Obama seeks his 'Nixon to China' moment

President Obama is faced with defending his controversial foreign policy – from Cuba to the Asia 'pivot.' During his last year in office, the stakes are rising.

Joshua Paul/AP/File
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in November.

As President Obama fills his 2016 calendar with overseas trips to Asia and perhaps even to Cuba, he is clearly aiming to secure his foreign policy legacy.

In other words, he is looking for his "Nixon to China" moment. 

Although Nixon’s trip to Beijing – with its handshake with Mao Zedong and photogenic stroll on the Great Wall – was hugely controversial, it helped set in stone his détente with Communist China. Afterward, no president suggested retreating from that foreign policy. 

Today, Mr. Obama is faced with defending a similarly controversial foreign policy legacy – reaching out to adversaries such as Cuba and Iran and trying to pivot America’s attention away from the Middle East and toward Asia. Future presidents could yet retreat from those policies. 

That makes this year important for the president’s vision of America’s place in the world. Ultimately, policies themselves are more significant than photo ops, experts say. But trips are a valuable part of the president’s toolkit. 

With Cuba, for example, steps to normalize relations in Americans’ eyes are Obama’s top priority, says Bruce Jentleson, a foreign policy specialist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. But a presidential trip, with its massive media coverage, would have the effect of making relations with Cuba seem like an accomplished fact.

This year, Obama will travel twice to Asia – to Japan in May and China in September. And before those trips, he will host the leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in February. He will also visit Peru in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

But the closest thing to a Nixon-to-China moment for Obama would most likely come from a trip to Cuba. Currently, there is no trip to Havana on the presidential calendar, but White House aides have strongly hinted that it is likely to occur, and perhaps as soon as March. Obama himself has said he hopes to be the first American president to visit Havana since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, on the condition he be assured access to the Communist island’s political dissidents.

Obama-to-Cuba would not have the historical weight or geopolitical significance of Nixon’s trip to China, given China’s much greater strategic importance, but it would be a similar attempt to lock in a new and controversial presidential policy.

“A trip by Obama to Cuba, if that comes about, would very much be about consolidating the changes he’s made in US-Cuba relations,” says Professor Jentleson.

Two-term presidents since Eisenhower have generally programmed an uptick in foreign travel in their eighth year in office. Many trips are command performances at international events, like NATO summits.

But “discretionary” travel is different. “That’s usually about showcasing things [the presidents] perceive as accomplishments, “and perhaps a final go at pushing ahead on a theme or priority,” says Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident scholar and expert in presidential travel at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

She notes, for example, that President Clinton “really focused on peace efforts in his final year” – reflected in his travel in 2000 to India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Ireland, and his Camp David summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. 

In that vein, Obama is expected to travel to Colombia in March to mark the scheduled signing of a peace deal ending Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla war.    

An Obama trip to Cuba would also fall in the “discretionary” category. And with 

two Republican presidential candidates of Cuban heritage – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – pledging to reverse Obama’s opening to Cuba if elected, there would seem to be a need for Obama to bolster his policy. 

But a presidential stroll on Havana’s seaside Malecon might be just the exclamation point on a policy that already has irresistible momentum. 

“I’d venture to guess that this [policy] will not be reversed no matter who wins the presidency,” Duke’s Jentleson says. 

“The more Obama does to make Americans have stakes in this opening – expansion of trade and tourism ties, facilities for younger Cuban-Americans to visit the island, agricultural sales that invest American farmers in the policy – the more you create a situation where reversing it would be really hard,” he adds. 

Nixon dubbed his trip to China “the week that changed the world.” While a trip to Cuba might not live up to that billing, a breakthrough on Iran might. 

No one expects to see Obama stepping off of Air Force One in Tehran, but Jentleson doesn’t rule out an Iran opening eventually being seen as Obama’s Nixon-to-China moment. 

“A broader transformation of the US-Iran relationship could conceivably compare in scope and strategic importance to the US-China shift” under Nixon, Jentleson adds. 

The difference is that, while Nixon engineered the transformation with a diplomatic overture and a trip, Obama’s extended hand to Tehran can only go so far.

“The potential might be there,” he says, “but how far it goes will depend a lot on Iran” – from its implementation of the nuclear deal to the legitimacy and outcome of upcoming national elections. “Those aren’t things Obama can make happen.”

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