Richard A. Moss has chosen a crowded field for his book. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's push to engage the Soviet Union diplomatically and open up relations with China is the object of a number of major monographs, countless biographies, three thick volumes of memoirs by Kissinger himself and one by Anatoly Dobrynin (In confidence: Moscow's ambassador to America's six Cold War presidents, New York: Random House, 1995). To these must be added at least seven separate volumes of primary sources in the Foreign Relations of the United States series—five dedicated to relations with the Soviet Union, and two to China. Given the wealth of existing materials and sources, it is not surprising that Nixon's back channel to Moscow does not propose a total reinterpretation of detente. Rather, the book offers a careful dissection of the everyday practice of foreign policy, and a word of caution against excessive reliance on ‘back channels’ instead of traditional diplomacy. Contrary to some of the existing literature, Moss does not present President Nixon and Kissinger as revolutionary innovators in terms of strategic vision, or even in their choice of bypassing traditional channels and instead cultivating informal contacts. In fact, they simply reacted to opportunities and circumstances, both domestic and international. In 1969, the Nixon administration entered office with the necessity to find a way out of the Vietnam War. Engaging the USSR and China appeared the most promising route. Given the problems the administration had with leaks to the press in its early days, neither the diplomatic nor the military apparatus could be fully trusted. Therefore, establishing a secure back channel with reliable and responsive foreign officials provided an effective response to both issues, as it allowed the engagement the administration needed while keeping the process firmly in President Nixon's and Kissinger's hands. Initial success transformed this technique of conducting foreign affairs into a standard modus operandi. It is here that Moss finds most to object in the idea of diplomacy through back channels. The Nixon back channel achieved important results for the United States: some progress in Vietnam, agreements on nuclear weapons and a new line of communication with both Moscow and Beijing. However, most of these achievements proved short-lived. Part of the reason, as Moss argues, lies with the nature of back channel diplomacy itself. First, once the protagonists of informal diplomacy were gone, the back channel became useless. After President Nixon's resignation following the Watergate scandal, his successors were either unable or unwilling to go back to the channels. Second, informal diplomacy was useful in initiating the discussion of thorny issues and breaking bureaucratic impasses. However, it was far less effective in addressing complex problems, such as nuclear disarmament, which required the technical expertise that only experienced professionals had. Back channels can be useful tools, but should not replace the business of government. The main challenge for the reader is the level of detail in the book. Moss does not shy away from a very thorough discussion of virtually all available evidence. While this would not be a problem in itself, the number of documents, memoirs and secondary sources on the era of detente is so vast that it creates confusion rather than clarity. At times, the book reads almost like a day-to-day catalogue of meetings and conversations between President Nixon, Kissinger, their collaborators and their foreign interlocutors. This will be an asset for the dedicated scholar of the Nixon era, but a more casual reader risks losing the plot. Furthermore, presenting the evidence in a more concise manner might have left the author some space to explore other areas. For example, it would have been interesting to see more discussion of President Nixon and Kissinger's approach to the global South, besides the cases of India and Pakistan examined in chapter four. Likewise, themes not directly linked to security receive comparatively less attention in the book. In recent years, several scholars—such as Roham Alvandi in Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) and Daniel J. Sargent in A superpower transformed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)—have shown how crucial non-security issues were in this period. Nixon's back channel to Moscow provides a dispassionate look at informal diplomacy in the era of detente, and a careful assessment of its successes and some of its pitfalls. Moss's matter of fact approach to President Nixon and Kissinger's policies is a refreshing contribution to a field that is still obsessed with judging them. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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