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



While Washington's current focus is on the nation's financial crisis, the new president taking office in January will learn that his decisions on foreign and national security policy will become the top priority of his administration.

Many presidents, among them Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, expected to concentrate on domestic policy during their first year in office. Instead they found that foreign policy crises demanded a huge amount of their time.

Lyndon Johnson's top priority in 1964-65 was congressional passage of his Great Society programs and the historic civil rights legislation. But when a Communist insurgency in Vietnam threatened stability in the south, he sent 200,000 combat forces to cope with the crisis. By 1968 Vietnam proved to be the undoing of his presidency.

Gerald Ford inherited the office after resignation by Richard Nixon and declared in Congress that "the state of the union is not good." He hoped to heal domestic wounds caused by the Vietnam war and Watergate scandal. But in his first year Ford had to deal with the Mayzguez high jacking crisis off Vietnam's coast, and Moscow's threat to U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and the Caribbean.

Jimmy Carter won the presidency with a pledge to "clean up Washington" and restore an economy badly damaged by the Vietnam War. But he realized that Soviet leaders were determined to change the strategic balance of power against the United States. Carter spent months brokering a breakthrough peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but his presidency was damaged by his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis.

Bill Clinton thought, as did most Americans, that as the Cold War was over and America was the unchallenged superpower, he could focus on strengthening the U.S. economy and promoting domestic programs. He was soon faced with crises in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Clinton struggled to improve relations with a resurgent China and a humiliated Russia, and he tried unsuccessfully to broker a peace accord in Palestine. He also had to deal with a new Al Qaeda terrorist threat in Africa and South Asia.

The new president will quickly face dangerous challenges in Iran and Afghanistan, and a potentially serious one in relations with a resurgent Russia. He will also inherit an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a tenuous nuclear deal with North Korea. And he faces a major challenge from Europe's leaders regarding U.S. leadership of the world's economic infrastructure.

Recently a group of scholars, retired military officers, and businessmen met at the Farmington Club in Charlottesville to discuss the attributes a president should possess in order to deal effectively with urgent foreign policy challenges. Here are five major qualifications they concluded are important.

First, a president should be a good listener to advice from knowledgeable advisers, and have a strong set of values to guide his thinking on foreign policy.

Second, he should have management experience, for example, as a mayor, state governor, or top executive in a business firm, because he will oversee the work of several million civil servants and more than a million personnel in the Armed Forces. Although military service is not essential, it is useful in performing as the commander-in-chief.

Third, he needs exceptionally competent people to serve as his secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence.

They should be persons with significant management experience and good judgment. Fourth, he should have some experience dealing with legislators in order to persuade members of Congress to follow his leadership in foreign and national security policy. A president will not succeed without that support.

Finally, the president is elected by all the people, and he should be effective in communicating his ideas to the public. In the television age, a president will find it extremely difficult to govern effectively without an ability to persuade voters to pressure Congress in support of his policies, especially on controversial issues.

Early in the new administration, the president needs to address this fundamental question: how large an international security role should the United States be expected to play in the coming decade? After eight years of an expanding American military presence around the globe, it is prudent that we consider a more modest degree of responsibility for resolving the world's many security problems.

In 1991, following the Cold War's end and the Soviet Union's demise, I suggested that The United States should adopt the posture of "aloof but vigilant superpower." Neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations followed that course. The question today is whether the huge costs we have accrued as the world's hegemonic superpower are so large that we should seriously consider that posture.

File last modified on Tuesday, 29-OCT-2008 7:32 PM EST

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