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SMOKERS' CORNER: ONLY NIXON CAN GO TO CHINA

Updated March 17, 2019

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In the 1991 film Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, Comm­ander Spock, the right-hand man of Captain James T. Kirk describes Kirk’s diplomatic overtures towards the Klingon Empire as “Only Nixon can go to China.”

Spock, who belonged to the entirely rational and logical society on planet Vulcan, was paraphrasing a famous metaphor which had become part of America’s political language in the early 1970s. The film, of course, was fiction but the phrase wasn’t.

In the original Star Trek TV series and the five films that followed it, an alliance of planets in the ‘Alpha Quadrant’ of the Milky Way galaxy was at war with the hated Klingon Empire for decades. However, in the sixth film of the franchise, the alliance decides to send Captain Kirk to make peace with the Klingons. Kirk had had a history of fighting against the Klingons. He harboured immense hatred towards them. So when he agreed to host a diplomatic dinner for the Klingons, this is when Spock made the metaphorical remark,

Why popular leaders get away with doing things contrary to the ideological perception they build for themselves

The expression first emerged in 1971, a few months after US President Richard Nixon announced that he would be visiting China. Until Nixon’s visit in February 1972, the US and China had no diplomatic relations. The US did not recognise China’s communist government. It had severed all ties with China after Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces ousted the Chinese nationalists in 1949 and formed a communist state and government. China became a strategic and ideological ally of America’s Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.

The phrase “Only Nixon can go to China” was derived from a statement made by a Democratic Party senator, Mike Mansfield, and cited in the December 1971 issue of US News and World Report. Mansfield was quoted as saying, “Only a Republican, perhaps Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.” By this, Mansfield meant that only a staunch anti-communist politician such as Nixon, from the conservative Republican Party, would be able to approach communist China without facing any backlash from America’s largely anti-communist polity.

Had the same move been made by a leader of the more liberal Democratic Party, that leader would have faced severe criticism.

This phrase thus evolved to mean a right-wing politician initiating a policy or move that was associated more with those in the ‘liberal’ or progressive camp. However, in their essay for the 1998 issue of the American academic journal Public Choice, economists Tyler Cowen and Daniel Sutter write that, even though the phrase is often used for “right-wing politicians taking a left-wing course of action”, it can and has gone from left to right as well.

Fact is, the phrase may have come into use after 1971, but what it denotes has been happening across the 20th century and even in the 21st. For example, in the 1950s, US President Dwight Eisenhower (Republican Party) openly challenged America’s military and defence industries; in 1979, Israel’s staunch Zionist Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to make peace with Egypt; Egypt’s once radically anti-Israel leader Anwar Sadat recognised Israel; the populist Bolivian president Paz Estensorro introduced widespread ‘neo-conservative’ policies; Francois Mitterrand, the socialist French president (1981-95), privatised large parts of France’s public sector; US President Donald Trump has made loud peace overtures towards North Korea, etc.

There are many such examples. But why does this happen?

Simply put, experts believe that a popular leader doing something which does not suit his or her constituency’s beliefs is more likely to get away with it than if the same is done by an opposing leader. For example, had US President Obama (Democratic Party) so enthusiastically tried to reconcile with communist North Korea, he would have been castigated by the populist media and conservative ‘middle America.’ But Trump, a right-wing populist, is quite clearly getting away with it.

Professor Alexander Cukierman and economist Mariano Tommasi, in their March 1998 paper for the American Economic Review, write that most leaders (both on the right and the left) have at their disposal the intellectual resources and specialist advisers to help them determine political and economic trends. According to Cukierman and Tommasi, these leaders do not disclose their findings in this respect to the voters before an election. They keep to the script of how they are perceived. However, being largely pragmatic, if the need arises, they are willing to do the opposite of the ideological perception that they build for themselves during an election.

Nixon restored relations with China because China had broken away from the Soviet Union and the US forces were fighting a losing war in Vietnam against communist guerrillas, many of who were being backed by the Chinese. Cukierman and Tommasi insist that there are always pragmatic economic and political reasons behind the ‘Nixon going to China’ moments. But these moments do not completely isolate a leader’s constituency. Because such moments are explained away in the context of what and how the leaders are ideologically perceived.

Nixon’s supporters were delighted to read a quote in which he told Mao, ‘rightists can do what leftists can’t.’ Mitterrand explained his privatisation of certain sections of France’s public sector as a way to salvage the country’s welfare state.

According to Anwar Saeed, in his book The Discourse and Politics of Z.A. Bhutto, Pakistan’s ‘socialist’ prime minister Z.A. Bhutto agreed to allow the right-wing opposition to table a bill to constitutionally oust the Ahmadiyya community from the fold of Islam because he anticipated the post-1973 Saudi-backed rise of ‘political Islam.’

Bhutto, albeit in an entirely contrived manner, explained the move in the context of his leftist party’s ‘Islamic Socialism.’ His daughter Benazir Bhutto wanted to change the weekly holiday in Pakistan from Friday to Sunday. Her father had changed it to Friday under pressure from the opposition in 1977. Benazir was advised not to do this if she didn’t want to attract the wrath of the right-wing opposition. Yet, the conservative Nawaz Sharif regime managed to change it to Sunday without much opposition because, at the time, most religious parties were part of his coalition government. Nawaz explained that the move will be economically beneficial and was ‘endorsed by the ulema.’

However, he could not get away with suggesting peace with India, but an anti-India general Pervez Musharraf, when he came to power, did. The ‘left-liberal’ coalition government led by the PPP (2008-2013) did not get any traction from the polity and from the opposition parties led by Sharif and Imran Khan for a widespread operation against extremist groups. In fact, the government was accused of “doing America’s bidding against Islam.”

Yet, no such accusations were raised when a military operation was initiated by the second Sharif regime, even though Khan’s PTI had reservations. But these reservations vanished when

Khan came to power and recently ordered a crackdown against militant outfits. This became his “Only Nixon can go to China” moment.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2019