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


MARCH 2002

(Lecture delivered by Dr. Donald Nuechterlein to a forum held at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs on March 8, 2002. The forum was shared with John Woodworth of Charlottesville and chaired by Prof. Kenneth W. Thompson.)


When addressing a forum at the Miller Center about a year ago, I suggested that our new President, George W. Bush, would pursue a foreign policy that reflected the outlook of an "aloof but vigilant" superpower. His campaign statements about reducing our military involvements abroad led me to conclude that he planned to distance himself from the globalist policies that had been pursued by Bill Clinton and by Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. How wrong I was!

Mr. Bush's policy since September 11 is not only globalist in scope: It seems to be increasingly unilateralist when it comes to rooting out terrorists in Afghanistan and confronting rogue regimes which threaten regional and world peace. By labeling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "Axis of Evil" in his State of the Union address, the President put the world on notice that the War on Terrorism is expanding.

This striking change in U.S. policy results from an assessment made by both the President and Congress that U.S. national interests are so severely threatened by the 9-11 attacks that the United States must now assume full leadership of a world-wide drive to crush the Al Qaeda terrorist network before it acquires and uses nuclear and biological weapons against the United States. George Bush sees this as his mission, if not a crusade, at the beginning of the 21st century.


  1. What kind of world do we want to live in?
  2. What cost are we willing to pay to secure this kind world?
  3. Do we need the support of other counties to achieve this?
  4. Are we willing to sustain a long, costly war on terrorism?

What kind of world.

Most of us want to live as we did in the 1990s, with prosperous times and low unemployment. We want to travel easily, with few hassles at airports; And we want to avoid foreign wars that distract us from our constitutional right to a "pursuit of happiness." In truth, most Americans probably are isolationist at heart.

Paying the cost.

Since 1941 we have learned through hard experience that a desirable world entails high costs. This has included military interventions in Europe, East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Caribbean, to prevent hostile countries from threatening our homeland. President Bush warns us that the Al Qaeda network has infiltrated sixty countries around the world and that the war to defeat terrorism will be long. One consequence is rising federal budgets for defense, intelligence, and homeland security.

Support of allies.

During the Cold War, America relied on help from allies in Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. No president wants to go to war abroad without at least Britain's support. Some pundits argue that because America is so powerful militarily, we should ignore the Europeans and "Go it alone" if they don't agree. However, the American public is not willing to accept a "Go it alone" policy if it entails sending U.S. forces abroad to fight. This has been a political necessity for presidents, and an example was George H. Bush's Coalition of Allies during the Persian Gulf War.

Patience of the public.

Eight presidents were able to keep public support for a sustained military effort during the Cold War because the Soviet Union and its proxies, as well as China, were a clear threat to America and our allies. The Cuban missile crisis was the most dramatic case. When the Cold War ended, most Americans expected a "peace dividend" and a relaxation of world tensions. But we have been attacked in our homeland, and the public strongly supports the President. It also accepts curbs on personal freedom. But a question has already been raised in Congress: "How long will it last?"


In my book America Recommitted, published in 2000, I suggested three foreign policy courses that are open to the United States at the start of the 21st century. These are:

1) Gradual detachment from world responsibilities;

2) Cautious internationalism, defined as an "aloof but vigilant" stance on interventions abroad;

3) Robust internationalism, which implies U.S. military involvement anywhere to counter a regional threat. We may dismiss the first option -- detachment from world responsibility -- because it is no longer a viable option, even though pundit Pat Buchanan still talks about "minding our own business" at home. What about the others?

Cautious internationalism.

This was a realistic alternative so long as the dangers were in distant places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Timor, even the Persian Gulf-- provided Saddam Hussein's military threat was contained. Before September 11, George Bush focused on such larger strategic issues as North Korea's nuclear program, China's threat to Taiwan, and Moscow's reluctance to accept cancellation of the 1972 ABM treaty so that the United States might proceed with its anti-missile defense program. 9-11 changed all that. Mr. Bush had to abandon his preference for this course -- with reason: When the United States itself is attacked, as at Pearl Harbor sixty years ago, American's demand that the enemy be destroyed. Suddenly, a cautious foreign policy is not prudent.

Robust Internationalism.

This policy implies a global military role for the United States, what our critics in Europe are calling a "hegemonic superpower role." By this they mean an America which largely ignores the views of allies and relies on superior military and economic power to have its way in the world. "Unilateralism" is another way critics say we are behaving toward the allies. In Afghanistan, unlike our experience in Kosovo, we do not give NATO members a veto power over operations even though we consult them and General Franks has allied officers working closely with his staff at CENTCOM's headquarters in Florida. George Bush consults regularly with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. and Britain has taken charge of Allied peace-enforcing troops stationed in Kabul.


Henry Kissinger, a foreign policy scholar and former Secretary of State, made wise observations in an op.ed. article in the Washington Post: on March 5: he writes:

"At issue in the Axis-of-Evil debate is not America's attempt to impose an international order, but whether every member of a coalition should have a veto over fundamental perceptions of security. It must be remembered that one country's perception of unilateralism is another's perception of leadership. A definition of consensus based on unanimity leads to paralysis; A definition of leadership insisting on unilateralism on every issue leads to imperialism that in the long run exhausts the imperial power. To navigate between these extremes is the challenge for American policy."

In my view, the key issue regarding future U.S. policy is whether the policy of "robust internationalism" is sustainable at home for the indefinite future. One can reasonably argue that the Bush administration can sustain this policy for as long as Americans believe there is a real threat of more terrorist attacks on this country. The American public also will need to see results from our military involvement with countries such as the Philippines, Republic of Georgia, Yemen, possibly Somalia, and perhaps a war with Iraq in order to oust Saddam Hussein from power. My guess is that current policies are sustainable for about one year. After that, Congress will ask tough questions of the Pentagon and White House about what has been accomplished.

In sum, we should be reminded that Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George Bush senior had high approval ratings when they sent troops to Korea, Vietnam, and Kuwait. But none of them won another term in the White House after the public tired of their inconclusive wars. Could George W. Bush similarly become a victim of a war on terrorism that seems not to have an end in sight? His presidency probably hangs on the outcome of this huge struggle for world power and influence

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