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



Reports last week from Belfast, Skopje, and Jerusalem show that religious and ethnic violence in Ireland, Macedonia, and Palestine is not about to stop. In each case President Bush has adopted a cautious approach to exerting American leadership, in sharp contrast to President Clinton's policy of vigorous diplomacy and presidential involvement in foreign crises.

Last month Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, charged in a widely reported interview that the Bush administration's policies were alienating our European allies and Russia, and leading the United States toward isolationism. The White House strongly objected, claiming the president is fully engaged in discussions with the allies and with Moscow.

More recently Richard Gephardt, leader of the House Democrats, took up Daschle's theme and chastised the Bush foreign policy team for pursuing a "unilateralist approach" to foreign policy, a "go-it-alone" stance that distresses the NATO allies. Last week Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, challenged Bush's policy on North Korea, suggesting that it was too tough and was troubling to our ally, South Korea.

What is going on here is a perfectly normal, even refreshing, discussion of America's foreign policy objectives in an era when there is no Cold War to worry about and no serious threats to U.S. security.

The real question posed by these Democratic leaders is this: should the United States attempt to shape the course of events everywhere in the world--politically, economically, socially, even militarily--in order to establish a new global order that is compatible with America's preferences for democratic government, human rights, free markets, and regional peace? They imply that this should be America's great mission for the 21st century.

Attaching labels such as "unilateralist", "multilateralist", or "isolationist" oversimplifies what should be a serious debate in Washington on America's proper role in the world. It is good that critics no longer use "isolationist" to attack Bush's policies because it is absurd to suggest that America could return to the isolationism of the 1930s even if it wanted to. Modern communications and our growing dependence on foreign trade make this impossible.

The rationale that President Bush and Secretary of State Powell seem to be following in foreign policy runs like this: the Cold War is over, Europe is economically strong and increasingly united under the European Union (EU), Russia is an economic basket case, China will not be capable to challenging the U.S. militarily for years; other regional issues such as Palestine, the Balkans, Persian Gulf, Korea, are serious matters but do not currently threaten America's vital interests. As a result, they think, the United States does not need to be intensely involved in most regional struggles and should instead rely on European and Asian allies to take the leadership in resolving regional conflicts, with the United States in a supporting role.

Bush and Powell believe this attitude is acceptable to most Americans. They calculate that the opposition's calls to show more active leadership will not resonate with they public because of the increased costs, for example, more foreign aid spending and expanded peacekeeping abroad.

A major question posed in this debate is whether the U.S. government should conduct foreign policy based on reaching consensus with allies, or on the president's considered judgment of U.S. interests at stake. The Clinton administration followed what some labeled a "multilateral" approach, seeking agreement with allies before deciding its policy. Critics claim this posture gave the allies veto power over Washington's decision-making.

Those who think the United States should not accept the Kyoto treaty on global warming, establishment of an international criminal court, or a worldwide ban on land mines, say these plans will undermine our economic and military security, and diminish our sovereignty. Similarly, they contend that building a missile defense shield to protect American cities should never be subject to veto by Russia, or the European allies.

A cogent argument for this view appeared in the Washington Post (August 12). Written by Michael J. Glennon, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, and titled "There's a Point To Going It Alone: Unilateralism Has Often Served Us Well," the article cites many cases from the 20th century when American presidents took actions in foreign policy despite foreign opposition.. Glennon thinks a president is responsible for deciding when U.S. interests are urgently at stake, and taking action even though the policy is not supported abroad.

If we look at the three serious centers of violence cited above, it becomes clearer how these differing views of America's interests are applied.

* Northern Ireland. This is a case where the Clinton administration expended much energy trying to help two friends, Britain and Ireland, find a solution to a political crisis that has taken a terrible toll in lives over twenty-five years. Clinton asked former Senator George Mitchell to mediate between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland, and Mitchell managed in 1998 to bring the parties together to form a provincial assembly. The agreement is breaking down because the IRA refuses to give up its weapons, as previously agreed.

This is an easy decision for the Bush administration. Its view is that the United States did all it could and that it is now up to London and Dublin to keep order in that troubled province. Bush can do more, however, to stem the flow of arms and funds to the IRA by private Americans.

* Macedonia. A budding civil war in this Balkan country, between the majority Slav population and an Albanian ethnic minority, threatens to ignite yet more violence in that region. Secretary of State Powell insists that the United States will not send combat troops to Macedonia, as it did in Kosovo and Bosnia during the past six years. The Bush administration expects the NATO allies to take the lead in fostering a peace settlement between the parties. The U.S. will send logistics and communications personnel, not peace keepers, when a cease fire takes hold.

Former Clinton administration officials charge that Bush's posture is an abdication of American leadership and that Washington must be heavily involved in Macedonia. The administration contends that Macedonia is primarily a European responsibility and that the U.S. should be in a supporting, not a leadership, role.

* Palestine. This is clearly the most vexing, and dangerous, foreign policy dilemma facing President Bush. Bill Clinton's great hope for a peace settlement before leaving office crumbled last fall when a new Palestinian intifada erupted. The ensuing violence and deaths on both sides now threaten to engulf all of Palestine in a vicious civil war.

Many experts say the United States is the only power that can prevent the slide toward war, but Bush and Powell maintain that U.S. mediation efforts are useless until Israel's government and the Palestinian Authority are willing to end the violence and negotiate a peace that is acceptable to both sides. A new poll finds that more than 60 percent of Americans think the United States should not intervene.

In sum, the Bush White House concludes that Clinton's foreign policy team overreached in many trouble spots abroad and thinks it is time for the United States to adopt a more aloof, but vigilant, attitude. This is not the robust leadership many Democrats want, but it may prove to be a wiser policy at this time.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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