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Sunday
Apr152007

Nixon and Deng: architects of our globalized world

Pope John Paul II hurtles toward sainthood in the Catholic Church, while Ronald Reagan achieved that ideological status long ago in the hearts of American conservatives.

Both are judged by many historians as decisive figures in the West's Cold War victory over the socialist bloc.

While not denigrating the contributions of these two great men, let me submit that two other figures loom far larger as architects of the socialist bloc's transformation from vaunted global menace to valued global market: Richard Nixon and Deng Xiaoping.

Yes, I know I'm talking about Watergate's criminal-in-chief and the real butcher of Tiananmen, but neither leader's political sins compare to their absolutely pivotal roles in history.

Nixon's reaching out to both the Soviet Union and China in the early 1970s could not have been more surprising, given his pre-presidential history as a vicious anti-communist. But, by doing so, Nixon effectively ended the Cold War by the start of his second, deeply troubled term in 1973.

In forging a detente with the Soviets that included limitations on strategic arms, Nixon basically killed the worldwide socialist revolution. For once, Moscow - that movement's leader - entered into such agreements with its capitalist archrival, it admitted to both itself and its empire of imprisoned satellite states that its model of socialist development suffered limited appeal.

In short, Western Europe was lost, and bipolar rivalry with the United States remained valid only in the underdeveloped Third World - an equally impractical vision that perished barely a decade later in Afghanistan's mountains.

Far more damaging for Moscow's communist leadership were the economic connections with the West triggered by detente.

By opening itself up to trade, the U.S.S.R.'s fake economy was ultimately undermined by the dollar's infiltration: Its hard value revealed the illogic of the Kremlin's central planning and pretend pricing.

In short, Nixon revealed this emperor had no clothes.

By introducing goods with actual values attached, Western trade poisoned the entire Soviet production chain by suggesting that the vast bulk of its output arrived with little appreciable market value.

So long as the Soviet economy remained virtually isolated from free markets, the illusion of productivity was maintained.

But, once connected to the real world, Soviet consumers began to opt out of the dysfunctional Soviet system in increasing numbers, instead availing themselves of desired goods via a black market whose pervasiveness was matched only by its sophistication.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev and his fellow reformers arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s, the historical die was cast and the great unraveling of the Soviet empire inevitably began.

I know, I know. Reagan's "star wars" allegedly spent the Soviets into oblivion. But realize this: Without Nixon's detente, that price tag would have remained incalculable and therefore economically meaningless.

Even more important than setting the Cold War's trajectory toward our successful outcome, Nixon's opening up of China enabled that giant's eventual emergence as globalization's prime agent of economic change in the 21st century.

Here, Nixon deserves serious credit as a formative influence on today's amazingly robust global economy, for without China's rise under Deng Xiaoping, globalization as we know it would not have been possible.

If Nixon is arguably the world's most influential political leader of the second half of the 20th century, then Deng is arguably its most important economic figure.

Coming out of the long national nightmare that was Mao Zedong's phenomenally disastrous and bloody rule, China in 1980 stood - in absolute terms - as the planet's most pervasively impoverished country.

By some definitions, China will possess the world's largest national economy within a quarter-century's time, and the man who set that all in motion was Deng.

Rarely in history has one dictator held in his hands such discretionary power to choose between further enslavement of his subjects and their rapid empowerment through economic liberation.

In disassembling Maoism, Deng chose the latter route, validating both Nixon's previous strategy and discrediting Gorbachev's later decision to pursue political glasnost before economic perestroika in the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Richard Nixon routinely ranks as one of our nation's worst presidents, and Deng Xiaoping appears forever doomed to live in Mao's dark shadow, but neither deserves this historical fate.

Instead, both should ultimately be appreciated for what they were: lead architects of our globalized world, one marked by more peace and poverty reduction than ever before witnessed in human history.

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