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



With American politics evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the selection of president, George W. Bush urgently needs to reassure the world that he will take steps to create a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy.

Many now fear that the new Senate and House of Representatives will be consumed with seeking political advantage for elections in 2002 and resist cooperation with the new president on foreign as well as domestic policy.

Senate approval of nominations for key cabinet posts, such as secretary of State, secretary of Defense, U.S. Representative to the U.N., U.S. Trade Representative, and all U.S. ambassadors, could be delayed or blocked by concerted opposition from Democrats who will hold fifty percent of the seats. In addition, budgets for the State Department, foreign assistance programs, and international lending agencies could be stalled by a combination of conservative Republicans joining protectionist Democrats who think the United States spends too much tax money abroad.

Compare the political situation that will face George Bush on January 20 with that of his counterparts in Canada and Mexico. In Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chretien called a general election for parliament and five weeks later, at the end of November, and his Liberal Party won a resounding victory. All votes were counted the same day and final results were announced the next morning. Chretien has five years to get his program enacted by the legislature, which he dominates.

In Mexico, Vincente Fox won an impressive victory last July and took office as president December 1. Unlike Chretien, Fox's conservative party failed to win a majority in the legislature, and he must negotiate with the opposition to get his program approved. Still, he won a resounding victory in the presidential race, unlike the governor of neighboring Texas.

Bush's first order of business, beginning immediately, is to get his foreign policy team known to the public and Congress so that their credentials may be assessed. His choice of Colin Powell as Secretary of State will help because this four-star general is already well-regarded by Republicans and Democrats.

For secretary of Defense, Bush needs another well-regarded person to fill this crucial post. Bill Clinton showed political wisdom in selecting a Republican, Senator William Cohen, and he was quickly approved by a Republican-led Senate.

Bush had considered former Democratic senator, Sam Nunn of Georgia, for the defense job, but he took himself out of the running. Perhaps he feared that Vice President Dick Cheney, who earlier held that post, would exercise too much influence. As the vice president, Cheney is well qualified to supervise the process of defense and foreign policy decision-making.

In any case, Bush needs to nominate a well qualified executive to manage the huge Defense Department, one who is acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

The post of Assistant to the President for national security affairs, currently held by Samuel Berger, apparently will go to Dr. Condoleezza Rice, an expert on Russia who served at the National Security Council during the administration of George Bush senior. She is highly qualified and does not require Senate confirmation.

A key foreign policy assignment that needs to be filled with a well-known figure is U.S. Representative to the United Nations. This post carries cabinet rank and requires Senate confirmation. Appointing a qualified Democrat would be a wise move for Bush, in order to show the U.N. membership that he intends to conduct a bipartisan foreign policy.

Lee Hamilton, a former congressman and currently director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, would be well-qualified for this assignment. He served for many years as chairman of the House International Affairs Committee and is respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. Another good choice for the U.N. post would be Senator Bob Kerry of Nebraska, who will leave the Senate in January. He is well qualified in international relations.

The U.S. Trade Representative is a relatively unknown presidential appointment who wields great authority in negotiating trade agreements with other countries, including issues before the World Trade Organization (WTO). This post, independent of the State Department, is currently filled by Charlene Barshefsky, a Democrat, who distinguished herself last year by negotiating a breakthrough trade agreement with China. Bush might want to keep her on.

Secretaries of Treasury and of Commerce carry important foreign policy responsibilities, but their major focus is on domestic rather than international policy. Both jobs will probably be filled by Republicans.

Two Senate groups will be of crucial importance to Bush in getting his foreign policy team approved: the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. Senator John Warner of Virginia chairs the latter committee and has good relations with his Democratic colleagues. The Foreign Relations committee may be a problem, however. Chairman Jesse Helms of North Carolina has annoyed many of his colleagues by taking what they consider to be unreasonable positions on some nominations of cabinet members and U.S. ambassadors abroad, and for his strong views on the United Nations. Unless Helms gives up his chair and permits a moderate to take over, that committee could prove difficult even for George Bush.

The most urgent foreign policy issue that Bush will face in January is the mounting bloodshed that is occurring in Palestine. This violence could spread beyond the West Bank and Gaza areas if Israel and the Palestine Liberation Authority refuse a peace settlement.

This issue is so crucial to U.S. relations in the Middle East that the new president needs to select a high level personal representative to deal solely with this crisis, reporting directly to the White House. Former Secretary of State James Baker would be ideal for this task because he arranged the 1991 Madrid conference and brought together for the first time the principal Arab leaders and Israel's prime minister. This face-to-face meeting set the stage for the Oslo Peace process which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat agreed to in 1993.

Fundamentally, U.S. policy in the Near East and elsewhere will be viewed skeptically by many world leaders so long as sharp division exists in Washington between Republicans and Democrats on the direction of American policy. That is why cooperation between the leadership in the House and Senate is crucial. Republican committee chairmen need to find common ground with Democratic colleagues in order to prevent serious harm being done to U.S. interests abroad.

Vice President Al Gore and Senator Joe Lieberman can be key factors. If they make a genuine call for a bipartisan foreign policy, people around the world as well as in America will be reassured about U.S. steadfastness as a superpower. Without bipartisanship, we can anticipate four years in which America's role abroad will be seriously eroded.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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