Criticized as a foreign policy retrenchment, the Nixon Doctrine grew out of a changing international strategic and economic environment. The doctrine signaled an end to the postwar bipolar era in which a nearly omnipotent United States rose to counter every perceived Soviet challenge. Nixon saw the world of the late 1960s as multipolar, a pentagonal world in which the United States, Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet bloc, and the People's Republic of China (PRC) all exerted powerful military and/or geopolitical influence. The Sino-Soviet rift, France's 1967 withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military command, Britain's retreat from the Persian Gulf, and the rise of the developing world all marked this sea change. The Nixon Doctrine also took into account the relative U.S. economic decline as Western Europe and Japan forged competitive economies. The costs of the Vietnam War, in conjunction with other U.S. commitments, clearly influenced Nixon's posture.
Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, realized that domestic resistance precluded direct U.S. intervention in another bloody brushfire war such as Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon alluded to his new strategic initiative on 25 July 1969, the very day that he announced the first U.S. troop withdrawals from the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). South Vietnam served as the first model for the Nixon Doctrine. Nixon's implementation of Vietnamization, the gradual replacement of U.S. troops with South Vietnamese forces, shaped U.S. policy in the later years of the war, although greater economic assistance and military equipment transfers to South Vietnam accompanied Vietnamization.
The United States employed the Nixon Doctrine in other key areas of the globe in the early to mid-1970s. Increasingly, the doctrine relied upon strong men, or so-called deputy sheriffs, assigned by Washington to guard U.S. interests. These U.S.-backed deputy sheriffs included Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, among others. All were to safeguard U.S. interests in their respective regions, while the United States provided them with aid and arms.
Relying on the despotic rule of many of these deputy sheriffs elicited sharp criticism, however. Opponents viewed the Nixon Doctrine as a stratagem for U.S. hegemony on the cheap. Indeed, when many of the rulers fell in the late 1970s and 1980s, there were costly negative consequences to U.S. strategic interests. The 1979 collapse of the shah's regime in Iran offered a prime example of the Nixon Doctrine's distinct limitations.
The Nixon Doctrine was born of the recognition that U.S. power had limits following the Vietnam debacle. No longer could the nation afford to "pay any price" or "bear any burden," as President John F. Kennedy had promised in his 1961 inaugural address. The world had changed drastically since then. Nixon and Kissinger attempted to manage the U.S. retreat as cost-effectively as possible, without undue loss of U.S. power and influence. In the economically stagnant 1970s, the use of U.S. proxies and arms transfers, together with rapprochement with the PRC and détente with the Soviet Union, seemed the best solution to maintaining U.S. hegemony in a multipolar world. President Ronald Reagan's use in 1983 of U.S. troops in Lebanon and Grenada effectively ended the Nixon Doctrine, signaling the return of U.S. unilateralism and direct U.S. military interventions overseas.
Michael E. Donoghue
Litwak, Robert S. Détente and the Nixon Doctrine: American Foreign Policy and the Pursuit of Stability, 1969–1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.; Schurmann, Franz. The Foreign Politics of Richard Nixon: The Grand Design. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1987.