The Nixon Doctrine originally came about during an off-the-record press briefing on Guam as Nixon was involved in one of his long, rambling discussions about world affairs. When he realized the interest of the press in what he had said, which they immediately dubbed the "Guam Doctrine", Nixon wrote to Henry Kissinger asking that he find ways to leverage the press to get the name changed so it represented the doctrine's orginator, not the island on which it had been enunciated. It was via this typically Nixonesque combination of vanity, deceit and brilliance that the world recieved the Nixon Doctrine. Its main points read -

* First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments.

* Second, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security.

* Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.

Points one and two were of no great moment; they merely reaffirmed that in some respects, it was business as usual. The meat was in point three. Nixon had come into office having to deal with the vast American over-commitment to Vietnam. 536,000 American troops were defending a country the size of Florida and had been completely incapable of bringing the war to a conclusion acceptable to the United States; the result was domestic turmoil, tens of thousands of casualties, and an inability to keep more important events elsewhere in the world in focus. Nixon, along with his foreign policy guru Henry Kissinger, needed a way to deal with this problem without looking like they were turning their tail and running. The Nixon Doctrine was this way.

Kissinger, one of the most accomplished historians of his generation, believed that the history of the United States was characterized by periods of over-commitment followed by a retreat into isolation. The challenge, as he saw it, was to break this cycle and establish a sustainable degree of commitment to the outside world. To be sustainable, American engagement with its allies had to meet domestic approval, not place too large a strain on the economy, and not provoke the outside world to resist it.

The policy started with "Vietnamization" - the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and the increased focus on training and equipping South Vietnamese troops to take their place. This policy was ultimately a disaster for South Vietnam because the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was not up to the job of carrying on the fight, and its soldiers were soon dying in much larger numbers than the Americans had been. However, it provided a cover for Nixon to carry out the withdrawal of U.S. troops that he had promised when he was elected and gradually brought the war to a close, even if it did so much too slowly for many Americans. Generalized, the Nixon Doctrine then seemed to promise that there would be no more Vietnams in the future.

Under the Nixon Doctrine, the U.S. would build up regional allies that it hoped would do the job of containment for them. No longer would "Communist aggression" be automatically met by American troops, because the new doctrine allowed the U.S. to tailor its reaction to the particular situation; the levels of aid and help it gave would be dependent on how serious it viewed the situation to be.

Although this seemed to make U.S. commitments around the world less credible - the military would not be sent to back them up - it was actually hoped that it would make them more credible, because in the post-Vietnam era there were serious doubts about the efficacy of the U.S. to meet its commitments. Strong allies - who after all view their own defence as more important than the U.S. does - would be mini-Americas, fighting the good fight for Uncle Sam much more effectively than Washington could, but backed by the latter's aid.

The Nixon Doctrine was part of a complex blueprint for the future. Alongside it, the policy of detente with the Soviet Union was designed to reduce tensions with the Communist superpower and so make it less likely that the U.S. would get drawn into conflicts like Vietnam again. Similarly, Nixon and Kissinger's bold decision to establish relations with China was designed to place additional pressure on the Soviet Union to persuade it to behave well. It was hoped that this gradual reduction of tension throughout the international system as a whole would allow the Nixon Doctrine to be successful because it made it less likely that wars would start in the first place.

Can it be called a success? Take Iran, where the shah was built up with copious quantities of equipment and aid. While this may have created a strong regional power, it also helped to send Iran itself into the maelstrom of the Iranian Revolution. The Nixon Doctrine had little to say about the internal make-up of the allies involved and their own political problems, a symptom of the extreme focus by Nixon and Kissinger on the role that countries played on the larger geopolitical chessboard rather than on the countries themselves. A similar problem prevailed in South Vietnam, where the corrupt and inefficient military could never stand up to the fanaticism of the Viet Cong; all the Nixon Doctrine achieved here was a short interval between American withdrawal and the destruction of this country.

The Nixon Doctrine was necessary because of the U.S. over-commitment to Vietnam, and the general need for cutting back on engagement across the world. What its flawed implementation revealed was that only limited goals could be accomplished by such an indirect method. And with the more direct method having also failed in Vietnam, the conclusion seemed inescapable and remains relevant - the need for the United States to match its limited means to achievable ends and not embark on grand crusades based more on hope than reality.