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,
- Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
- America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
- A Cold War Odyssey, 1997
LECTURE: DEFIANT SUPERPOWER: THE PRICE OF AMERICAN HEGEMONY
(Delivered by Dr. Nuechterlein at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, April 24, 2006)
The central question for our consideration today is this: Does
America have the wisdom and steadfastness required to remain a hegemonic
superpower in the 21st century? My response is in three parts:
First, a look at America's rise to hegemonic power since 1945
Second, the cost of the Bush administration's war in Iraq
Third, a projection of where U.S. foreign policy is likely to go in the next ten years
AN AMERICAN EMPIRE, OR HEGEMONY?
Many experts claim that George W. Bush's 2002 National Security
Strategy document was an assertion of a new American empire. However,
what Bush wanted, in my view, was similar to what Bill Clinton had sought
earlier, the expansion of American hegemony. Let's look at these two
- Empire entails administrative control over the
territory and institutions of another people, where the imperial power has final
authority over how that territory is governed. (British, French, Dutch
- Hegemony, in contrast, is the exercise of major influence
by one power over the foreign policy decisions of another country. This is
accomplished through political, economic, cultural, and occasionally, military
- Collective hegemony is employed when a group of major powers
agree on rules for maintaining world order, and punish states that violate them.
- When collective hegemony fails to uphold international order, however,
one major power may emerge to exercise a unilateral hegemony. The United
States took on that role in Europe and East Asia during the Cold War.
AMERICA'S EXERCISE OF HEGEMONY
During forty years of Cold War, the NATO allies accepted U.S.
hegemony because they feared a Soviet attack. On all major international
issues they permitted Washington to "call the tune." Only France seriously
questioned the U.S. role, in 1967.
After the Cold War ended, President George H.W. Bush, through
skillful diplomacy by Secretary of State James Baker, persuaded NATO and Arab
governments to support the Gulf War against Iraq. This was an
exercise of "collaborative hegemony."
NATO also supported Bill Clinton's plan to send troops to Bosnia
to stop a civil war. But he had difficulty persuading Germany and France to
join the war against Serbia to liberate the province of Kosovo.
CLARIFICATION OF TERMS "PREVENTIVE" WAR, AND "PRE-EMPTIVE" WAR
Preventive war is employed to stop an enemy from gaining a
strategic advantage for a potential attack on U.S. vital interests.
Diplomacy, together with political, economic, and military pressure are exerted
to persuade an adversary to change course. If this does not work, war is
likely to result. Iraq fits this definition.
Pre-emptive war occurs when a vital national interest is at
stake and the danger of attack is imminent, not potential. John Kennedy's
threat to invade Cuba during the Missile Crisis is an example. Bush's invasion
of Afghanistan is another.
BUSH'S DECISION TO INVADE IRAQ: THE RISKS AND COSTS
The US-British decision to launch preventive war against
Saddam Hussein carried major risks, but the Pentagon's civilian leaders called
them manageable." State Department concerns regarding the need for NATO and U.N.
support were dismissed with: "If the United States shows leadership, the
allies will follow."
NATO's refusal to join the war was a frontal assault on American
hegemony. Washington's miscalculation of responses by France,
Germany, Belgium, Canada, and Turkey had a damaging effect on America's
influence abroad. Examples:
- European public reaction was so strong against the United
States that even British, Italian, and Spanish governments had trouble
supporting the war.
- No Arab country joined the war, but several Gulf states
- Most financial costs of the war are borne by U.S. taxpayers,
unlike in 1991 when the allies and oil-rich Arab states contributed half the
- Iran is a major beneficiary of the war and is convinced that
the U.S. effort will fail.
- The negative effect on U.S. forces has grown as the Iraq
insurgency spread. Calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation as secretary of
defense are one result.
- The public turned against the war after casualties reached
2,000 deaths in late 2005. Polls now show 58 percent of Americans think
the war was a "mistake"
- Finally, Bush's failure to end the fighting and withdraw
U.S. troops has seriously eroded his standing at home and jeopardized his
influence with Congress.
A major lesson to be learned from Iraq is this: Americans will not
support a "preventive war" that lasts more than three years. This was true
also in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
WHERE IS U.S. FOREIGN POLICY HEADED?
Predicting the course of international politics is risky, but it is
reasonable to make a few projections about the direction of U.S. policy
over the next ten years:
- The Iraq experience will make it difficult for any
president to engage in a new preventive war unless the danger is clear, the
public is convinced that the intelligence is accurate, and our major allies
support the action. Iran will be a test.
- Foreign economic policy, especially trade, will receive far
more attention because the U.S. economy is increasingly vulnerable to
international events. This is especially true of oil. Also, China's trade
policies face counter moves in Congress.
- Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela, are large U.S. oil suppliers
and require close attention and skillful diplomacy. Venezuela is a
potential adversary because of the strong anti-American policies of President
- Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions are dangerous
and could lead to preventive war. Russia's and China's delaying policies
in resolving these issues diplomatically are not helpful.
- Combating Islamic terrorists will be an even higher
priority. The Pentagon has now dispatched teams of Special Operations fighters
to many countries to find and destroy terrorist networks, in Sudan, for example.
But America's declining influence makes it difficult to mobilize
international support for these missions.
- Finally, a serious long-term danger to U.S. foreign policy
is the potential unwillingness of Congress and the public to accept the high
costs of America's hegemonic role. Even though the current backlash against the
Iraq war is far smaller than it was on Vietnam, a similar mood of
retrenchment may occur.
In sum, we are seeing a significant decline in America's
hegemonic influence abroad. Yet, the Bush administration is expanding the
military's role in many countries where terrorists operate. Casualties will
surely result. We must therefore wait for the presidential election in 2008
to know whether Americans will support Bush's expansion of U.S.
hegemony, or instead choose leaders who prefer a more modest international
At this point, my crystal ball becomes rather cloudy. Thank
File last modified on Tuesday, 25-APR-2006 07:03 PM EST