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



(Note: This lecture was delivered by Donald E. Nuechterlein to a forum at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, on January 10, 2001. It is based on Mr. Nuechterlein's new book, America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World).


As we await the inauguration of a new president on January 20, it is appropriate that we should be discussing at the Miller Center what kind of foreign policy the United States should pursue in the 21st century in order to enhance its national interests in a turbulent world. I am pleased to be joined by two eminent scholars, emeritus professors Inis Claude and Norman Graebner of the University of Virginia, who too have spent their careers analyzing international relations and American foreign policy. And I am pleased that another distinguished scholar, Kenneth Thompson, is chairing our forum and may want to contribute to the discussion.

Let me begin by reading two excerpts from my book, America Recommitted, because they contain the essence of what the book is all about. The first is from the preface to this 2nd edition:

"At the start of a new century I believe it is imperative that a serious national debate be held on this fundamental question: is the United States indeed willing to bear the large financial and human costs associated with taking on a role in this century similar to the one Imperial Rome exercised in the first century?"

The second excerpt is from the opening of Chapter 10 entitled, "Role of the Aloof but Vigilant Superpower." It contains this challenge to policy makers and informed citizens:

"As the United States entered the twenty-first century it faced a fundamental choice regarding its attitude toward other regions of the world and the role it wished to play in shaping the international environment during the next decade. Simply put, Americans needed to decide whether their government should take on the role of international hegemon, or accept the less grandiose role of aloof but vigilant superpower. A hegemonic role implies that the U.S. government is willing to intervene regularly, with military forces when necessary, to create an international order that enhances regional security around the globe and, in addition, makes the world 'safe for democracy.' The aloof but vigilant superpower role suggests that the United States will be involved politically and economically in the world, with a large array of policy influence events, but will not intervene militarily just anywhere to stop civil wars and regional violence unless its own vital interests are at stake....International hegemony implies willingness to use force to stop governments from brutalizing their own citizens as well as those of their neighbors, whereas the aloof superpower stance reserves decisions to use force against such regimes only if they pose a dangerous threat to an entire region..."

Clearly this study raises a serious question about whether the United States, for all its military and economic power, is capable of being the world's policeman, intervening anywhere that repression and injustice prevail, as in Haiti, Somalia, Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo.


America Recommitted contains four separate but interrelated parts: Chapter 1 provides a theoretical framework to help policy makers and students of foreign policy define U.S. national interests in an international dispute, whether it be a military, economic, world order, or human rights challenge to American policies. Unlike some scholars, I include promotion of democracy and human rights as one of the basic national interests of this country because these values are firmly rooted in our constitution and Declaration of Independence. I offer a set of criteria for deciding whether specific challenges to U.S. interests rise to the level of "vital interest", those for which a president should be prepared to use military force, if other measures fail to persuade an adversary that it must change a dangerous policy. It is essential, I argue, that members of the president's National Security Council should carefully weigh the costs and risks of decisions to declare an issue "vital," and not look primarily at the objectives to be achieved. Overconfidence about going to war can lead to dangerous consequences for any country, not least the United States. Such miscalculation was made by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s when they grossly underestimated the tenacity of North Vietnam to fight an invading foreign army, with the resulting costs sustained by the United States both in military and public support for its foreign policy. A similar miscalculation was made at the time of the Kosovo crisis in 1999 when the Clinton administration seriously underestimated the Yugoslav leadership's willingness to sustain damage to its country rather than submit to NATO's demands.

The second part of the book reviews the major foreign policy decisions made by nine presidents from 1945 to 1990. This includes the period immediately after World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the Korean War, the period of detente in relations between Washington and Moscow, the war in Vietnam and its impact on the American public and Congress, the efforts made on nuclear arms limitation in the 1970s, the political changes in Moscow, the end of the Cold War, and the reunification of Germany. I employ a national interest matrix, described in Chapter 1, to analyze how these nine presidents viewed U.S. interests and dealt with a series of foreign policy crises. I also estimate the national interests of the Soviet Union, Germany, Britain and France, at the time the Cold War ended.

A third segment of America Recommitted includes two new chapters in this edition. They cover President Bush's decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, his administration's response to the Soviet Union's collapse, and the emergence of Russia headed by Boris Yeltsin. Much of these chapters deal with President Clinton's policies toward China, Russia, Japan, Korea, Mexico, expansion of NATO, and the Middle East. I give special attention to the president's decisions to intervene militarily in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo because these three cases raise the question of whether any of them rose to the level of a vital U.S. interest necessitating that the president use armed forces in a peace-enforcing manner. Many Americans, including President-elect George Bush and Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, think it is now time to place a time limit on the duration of our commitment of ground troops in the Balkans.


The U.S. and NATO decision to wage war in Yugoslavia is an episode that epitomizes the high water mark in America's march toward hegemonic superpower status. It reinforces my belief that it is time for the United States to rethink its foreign policy and adopt the more modest role of "aloof but vigilant superpower." Let us briefly recall events during the dangerous three-month period that began in March 1999.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Clinton's national security adviser Samuel Berger were convinced early in 1999 that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would stop his repression campaign against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo if he was threatened with NATO military force. They believed he had halted a similar ethnic-cleansing campaign in Bosnia four years earlier after U.S. planes, flying under United Nations auspices, bombed Serb targets for several days. Albright had warned Milosevic repeatedly about withdrawing his paramilitary forces from Kosovo. But the Serb leader refused to turn over administration of that province to NATO peace keepers, and he refused to accept any arrangement that opened the way for Kosovo to become independent of Serbia. NATO governments approved air strikes to force Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, but Russia and China strongly protested. As a result, the U.N. Security Council never approved the air strikes. Nevertheless, Clinton launched an attack against Serbia and fully expected Milosevic to relent within a few days. He did not, and within a week Yugoslav forces began a massive expulsion campaign to force the ethnic Kosovars to flee to neighboring Macedonia. After a month of heavy bombing, mostly by American planes, Clinton was faced with this stark choice: call off the attacks or send ground forces to fight Yugoslav troops in Kosovo's mountainous terrain. In May he ordered the Pentagon to plan for an invasion, but in early June Milosevic decided to accept a Russian-brokered agreement which allowed NATO forces into Kosovo and called for disarming of the Kosovo Liberation Army. No provision was made for an election allowing Kosovo to decide its own future. On June 25 Clinton admitted in a news conference that he had underestimated Serbia's willingness to withstand NATO's bombing campaign. He said that when he realized that Milosevic would not submit easily, he decided that the bombing would have to continue for many weeks, until the mounting damage to Yugoslavia's economy caused him to relent. What Clinton could not say publicly was that his plan to send ground troops, had bombing not worked, would have caused a serious split within NATO because neither Germany nor Italy and perhaps others were prepared to participate in an invasion of Yugoslavia without U.N. Security Council approval.

In sum, the Clinton administration bungled the Kosovo crisis by committing a serious error in judgment: it underestimated its enemy's tenacity to withstand punishment. This was the same error of judgment that the Johnson administration committed in 1965 when it assumed that bombing would force North Vietnam to stop its war in the south. Johnson was obliged to send ground forces to stop the north's drive to unite the country under Hanoi's rule.

The final part of the book, Chapter 10, outlines the foreign policy choices that faced American voters when they elected a new president in , 2000. It describes three alternative courses: "Neoisolationist," espoused by Pat Buchanan and less vigorously by Ralph Nader; "International Hegemon," supported by Al Gore and Madeleine Albright; and "Aloof but Vigilant Superpower," advocated by George Bush and Colin Powell. I discuss the pros and cons of each of these courses and dismiss neoisolationism as not applicable to the world today. I suggest that Gore, who was intimately involved in all of Clinton's major foreign policy decisions, seemed comfortable with the administration's outlook: that America should be prepared to intervene with troops anywhere abroad where it could stop ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and promote human rights and democratic government. President Clinton espoused that view on numerous occasions and even apologized during a visit to Africa for not sending help to stop the savage civil strife in Rwanda in 1994. In contrast, an "aloof but vigilant superpower" role does not require the United States to intervene just anywhere to support democracy and human rights, or to stop ethnic cleansing or massacres in areas where America's vital interests are not at stake. A hegemonic role, I argue, is simply not one that the American public and Congress are willing to support when the price is clearly visible. American interventions in Vietnam in 1965, Lebanon in 1982, Somalia in 1992, and Kosovo in 1999 are painful reminders of how four presidents--Johnson, Reagan, Bush. and Clinton-- overreached in terms of the public's willingness to "stay the course" in areas far from America's vital interests. The key question today is whether we have learned from these experiences, or whether we will persist in trying to reshape the world in our image.


This discussion of America's foreign policy would not be complete without citing the serious issues that George W. Bush will face after taking office in less than two weeks. Fortunately, most of the world is relatively calm at the beginning of 2001, including Korea, China, Europe, Russia, and the South American countries with the exception of Colombia where a civil war is in progress. Yet, in another crucial part of the world, the Middle East, the political situation is dangerous and could escalate into a major conflagration that produces massive violence and perhaps civil wars in a number of Arab countries. The trigger for this eruption of violence is in the Near East, which contains the state of Israel and the nascent country called Palestine headed by Yasser Arafat. The area also includes Lebanon and Syria as well as Egypt. The Persian Gulf states form another sector of the Middle East, and because they control a major share of the world's oil production they constitute a crucial dimension in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle that may erupt into a wider warfare. Those who doubt the connection between oil and this conflict should recall the long gas lines and increased prices that Americans paid for oil during the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, after Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States reacted forcefully to President Nixon's decision to airlift military help to Israel during the October War with Egypt.

A realistic scenario for the current conflict in Palestine runs something like this: President Clinton fails to get a peace deal from the Israelis and PLA before leaving office, even though he offered a reasonable plan two weeks ago for a division of Jerusalem. This scenario anticipates that Ehud Barak loses the February 6 Israeli presidential election to hard-line Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon. Sharon declares an end to negotiations with Arafat and vows to use military force to crush Palestinian resistance in Gaza, the West Bank, and even within Israel, if the Intifada continues. He calls on President Bush to support Israel with arms shipments and intelligence resources, and he threatens war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan if they provide support to the Palestinians. Major ethnic warfare soon erupts in Palestine.

In this situation George Bush and his National Security Council would first need to decide the level of U.S. interest, whether it rises to a vital national interest and therefore might entail the use of American forces. There is no question that Bush would defend Israel if it were attacked, especially by an outside power. But the real issue is what would be the U.S. interest if Israel is seen as provoking a wider conflict against Palestinians who live in Israeli-occupied lands in the West Bank and Gaza?

A historical footnote suggests that a similar situation arose in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Palestinian fighters and ended up in a fierce battle in Beirut. The Israeli leader who planned this invasion without informing Washington was Ariel Sharon, the defense minister at that time. Reluctantly, President Reagan was persuaded to send U.S. Marines to Beirut to help separate PLO and Israeli fighters while negotiations were held to arrange for the withdrawal of PLO and Israeli forces. However, a massacre of PLO dependents in refugee camps near Beirut was carried out with the complicity of Israeli troops, and Sharon was later cited by his own government for failing to prevent it. Then, in late October 1983, 241 Marines were killed in their barracks by a car bomb carried by Muslim extremists who claimed that Washington was aiding Israel's continued occupation of Lebanon. The American public and Congress were outraged and demanded U.S. withdrawal from this Lebanese quagmire. The Marines were withdrawn in February 1994, in a humiliating manner, over loud protests from the Israeli government which thought it had assurances that American peace keepers would remain in Lebanon indefinitely. This episode was reminiscent of the humiliating U.S. ouster from Vietnam only nine years earlier and underlined the lesson that it is much easier to send troops and peace keepers into a troubled area than to get them out.

I have no advice for President Bush and Secretary of State Powell on how to handle this Near East conflict except to urge restraint. General Powell, a decorated Vietnam veteran and key member of Reagan's National Security Council, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, has a record of being cautious about using U.S. forces to support foreign policy objectives. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, two other members of Bush's new national security team, are seasoned veterans of foreign crises dating back to the Ford administration. This Bush NSC will therefore be cautious about sending U.S. forces to the Near East to keep the peace unless there is willingness on the part of Israel and the PLA to agree to a settlement that includes dividing Jerusalem, giving the West Bank and Gaza to a new Palestinian state, and permitting some refugees to return to their homes in Israel. If the United States is seen as supporting the Israeli government instead of being the honest broker between Israel and the PLA, it is predictable that Arab countries will find ways to display their displeasure with Washington, not least because their own populations will be outraged at the continuing killing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

On that sober note, I rest my case regarding the need for the United States to adopt a more aloof stance on many of the world's troubled areas while at the same time being vigilant toward those serious potential international conflicts that might threaten the truly vital interests of this country.

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

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