Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 1999

(Note: The following presentation by Donald E. Nuechterlein was made at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs on May 26, 1999. The panel was chaired by Prof. Kenneth W. Thompson, director emeritus of the Miller Center, and included former British Ambassador Adam Watson and former U.S. Ambassador David D. Newsom.)

Our subject is a daunting one because it asks that we assess future relationships among seventeen European states and two North Americans ones which comprise the North Atlantic Alliance. In light of NATO's current policy differences over Kosovo, policy makers seem to have a difficult enough time anticipating each week the twists and turns of policy in London, Bonn, Paris, and Washington without trying to fathom how British, German, French, and American leaders will define national interests in the 21st century.

My task here is to describe the major factors that will influence U.S. policy toward the Atlantic Alliance in the next decade and try to assess what our policy on Europe will look like in 2010. I will draw on my own research on the subject of "national interest" and occasionally use phrases such as "vital" and "major" interest to describe the intensity of concern that the United States has regarding developments in East Asia and the Middle East, as well as in Europe.

These remarks are focused on three broad themes that influence the way Americans view their role in the world, including future policy toward Europe. These are:

The first category relates to the ability of the United States to maintain 1) a growing economy which competes successfully in global markets and satisfies the economic expectations of most Americans; 2) a political climate in which the federal government builds public confidence in its ability to solve national problems and to pursue wise policies abroad; and 3) a social environment in which armed violence in American cities and schools does not distract the American public from serious issues abroad.

In my view, the United States will deal effectively with its economic and social challenges in the coming decade, even though the recent school shootings in Colorado and Georgia call this into question. But I am less sanguine that our political leaders will summon the requisite determination to deal effectively with certain fundamental national problems, for example, gun control, social security and health care financing, campaign finance reform, or to achieve bipartisan support for long-term international security policy..

Let me elaborate. I anticipate a continuation into the 21st century of the current political phenomenon of divided government, whereby the presidency is held by one political party and at least one house of Congress is controlled by the opposition party. This mode of government, which is impossible in the parliamentary system, has prevailed in the United States for thirty years, with the exception of the Carter presidency from 1977-80. In the Nixon and Ford administrations, both the Senate and House of Representatives were controlled by Democrats. And Ronald Reagan and George Bush had to deal with a Democratic-controlled House throughout their tenures. Since 1995, Bill Clinton has been obliged to cope with Republican control of the Senate and House, with the obvious disruptive results that we now see.

Political scientists differ over why divided government prevails at the end of the 20th century. A major reason seems to be that many American voters prefer this because it serves as a check on excessive federal power wielded by either the president or Congress. Many voters remember the 1960s when a powerful president, Lyndon Johnson, and a compliant Democratic Congress got the country involved in a long, disastrous war in Vietnam and in a less than successful, but immensely costly, war on poverty at home.

It is entirely possible that in 2000 we will elect a Republican president and saddle him with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, or that a Democratic president will again face Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The implication for American foreign policy, specifically U.S. relations with Europe, is that Washington will not be united on questions associated with the size and cost of American forces stationed abroad, their use in places such as Kosovo and Kuwait, and on trade relations with Europe and Asia. Foreign leaders, predictably, will then be obliged to ask: "Who indeed speaks for the United States?"

On the second theme-- the international security environment in the new century-- America will be increasingly preoccupied with China and other countries in Northeast Asia: North and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The United States has huge trade with these countries, except for North Korea, and this trade will expand further as the Asian economies recover from their major contractions during the past two years.

But the principal reason for increased U.S. concern about this region is peace and security there in the 21st century. Simply stated, America has for a half century been the major superpower in this area and it fought two costly wars, in Korea and Vietnam, to resist Soviet and Chinese efforts to encourage U.S. withdrawal from East Asia. Today China aspires to have at least equal status with the United States as a power center, and many observers believe it intends eventually to replace America States as the power broker in East Asia.

Consequently, American leaders inevitably will spend more time worrying about what happens on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Straits, and the South China Sea than they will about the Balkans or the further expansion of NATO. This may cause Europeans to worry anew that American attention is being diverted from Europe, as was the case in the 1960s, but their leaders must accept the reality that America is a Pacific power and has vital economic and strategic interests in East Asia.

The Persian Gulf and the Near East will continue to be an important focus of American policy. But increasingly this area may come to be a shared responsibility with the European Union and, perhaps, with a revitalized Russia. Peace between Israel and a new Palestinian state will go a long way to improve the international security and economic development of this oil-rich region.

The third theme regarding future American policy is the willingness of the European Union to accept major responsibility in forging economic and security ties with eastern Europe in order to raise living standards there and keep peace on the continent.

European leaders need to reduce their dependence on Washington in solving local security problems, and they should take bold steps to enable eastern European states to join the E.U. After fifty years of impressive economic growth, the European Union with its common market and common currency has an obligation to help the struggling democracies of eastern Europe, just as Americans did for western Europe half a century ago. This means that E.U. expansion to include eastern European countries should move at a rapid rate, not at its current snails pace, in order to encourage hope among those Europeans who lived under Soviet domination for forty years and now deeply desire to be part of a democratic Europe.

Regarding future security on the continent, I fear that Europe risks a serious diminution of American support for a continued military presence there if its governments fail modernize their armed forces and also take primary responsibility for dealing with regional threats to peace, such as that posed by Serba in Bosnia and Kosovo and potentially in Macedonia. The huge U.S. contribution to the air war over Kosovo raises for many Americans the question of whether defending freedom in the Balkans is more in the U.S. national interest than it is in the interest of Europe. In point of fact, Kosovo is at best a major interest of the United States, whereas it is probably a vital one for Europe.

A fundamental factor regarding future security in Europe is Russia. Here there is no ambiguity about the U.S. interest: it is a vital one, just as it has been for fifty years. Still, with the Cold War over and Russia today a negligible military threat, Europeans should take a larger role in forging a working relationship with the new leadership that emerges from elections in Russia next year. Americans, for their part, need to appreciate that Europeans know better than we do what kind of participation Europe wishes to have from Moscow in the next decade, in order to achieve security on the continent. Similarly, it is time for the United States to accept a lower profile in dealing with Moscow regarding European security issues.

In conclusion, it should be reiterated that the security and economic prosperity of Europe will continue to be a vital national interest of the United States in the 21st century. America will be a full partner in this relationship. But for the reasons stated here, the Atlantic partnership will need to change if it is to endure. New leaders in the White House, and perhaps in Congress, in 2001 will wish to work closely with E.U. leaders, principally those in Germany, Britain, and France, to forge a new Atlantic relationship that reflects the political and economic realities of the 21st century. A new century opens the possibility for a new beginning.

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