Realpolitik in the Age of Multipolarity

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RFK Jr.: August 9 will mark the 15th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation from office. Although Watergate has overshadowed his presidential achievements in the public mind, there is at least one thing for which we remember him, and rightly so, in a positive light. RFK Jr.’s Policies + PoliticsRead More

August 9 will mark the 15th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation from office. Although Watergate has overshadowed his presidential achievements in the public mind, there is at least one thing for which we remember him, and rightly so, in a positive light. 

President Nixon’s visit to China in February of 1972 was a major milestone in the history of the Cold War. A cynic might say that it was a strategic maneuver to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union. Perhaps to some extent it was, but it was much more than that. So tonight I’d like to say a bit more about this watershed moment of the Cold War and what it might teach us today. 

It’s a relevant topic because today we again face rising tensions between the world’s most powerful nations — the United States, Russia, and China. The threat of nuclear war is greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe there is something important we can learn from President Nixon’s approach fifty years ago. 

Besides opening unofficial diplomatic relations with China, we also remember Richard Nixon with admiration for initiating détente with the Soviet Union. As you all know, Nixon was no shrinking violet when it came to communism. He was a hard-line red baiter. He built his career on anti-communist crusades. Yet it was he who negotiated the antiballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union. It was he who pulled the United States out of Vietnam. And it was he who opened up relations with China.

President Nixon embraced the approach that his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called realpolitik, which in its normal sense means the pragmatic advancement of national interest based on real conditions and not ideology. Realpolitik recognizes leaders and their nations as they really are, rather than as we wish they would be.

In Nixon’s time, the United States’s official position was that the CCP was an illegitimate regime and that the true government of China was the Kuomintang, which had fled to Taiwan in 1949 and still claimed to rule the whole of China. For two decades we maintained a pretense that the communist government would soon collapse, Chiang Kai-shek would sweep back into power, and China would rejoin the free world. Nixon’s visit to China was the beginning of a coming to terms with reality. He was moving to opt out of a fantasy. 

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Today, U.S. foreign policy is based on a delusion more egregious, and far more dangerous, than the daydream that Chiang Kai-shek was the real president of China. We seem to think that we are still what we were in 1991 — the world’s sole superpower, a peerless hegemon that brooks no rival and can bend any nation to its will. We are stuck in the past. 

A nation, or for that matter an individual, can maintain an illusion only at ever-increasing cost. Obsessed with the idea of our nation’s strength, we ignore a growing infirmity at our core. The foundation of a nation’s strength is the soundness of its infrastructure, the physical vitality of its people, the integrity of its government, the respect it enjoys abroad, and its economic strength. In each of these, for forty or fifty years after World War Two, the United States far outclassed all other nations.

But power breeds arrogance, arrogance breeds neglect, and neglect breeds weakness. In his classic book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” the iconic Yale historian Paul Kennedy has shown how virtually all the great empires of the last five centuries have collapsed from the weight of overextended military commitments abroad. This same pitfall is now undermining the American experiment with self-government. As we poured our wealth into one military operation after another in the pursuit of global empire, our nation began to decay from within. Thirty years and tens of trillions of dollars later, we stagger under a decaying infrastructure, an epidemic of chronic disease, a plague of addiction, and historic economic inequality.

America has lost its moral authority and a great portion of its stature abroad. These are casualties of decades of unjust wars, regime change operations, support for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, and suppression of popular democratic movements. 

As above, so below. As abroad, so at home. What America did to the world, it did to itself. As America pursued imperial power in the guise of “promoting democracy,” so too has democracy become a mere facade at home. Yes, we still have elections, but so does Iran, so does Russia, so does China. Meanwhile, our government targets its own people with propaganda, surveillance, and censorship. It centralizes power in the hands of a corporate-political elite. It deploys government agencies like the DOJ, EPA, FCC, and IRS to persecute political enemies.

Most significant of all, we have lost faith in ourselves as a good people and a great nation. The authentic patriotism of the post-World War Two era gave way to Bush-Cheney jingoism. American can-do spirit succumbed to a national epidemic of depression and addiction. How are people to believe in this nation, when its government has neglected them,and neglected the high ideals of its founders? The American Dream is now a bitter illusion. The promise that hard work and integrity will lift you out of poverty is broken. The America of my youth boasted the largest middle class and the greatest social mobility in the world. Today we are among the most stratified and immobile. Poor Americans are less likely than the poor of any Western nation to transcend poverty. 

All of this has been the price of the delusion of which I have spoken. This is what happens when a nation’s policies are stuck in a world that no longer exists. But the good news is that we can reverse all of these conditions of our decline. The first step is to stop pretending that we can and should dominate the world by force. Instead, we must acknowledge reality, accept reality, and forge a national program that takes reality into account.

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Like it or not, the unipolar moment is over. It is time — past time — for the United States to accept a multipolar world order. Just as President Nixon accepted the reality of CCP rule in China, we have to accept the emergence of other great powers in the world. And let me tell you, this does not entail the diminishment of America’s fortunes or our isolation from world affairs. Instead, it promises the restoration of our prosperity, our health, our  reengagement with the world as a moral and economic leader rather than a bully, and our belief in ourselves as a people.

Let me offer a few practical examples of what it means to accept multipolarity, and how we will benefit from it as a nation.

First, it means that we can vastly scale back our military budget. You see, most of that budget has no role in defending the American homeland. It is all about projecting power abroad. It is all about maintaining dominance. It is no longer necessary if we accept that we do not need to dominate the world. Imagine what we could have done with the $8 trillion we spent on the post-9/11 regime-change wars. We could have made Social Security solvent for another generation. We could have remedied the 2.3 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit in this country. We could have ended poverty. We could have balanced the U.S. budget. 

Well, that is money ill-spent. Not only did it bankrupt our country, hollow out the middle class, and leave us the legacy of demoralizing, soul-crushing inflation, we didn’t even achieve its stated goals of bringing peace and democracy to the nations it targeted. Quite the contrary: every one of those nations ended up less democratic and worse off than we found them.  We can’t go back in time and retrieve that money, but we can chart a new course starting now. 

Today we spend something like 1.3 trillion dollars on national security, if you include the intelligence agencies, the Department of Energy, and so on. My commitment is to roll back that spending to the “Eisenhower minimum” — the level that it was at in 1960 in constant dollars. If that was enough at the height of the Cold War, it should be enough today. In other words, I will push for a 50% reduction in military expenditures in my first four years in office, with more cuts to come thereafter. In the end, we will have a stronger, smarter, and better-targeted national defense, and I will use those savings to rebuild our country in every way there is. 

Military spending is a constant drain on our nation’s vitality. China spends one-third of what we spend on her military. But during the period where we spent 8 trillion dollars bombing bridges, road, airports, schools, and hospitals in our failed War on Terror, China spent the equivalent amount building bridges, roads, airports, schools, and hospitals. Our forever wars made us enemies across the globe and left us bankrupt at home. China’s investments in contrast made it friends and brought it influence in every corner of the globe. China is now the biggest creditor in most of the nations of Latin America and Africa.

China also spent nearly that amount building up its economic infrastructure. For example, it built 26,000 miles of high-speed rail. Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline recently knows how badly we need that. 


Let me give you another example of the advantages of embracing the transition to multipolarity. It has to do with the U.S. dollar. Starting in the 1970s, American power has depended increasingly on the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. How have we been able to rack up huge budget deficits year after year, along with huge trade deficits, without a weakening of the currency? Normally, a country that does that will experience inflation as the cost of imports rises to bring trade back into balance. That did not happen to the US until recently. Why? Because there was a demand for US dollars far beyond what other countries needed to buy US goods. The dollar was the global trading currency. The dollar was the global reserve currency. The dollar was the global safe haven. So all those dollars that we printed didn’t result in inflation. They stayed in the foreign reserves of countries like Japan and China, which invested them in US Treasury bonds. Basically, other countries have been financing our deficits. 

No other country could print unlimited quantities of money without consequence, but we could. We could, that is, until recently. That privilege depended on the special status of the dollar, the cornerstone of America’s dominance. But today, that status is crumbling.

No longer can we rely on the imperial dollar to compensate for the loss of our industrial base. No longer can we rely on it to fund our deficits. Realpolitik requires that we face up to that fact. The more we try to hold onto the past, the more we hasten the day of reckoning. Already by weaponizing the dollar, we have accelerated its decline. Russia has become nearly immune to our sanctions. China is rapidly establishing the yuan as an international trade currency. The BRICS just last week launched their mBridge settlements platform that uses blockchain technology to bypass SWIFT. 

Two days ago, the Saudi’s announced their decision not to renew their 50-year petro-dollar deal with the United States. Another step on the long road to de-dollarization.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the case. The dollar remains the world’s dominant currency. If we want to keep it that way, we have to stop using it as a bludgeon. The way to keep the dollar strong is to keep the country strong. We can do that by redirecting our bloated military budget toward infrastructure, education, and health. We can do that by reestablishing the integrity of our financial markets. We can do that by de-weaponizing the dollar so that nations feel secure in keeping their wealth in dollars. We can do that by spending responsibly and reducing the deficit. 

We won’t be the imperial hegemon anymore. We won’t be able to import more than we export. We will, instead, be first among equals. And that is a good thing. 

As long as America was the unchallenged global superpower, it could do whatever it wanted. Like a teenage bully in a playground of third-graders, it could make the rules for everyone else. But now the third-graders have grown up. Our bravado and bluster no longer frighten them. When we threaten to take away their toys — that’s called “sanctions” — they just laugh at us. Our toy, the US dollar, is still the best on the playground. But it won’t be for long, unless we start playing as equals. 

The world today faces challenges far greater than the threat that one nation poses to another. Nations must work together to address multiple catastrophic and existential risks. I speak here of bioweapons proliferation. I speak of nuclear proliferation. I speak of AI weapons. I speak of ecological tipping points. Some of these threats are long familiar and some are new. The prospect of nuclear war is nearer now than at any time since 1962 — largely because America has clung so desperately to its imperial fantasies. But maybe even more frightening is the rapid advance in bioweapons engineering. The technological hurdles to creating weaponized superviruses are getting lower and lower. We urgently need international cooperation to halt this new and potentially apocalyptic arms race. 

But cooperation will never happen if we continue to see every rival as an enemy. 

To be realistic about the state of the world, to accept the new multipolar order, will benefit our country. We cannot go on pretending. For all the bloviating about “American interests,” America has been in steady decline over the last sixty years of its imperial project. In other words, “American interests” have not been IN America’s interest. Sure, our policies have enriched the mega-corporations and the billionaire class, but most of the country is suffering. It is time to rethink what our national interests really are. 

Just as our authentic national interest suffered in the imperial age, so it will improve in the post-imperial age. It will improve when we invest in peace. It will improve when we turn our attention home again. And paradoxically, by releasing the ambition to dominate, we will once again rise to a position of primacy in the world. Why? It is because America has certain advantages that we can reclaim.

You see, the true foundation of America’s greatness is not just our natural resources or our large population. It is our national character, our free markets, and our Constitution. These are the assets that will allow us to excel in a multipolar age.

In a country like China, the success of an enterprise depends not on making great products or running an efficient business, but on political influence. That might allow it to dominate the Chinese market, but it becomes weak abroad, requiring constant government assistance. But in a free economy, only the most efficient and innovative companies can survive. Unfortunately, our country has become more and more like China, as corporations have captured Congress and the regulatory agencies. They have written the regulations to favor themselves. They lobby Congress to garner a competitive edge and vast subsidies. The engines of innovation, the small and medium enterprises, cannot compete with that. Our mega-corporations have wedded themselves so closely to political power that they are tantamount to state-owned enterprises like in China. 

Same for our freedoms. The America I grew up in did not censor speech. It did not restrict freedom of movement. It respected freedom of association. The free flow of people and ideas is the lifeblood not only of democracy but also of economic vitality. As President, I will restore those freedoms and thereby restore to America its competitive advantage in the world.

We saw with the fall of the Soviet Union — a country that in its heyday exceeded the US in population, land, and resources — the inferiority of a command-and-control system. That is why I am confident we can outcompete any country in the world, by returning to our traditions of being the freest country in the world.

We didn’t beat the USSR on the battlefield, and we don’t have to subdue our rivals today through military might either. We don’t have to intimidate them into submission. America will do fine in a multipolar world. 

I foresee a day when our trade deficits once again become trade surpluses, as they were up until the Vietnam War. I foresee a day when we once again lead the world by example and not by force. I foresee a day when America stands for peace and not war. To abandon the dreams of empire is not to resign ourselves to second-class status in the world. Quite the opposite — it is to fulfill our true potential for greatness. 

Again, the first step toward this is truth. It is the realpolitik that recognizes the inevitability of the end of American empire. Then we can adjust purposefully and gracefully to a new order in global affairs. We can stand for freedom, not just in our own country but also in the world. We can defy the totalitarian tendencies in global governance. We can demonstrate the superiority of a truly free society. That is the destiny of America — not to dominate the world, but to inspire it.

This speech was given by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on June 12 at the Richard Nixon Library & Museum hosted by the Nixon Foundation as part of its 2024 Presidential Policy Perspectives Series.

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