Nixon in China

This piece was first published on The Guardian website back in 2006. It was prompted by ENOs staging of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China. While the opera, if anything, improves with age, its subject matter, politics and international relations seem only to go from bad to worse, just as I suggested back in 2006.

English National Opera’s revival of John Adams’ Nixon in China is visually and musically stunning and, like all good opera, shot through with political intrigue. Its relentless mockery of Henry Kissinger has obvious appeal, but more interesting is the opera’s surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Nixon himself. Could there be another side to Nixon, one neglected by historians, or did the librettist take a few liberties with historical truth in pursuit of a good story?

Nixon is remembered chiefly for having to resign the presidency after authorising and then lying about criminal acts ahead of the 1972 election campaign. He also escalated the Vietnam war – bombing Cambodia and Laos – before bringing it to an ignominious end. And it was under his stewardship that Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile was overthrown with US support. According to the received wisdom, Nixon was a right-wing Republican of the worst kind: deceitful, conceited and utterly paranoid in respect of perceived threats to American hegemony on the world stage.

Nothing much has changed then: for Nixon three decades ago, read Bush today. Except that a closer look at Nixon’s record – especially on the domestic front – reveals some quite astounding differences; differences which illustrate just how far to the right politics has shifted in recent years. If Nixon were running for office today on his 1968 platform, he would be way to the left of the Democratic Party.

Consider his record: he was the architect of détente and initiated the first round of talks on strategic arms limitation. Notwithstanding his folly in south-east Asia, it was Nixon who began the process of making the world safe from nuclear weapons. He established the Environmental Protection Agency – the same agency whose efforts are now undermined at every opportunity by the Bush administration, which refuses to allow the fate of the planet to interfere with America’s economic prosperity. He introduced Supplemental Security Income, a programme of support for blind, disabled and elderly people funded not from social security payments but from general taxation. The type of programme that is now targeted by those determined to cut government spending on society’s most vulnerable.

Nixon also launched the Minority Business Development Agency, which provides support and advice to minority-owned businesses. He was responsible for the Philadelphia Plan, the first government-sanctioned affirmative action programme, which set targets for greater employment of African Americans by the construction industry. Now, few aspiring statesmen would risk advocating such a radical scheme for addressing inequalities across the racial divide. Then there was the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Similar efforts to improve workplace safety today are routinely opposed by employers perceiving yet another bureaucratic challenge to business profitability.

Perhaps most remarkably, when the oil crisis hit in 1973, Nixon persuaded the nation to drive more slowly in order to save fuel. He introduced a 55 mph national speed limit, which remained in place until 1995. He also persuaded Americans to exchange their gas-guzzling automobiles for more modest and fuel-efficient cars. The environmental crisis today is far more serious than the oil crisis of the 1970s, but would any President now dare suggest that Americans give up their equally oil-greedy SUVs for the greater good?

In the 1970s, Americans were easily persuaded that in the face of a collective crisis, the proper response was personal sacrifice. Nixon was able to bring about this cultural change not because he was an exceptionally moral or inspiring leader – he was nothing of the sort – but because the political context in which he operated was quite different from today’s. It was a context in which politicians could make a difference when it mattered, and were sufficiently confident to offer moral leadership on difficult issues. It was a time when most people believed very strongly that there was such a thing as society. It was also a time when politicians could force through increases in government spending on socially valuable public initiatives without risking the global competitive advantage of their national economies.

Ironically, it was Nixon’s legacy that finally ended a period of unprecedented political commitment to the possibility of a more inclusive society. He unwittingly began the process of dismantling the postwar economic settlement, which had delivered a quarter century of steady growth, low inflation and full employment. In January 1971 Nixon declared, “Now I am a Keynesian”. In fact, just like his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, he had been a Keynesian throughout his presidency. But as well as using deficit spending to reduce unemployment, he also used it to fund the spiralling costs of the Vietnam War.

In the run up to the 1972 election, with the economy struggling under an unsustainable burden of debt and with inflation out of control, he even attempted price controls. But it was too late: the United States could no longer fulfil its obligations as global financial underwriter within the terms of 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, and Nixon let the dollar float free. Thus began a chain of events, which led inexorably, though not inevitably, to the rise of the quite different economic philosophy that directs the global economy today.

As well as tying the hands of politicians in respect of ensuring essential public services are properly funded and enabling them to promote a degree of social equity, the economic changes of the last three decades have severed the link between democracy, which is still conducted at the level of nation states, and the economy, which is now a single global entity beyond the control of national governments.

The significance of these changes and their impact on democracy are glossed over by politicians and rarely questioned in the media. There is great dishonesty about the reasons for the failure of the postwar economic settlement. We are encouraged to believe that the changes of the last three decades were the result of an inevitable process of natural economic evolution, rather than the intentioned policy decisions of a group of politicians and economists driven by the idea that never again should moral and social concerns be allowed to interfere with the capacity of the wealthy elite to make themselves even wealthier.

What would Richard Milhous Nixon have made of it all? He was a deeply complex and flawed individual. He was responsible for untold suffering in south-east Asia and Latin America, but as the operatic recounting of his historic meeting with Mao Tse Tung makes clear, part of him believed in the possibility of a more just and equal world, and, on the evidence of his domestic record, he was prepared to upset the super rich in his struggle to bring it about. Regrettably, the same can be said of few politicians today.