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



As we gather today on this beautiful campus, we are experiencing a momentous period in American history. Somehow, this subject on "international challenges in the new millennium" seems a bit irrelevant along side the crucial Senate debate this week involving our constitutional system of checks and balances. Still, the world does not stop and wait while America holds an election, or when we deliberate about whether to remove a president from office.

Europeans occasionally accuse Americans of not having a sense of history. They suggest that we show little appreciation of the past and are instead concerned only with advancing our material well-being in the present. There is some truth in this. By European or Asian standards, we are a new civilization here in North America. We have been blessed through most of our two hundred-plus years as a nation with few wars on this continent. Except for the Civil War, Americans have not experienced large armed conflicts on our own territory. Our wars have been fought mostly in other peoples lands--in Mexico, Cuba, Philippines, in Europe and Japan in two world wars, and more recently in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. As a result, Americans do not reflect on the tragedies of history. Instead, we assume that we possess the worlds best democracy, that we are largely immune to foreign invasions, and, consequently, that we should spend our time on what our forefathers called "the pursuit of happiness."

In 1999, a year before the world enters a new millennium, Americans are very optimistic about their future. The Cold War is behind us, the economy is booming, violent crime is declining, and the welfare rolls are coming down. Even Washington D.C., which The Economist several years ago dubbed "disgraceful capital," has a new no-nonsense mayor who pledges that the capital will soon be a safe, thriving, and beautiful city again. Even the current constitutional crisis in Washington has not affected the basic optimism that most Americans have about their country. A booming stock market at the beginning of 1999 reflects the mood.

Yet, those of us who have spent a lifetime studying international relations know that this rosy picture of the future is overblown. Why? Because there are serious political, economic, environmental, and moral issues that confront our country as we move into the 21st century. These issues will severely test our strength as a nation and also affect our leadership role in the world. Here are some of the challenges that we will experience, in the four categories:

In international political and security affairs, the United States faces major challenges to the favorable international order that we and our European allies fought for, and finally achieved, during the long Cold War. That order is now being challenged, not directly by another great power such as Russia or China, but by a group of smaller states that have, or will soon acquire, the capability to bring massive destruction on their neighbors. Korea and Iraq are the most visible examples. But India, Pakistan, and Iran, also have the potential capability to destabilize whole regions of the world by threatening to use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons against their neighbors. International terrorism is another weapon in the hands of rogue states to use as a way of intimidating other countries, including the United States. On another front, we see human rights in many countries suppressed by regimes that have no intention of permitting their peoples to enjoy political freedom. China is an example.

We need to recognize that Russia and China are potential threats to the balance of power in Europe and Asia. But for the next few years I do not think either of them has the power, or the willingness, to challenge the United States directly on any issue that we consider to be a vital national interest. One possible exception is Taiwan, which China insists is part of its territory. Three years ago China and the United States nearly came to a confrontation when Chinese missiles were fired in the vicinity of Taiwans harbors to warn its political leaders that Beijing would use force to prevent Taiwans independence. The tension eased after Taiwanese elections and was further defused last spring when President Clinton visited China and declared, as President Nixon had done in 1972, that the U.S. considers Taiwan to be a part of China. The inference is that the United States will not support a potential Taiwan bid for independence.

In the field of international economic affairs, we see a deterioration of the global free market system, which the United States, Europe, and Japan built over the past twenty-five years. This capitalist system replaced the communist model around the world after the Cold War and gave hope to millions of people in Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and African nations that they too could enjoy a rising standard of living. Now this optimism is gone. Many Asian countries are suffering severe economic privations that result from the flight of international investment capital. Leaders in Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and in Japan, grapple valiantly with the economic and social chaos that engulfed their countries last year. Non-Asian states also are suffering, notably Russia which defaulted on its foreign debts last summer. Now Brazil and potentially Argentina are on the verge of a financial disasters. The economic distress in many parts of the world is producing calls by some leaders for abandonment of free markets, and for government controls on economies. Russias economic crisis last summer strengthened the hard-line Communist Party and it now has representatives in the new government. They are pressing for the re-imposition of a controlled economy and restraints on the countrys media. Experts dont think Russia will revert to the old Soviet model, but it may well adopt a new form of state socialism if the Communists gain strength in the elections of 2000.

The worlds physical environment, including a global warming trend that many scientists foresee, causes Americans to ask whether mankind is slowly destroying life on planet earth even without a nuclear war. Population growth accounts for many of the worlds pressing environmental problems, but industrialization, especially the huge increase in use of motor vehicles that are powered by internal combustion engines, is an even bigger factor. Americans are a major contributor, even though we have done a great deal in thirty years to clean up the pollution in our lakes and rivers. Yet, we and other countries are experiencing disasters from floods that result in large part from deforestation of large tracts of land along the worlds major rivers. In many parts of the United States, including here in Virginia, people tell pollsters that they wish to limit rapid growth. But nobody wants to increase the price of gasoline to $3.00 a gallon, as in Europe, in order to slow down overcrowding on our highways and city streets.

Americans also face a series of moral dilemmas as we move into the new millennium. A major one is: How do we define human life? When does it start? Another is: Should sick persons be allowed to end their lives? Another issue for many is: Should massive poverty be accepted in the worlds richest country? Today a new moral question seems to be: Should a persons private life and values be an important test of his or her fitness to serve in high office?

Three weeks agowe watched in astonishment as a respected congressman declined to accept the prestigious job of Speaker of the House of Representatives because of publicity about his past infidelity in marriage. This congressman did not deny the charges. In another case, the President who lied under oath about his marital infidelity adamantly refused to resign his office. Who was the more moral person?

Most Americans think it is moral for the United States to intervene in other countries to stop bloodshed, such we did in Lebanon, Somalia, Kuwait, and Bosnia. Many suggest that our government has a moral obligation to criticize other countries not measuring up to a standard of human rights that is roughly equal to those enjoyed in this country. But others question whether it is moral and prudent for Washington to dictate to other countries how they should order their societies. Still others lament what they consider to be the gradual militarization of American foreign policy. Where are the moral boundaries here?

As we contemplate how the world will look in the first decade of the 21st century, I am concerned about four serious and pressing challenges to the United States. Three of them are international challenges, and a fourth is a domestic political issue that is at the heart of many of our foreign policy dilemmas.

First is the likelihood that Russia may before long turn hostile toward the United States and Western Europe and challenge the international power balance that has favored America in the years since the Soviet Unions collapse.

Second is a growing possibility that the global free market system which has provided unprecedented prosperity to much of the world in the last decade will founder on the rocks of international financial disruptions.

Third is the likelihood of a new Arab-Israeli war growing out of the probable failure of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and renewed Palestinian violence against Israels occupation forces.

Fourth is the danger that the United States will assume the role of imperial world power and decide to enforce its foreign policies with military interventions, even without support from our allies or the United Nations.

Let us address these four challenges.

I place Russia at the top of this list not because it poses a nuclear threat, as it did during the Cold War, but because Russia is a key factor in many other challenges that America faces in the 21st century. A hostile Russia would work against the resolution of many international security problems in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia that deeply affect U.S. interests.

For example, it would be very difficult to maintain a semblance of peace in the Balkans, especially in ex-Yugoslavia, if Moscow is strongly opposed to U.S. policies there. In the eastern Mediterranean, Russia could make trouble between two NATO countrie, Greece and Turkey, by meddling in the explosive political situation in Cyprus. Similarly, it would be extremely difficult for the United States to contain Iraqs, or Irans, ambitions to dominate the Persian Gulf area if Russia supports them politically and militarily. In East Asia, Russia borders North Korea and could make it more difficult to contain the nuclear ambitions of the Pyongyang regime. The threat from Russia today is not a militarily one because experts say its military forces will need at least a generation to be rebuilt, even if a new government decided to do so. The real threat is a political one, the mischief that Moscow could produce if it decided to actively oppose U.S. policies around the world. It has a veto in the U.N. Security Council and threatens to use it if NATO forces intervene in Kosovo. Although the State Department says we do not need additional authority from the United Nations for military action in Kosovo, many other key members, including France and China, disagree. Even more dangerous, if Russia began selling arms to forces hostile to U.S. interests in the Balkans, the Middle East, or East Asia, Washington would face greater difficulty in trying to deal with rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea. We need to remind ourselves of the trouble that Moscow caused our policy makers in the 1970s and 1980s when it supplied arms and military advisers to Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, Syria, and Iraq during the Cold War.

I believe that our policy makers should be extremely careful not to play into the hands of Russian Communists and Nationalists by pursuing policies that seriously embarrass Russias current moderate government. For example, we should not offer NATO membership to countries on Russias borders, specifically the Baltic States and Ukraine. On the other hand, providing food and medicines to help the Russian people get through this winter is a good idea. Granting IMF loans after the government effectively deals with its budget problems is prudent policy. Only the Russians themselves can decide on the future direction of their government, but in the meantime we need to offer a friendly helping hand wherever possible to help avoid a return to socialism and nationalism in this strategically important country.

Regarding the second major challenge--a potential meltdown of the worlds financial system, most Americans seem only dimly aware of the danger because our economy has continued to boom along even while those in Asia, Russia, and Latin America are going through an economic wringer. Unless we are lucky during the coming year, America will experience a slowing of economic growth, rising unemployment, falling stock market, and growing demands by business and labor that the White House and Congress impose restrictions on the current large increase in imports resulting from major devaluations of many foreign currencies. The steel industry, in particular, is bringing such pressure on Congress, and other industries will follow as U.S. exports decline ad imports swamp our markets and devastate our trade balance.

The third challenge, another Arab-Israeli war, would seriously harm political stability in the entire Middle East. This is because Americas Arab allies--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are under pressure from their own people to support the cause of Palestinian statehood, envisaged in the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. Arab nationalists across the Middle East condemn the United States as a western intruder on Arab soil, one that opposes the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. What concerns me is that if mass violence again erupts in Israeli-occupied territories in Palestine, moderate Arab governments may be obliged to reduce their close cooperation with the United States. I hope that Israel will elect a moderate government after next Mays elections, one like the one headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who made peace with Yasser Arafat in Washington five years ago. Otherwise, America and Israel may be the only countries that do not recognize a new Palestinian state when it is declared later this year.

On the fourth major challenge to U.S. foreign policy, the dangers of unlateralism, Americans have more control over the outcome. That is because this decision is in the hands of the president and Congress. Ultimately, however, the fundamental direction in our foreign policy will be ratified by American voters in their elections of a president and members of Congress.

I am concerned that many Americans are not being realistic about the price we are paying, and the much greater price that will have to be paid, if the United States enters the 21st century with the following arrogant attitude: "We Americans are rich enough, powerful enough, and smart enough, to chart our own course in any part of the globe, and we should not pay so much attention to what other nations think"

This attitude, which is growing, reflects what I label the "imperialist instinct." It is the view that drove the Roman Republic and Empire to seek domination of the entire Mediterranean world two thousand years ago. It is the same instinct, hubris, that caused President Lyndon Johnson thirty-four years ago to engage in a disastrous war in Southeast Asia, a war that most Americans were unwilling to support when the true costs were later revealed.

I was working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at that time and recall clearly the attitude that prevailed among many military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon. Few of them had doubts that the mighty United States would prevail over the peasant army of Ho Chi Minhs Vietnamese Communists. It would be a short war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara predicted. And the fact that none of our European allies agreed with this massive military intervention di not seem to matter. We also ignored the United Nations.

A prominent columnist, Jim Hoagland, wrote in The Washington Post last week that the situation in Iraq had reached the point where the United States should do whatever is needed, militarily or otherwise, to force removal of Saddam Hussein from power, even if we have to act unilaterally. He seeks "liberation from bothersome restraints on U.S. freedom of action." Reading this, I recalled some of the bellicose statements that were made by columnists and politicians in 1964 and 1965, urging President Johnson to do whatever was required to force North Vietnam to abandon its war in South Vietnam, even if our allies didnt support us. In 197 3, after 58,000 American deaths, American public opinion forced the withdrawal of our forces..

Will history repeat itself--in Iraq, in Korea, in Kosovo?

My counsel to Washington policy makers is that they seriously set about to redefine U.S. national interests in the new millennium, to reflect a more modest view of Americas requirements for a stable world order. They should develop an international economic policy in which Washington is not obliged the make most decisions, and pay most of the costs. The European Union, with its new euro being a rival to the dollar as an international currency, should take more responsibility. This is not a neoisolationist view, as critics charge. Instead, I believe it is a prudent, realistic way of assessing costs and benefits of our major foreign policy decisions in this complex international environment. This proposal also does not suggest abdication of American leadership and cooperation with other countries; instead it seeks a more modest leadership role, a so-called "lower profile" in our dealings with other states. Some of our allies may not be happy to see a reduced American profile because it will oblige them to make tough decisions for themselves. Nevertheless, with the Cold War over and Europe and Japan now being world financial powers, it is time for Washington to rethink the extent of its global role.

Am I optimistic, or pessimistic, about the new century? I remain cautiously optimistic because history is an important guide for me. We have learned a great deal about ourselves and about the world in the past fifty years. I believe we are wiser than we were in the 1960s about the costs of going it alone in foreign policy. Therefore, once we can get beyond the emotion of the current constitutional crisis in Washington, I am reasonably confident that we as a country will make wise choices about our foreign policy in the 21st century.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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