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

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Donald Nuechterlein

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)

April 2006

INTRODUCTION

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 concepts.

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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Hugo Chavez.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 role.

At this point, my crystal ball becomes rather cloudy. Thank you.

File last modified on Tuesday, 25-APR-2006 07:03 PM EST

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