact, 1973 brought the signing of the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War, important steps forward in opening relations with China, a superpower summit with the Soviet leadership, and a skilled response to the October Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states.
But in fundamental ways, the 1973 crisis weakened America abroad. Kissinger recalls that his “predominant concern” during the Watergate era was not the headlines of the day but, in his words, “to sustain the credibility of the United States as a major power.” Other countries were constantly asking about the extent of damage to the presidency, some tried to create distance from the White House, while friends worried about American weakness. Kissinger observed that the United States was “losing its ability to make credible commitments” and squandering its leadership capital. Worried that the country was in a “suicidal mood,” Kissinger lamented to a friend in May 1973 that “four or five years of amassing capital in nickels and dimes is being squandered in thousand-dollar bills.”
With Nixon besieged and increasingly checked out, Kissinger, who became secretary of state in September of that year, was stuck holding foreign policy together. As the end neared, Kissinger felt duty-bound to preserve a sense of security and credibility by “creating a façade of unity and purposefulness,” reassuring the world that America remained strong. “The edge of a precipice,” Kissinger recalled, “leaves scope for only one imperative: to obtain some maneuvering room.”
So is it 1973 all over again? We’re not sure whether Trump will be enveloped in a Watergate-scale scandal, yet the United States seems once again teetering on history’s precipice, scrambling for maneuvering room. And there are four reasons why I fear the drama of 2017 is worse.
First, while Trump shares many Nixonian tendencies — contempt for a critical press, a penchant for deep-state conspiracies, fears of lurking enemies, and dark insecurities — the biggest difference is the public way these are manifesting. Almost all of Nixon’s paranoid musings were behind closed doors, and the world learned about them only later through the release of the secret tapes. Externally, Nixon labored to maintain a steady façade — “act like a president” — while he fumed and raged and schemed in the Oval Office. For Trump, of course, it is entirely different: He impulsively tweets his grievances and falsehoods in real time for all to digest. With steady leaks from White House insiders, even his old-fashioned office rants don’t stay secret for more than a few days.
The result is an erosion of America’s global credibility and authority that is far more corrosive. At best, the country is becoming a laughingstock, but I fear the damage is greater. If a president sees no problem with casually asserting things that are obviously phony, such as accusing his predecessor of crimes without any evidence, how can we expect the world to take heed when he says something — on human rights concerns somewhere, or the danger of a previously secret nuclear program, or a looming terrorist threat — that might actually be true? Or, when the facts aren’t entirely clear, he asks us to trust his judgment?
Second, the Trump administration is far weaker than the Nixon team. Yes, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly are skilled and competent (and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may be too, although right now he seems destined to end up like Nixon’s first secretary of state, William Rogers). They can hold things together, and are doing their best to reassure allies and sustain American credibility. But no one would claim they are in the same league as Kissinger, who in 1973 was at the height of his abilities and standing. Moreover, while Watergate unfolded in Nixon’s second term, the Trump team is barely out of the gate. Today’s government apparatus is not as strong — with so many key positions unfilled, draconian budget cuts looming, and an overall hollowing out of the bureaucracy.
Third, the Congress of 2017 is very different from 1973, especially among Republicans. Yes, one critical difference with the Watergate era is that today’s Capitol Hill Democrats are in the minority and therefore have fewer tools with which to hold the president to account. But there are also fewer senior Republicans who seem willing to challenge the president. Recall that Republican Sen. Howard Baker played a key role on the Watergate Committee, and Sen. Barry Goldwater and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott were the ones who finally told Nixon he had to go. Right now the only senior Republican who appears willing to push back is John McCain.
And fourth, today’s geopolitics make Trump’s self-created crises far more worrying than that of 1973. An America that is distracted, divided, and diminished has even more to lose. More than four decades ago, China was amid its Cultural Revolution and just starting its slow climb out out of isolation, India was hardly an economic dynamo, Germany was divided, South Korea was impoverished, Iran was an ally, Southeast Asia was mired in conflict and misery, terrorism was limited to airplane hijackings, and the Middle East still existed in a state-based order. Those were the “simpler times.”
The world is more complicated now. There are more competitors and greater complexity. There are more problems that require common solutions. And there is even greater need for American leadership that is steady, trustworthy, and credible.
None of this means that the United States is destined to fail. After all, Watergate took us to the brink of constitutional meltdown, and yet the decades that followed brought unprecedented prosperity. And who knows, Trump may still turn it around, dial back the tweets and accusations, display a little magnanimity, restore a bit of credibility, and score some victories. But then again, he may end up making 1973 look good.
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