Document created: 22 October 03
Air University Review, September-October 1973

The Nixon Doctrine—
A New Era in Foreign Policy?

Major H. A. Staley

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet 
any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. 
John Fitzgerald Kennedy 
Inaugural Address 
20 January 1961

Are we entering a new era in American foreign policy? What is the Nixon Doctrine telling us? Is it merely an elaborate excuse for withdrawal from Southeast Asia, or is it a new philosophy that will color major policy decisions in the future? A broad public statement, such as that embodying the Nixon Doctrine, definitely is a profitable subject for examination, in that the viewpoint may become a theme. An additional reason to take notice of stated doctrine is the fact that American Presidents are the chief architects of American foreign policy. Their perception of national goals, international conditions, and U.S. vital interests can tell us much about “What’s happening” and “Why did he do that?”

Whether or not we are entering a new era in foreign policy, the fact that something is happening in America seems obvious to all. President Kennedy’s general foreign policy philosophy, encapsulated in the famous Inaugural Address of 1961, is considerably out of step with the popular political tunes being played today. Why? Why is President Nixon saying that we won’t “pay any price” or “bear any burden”? The longest and most frustrating war in American history had a great deal to do with the reassessment of our foreign policy. The Vietnam war has been called the “misunderstood war” by several contemporary writers, and I suspect one of the reasons it is so misunderstood stems from the difficulty of trying to superimpose 1945-65 values and frames of reference on a unique 1965-70 situation.

President Nixon sorted through the foreign policy legacy inherited from Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and perceived that it no longer answered the needs of a vastly altered world environment. The days of war-torn Europe and the Communist monolith belonged to a different era. President Nixon’s perception of the world was clearly stated in his report to the Congress on 9 February 1972. In stressing the fact that the postwar period had ended and that a new foreign policy was needed to meet the demands of a new era, he said:

I set forth at some length the changes in the world which made a new policy not only desirable, but necessary.

1. The recovery of economic strength and political vitality by Western Europe and Japan, with the inexorable result that both their role and ours in the world must be adjusted to reflect their regained vigor and self-assurance.
2. The increasing self-reliance of the states created by the dissolution of the colonial empires, and the growth of both their ability and determination to see to their own security and well-being.
3. The breakdown in the unity of the Communist Bloc, with all that implies for the shift of energies and resources to purposes other than a single-minded challenge to the United States and its friends, and for a higher priority in at least some Communist countries to the pursuit of national interests rather than their subordination to the requirements of world revolution.
4. The end of an indisputable U.S. superiority in strategic strength, and its replacement by a strategic balance in which the U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces are comparable.
5. The growth among the American people of the conviction that the time had come for other nations to share a greater portion of the burden of world leadership; and its corollary that the assured continuity of our long term involvement required a responsible, but more restrained American role.1

And so, once again, an American president is altering the basic course of American foreign policy. There have been few periods in American history that were as active internationally as President Nixon’s first term: the shifting of priority away from Southeast Asia as a vital area in the balance-of-power equation, the SALT accords, the Russian trade agreement, the joint U.S.-Russian space program, the Moscow summit and subsequent visit to the People’s Republic of China (we used to call it “Red China” during President Kennedy’s tenure, remember?), the drastic measures to improve the international monetary and trading system; the removal of Russian technicians from Egypt at President Sadat’s request, the free election of a Marxist president in the western hemisphere (Chile), the thaw in East and West German relations, and a host of other actions that would have seemed impossible in 1950 or even as recently as 1960.

What, then, is the Nixon Doctrine? What is the new role that he sees America playing in world affairs of the 70s? Some general themes emerge:

President Nixon’s plan is a threefold attempt to serve U.S. interests in this new environment by

—negotiating with adversaries. Regardless of their philosophy of government, we must attempt to find some common ground for agreement and mutual benefit.
—working for a greater partnership with U.S. allies, in which each nation is encouraged to make a greater contribution toward its own defense (“Do it yourself”).
—preserving America’s strategic strength for security. We maintain our sufficiency in arms as a “bargaining chip” while attempting to reduce the overall level of strategic weapons among all nuclear nations and working toward universal control of weapons in space and on the ocean floor.2

Will it work? Will President Nixon be able to establish a foundation for peace that future Presidents can build upon? Ten or twenty years from now we will be able to reflect on the success or failure of the Nixon Doctrine. Until that time, perhaps it is enough to realize that we have passed through a thirty-year period of major change in world relationships and that an American President, recently re-elected with a mandate, is the architect of a new doctrine that he hopes will meet the challenge.


1. Richard Nixon, “U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s—The Emerging Structure of Peace,” A Report to the Congress on February 9, 1972, reprinted in Department of State Bulletin LXVI, 1707 (March 13, 1972), 314.

2. Richard M. Nixon, “The Real Road to Peace,” written by the President exclusively for U.S. News and World Report Magazine, June 11, 1972, pp. 32-41.


Major Henry A. Staley (M.S., Auburn University) is a member of the faculty, Air Command and Staff College. His previous experience has included supply staff at wing and major command levels and a tour as Assistant Professor of Air Science, AFROTC, Southern Illinois University. Just before his present assignment he was Commander, 432d Supply Squadron, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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