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


(Presentation made to the NADIR Group, University Village, Charlottesville, January 30, 2009)

America finds itself today at a crossroads in its relations with the world ,similar to the situation it faced in 1969 as it began a withdrawal from Vietnam. A look at recent history will be useful in putting the current difficult situation in perspective.

In 1991, after the Cold War ended and the USSR imploded, Americans became complacent. From 1991 to 2001, during the terms of George Bush 1, Bill Clinton, and George Bush 2, the United States exercised what is known as hegemonic influence in the world. We were the only superpower, and we expected other countries to agree with our major foreign policies.

All that changed on 9-11. Americans were shocked in a way similar to what they experienced after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. We realized that our cities and countryside are now vulnerable to deadly attacks by terrorists. George Bush's policy after 9-11 was to go on the offensive and demonstrate to friends as well as foes that America is no "paper tiger." The Afghanistan war was one result. Iraq was another. But the huge cost of the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq, regardless of that war's eventual outcome, is George Bush's legacy.

The resulting economic and international political damage to the United States has been immense and it requires early action by a new president.

Economic Realities. America has become even more dependent on the free flow of Persian Gulf oil and now imports nearly 65 percent of its petroleum needs from abroad. In addition, Washington assumed that bringing China into the WTO in 1996 would encourage Beijing to play by the rules on trade and investments that had been established by the western economic powers and Japan, the G-7. We were wrong in that expectation: China rigged its exchange rate with the dollar and the result is that China's exports soared while U.S. exports to China increased only modestly by comparison. Today we have a massive trade imbalance which has enabled China to amass hundreds of billions of dollars which it lends to the U.S. Treasury. President Bush did little to change this situation, largely because he needed China‘s political cooperation in dealing with the North Korea and Taiwan issues.

Foreign Policy. The United States has received only limited support in Afghanistan from its allies as it coped with a growing security threat from Taliban insurgents. Except for Britain, our allies provided little or no support on Iraq. Meanwhile, relations with Russia suffered when the United States joined with European NATO countries in supporting independence for Kosovo. The Bush administration also exasperated the Putin government by pushing NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and a missile defense shield in Poland and Czech Republic. Despite much diplomatic effort, no progress was made on achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, partly because the Bush administration was seen as giving strong support to Israel's policies. Also, Iran‘s nuclear program has not abated, despite five years of diplomacy and economic sanctions imposed by the European and American governments.

President Obama comes to office as the new face of America's foreign policy. His challenge at home and abroad is huge. What changes in direction should he consider in order to restore America's economic stability and its leadership? I think he has three alternative priorities from which to choose. These are:

  1. Modified hegemony. Continue the current U.S. world leadership role, but use diplomacy and aid, and less military power, to achieve his objectives.
  2. Shared responsibility. Reduce substantially America's military presence abroad--in Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia--while encouraging regional powers such as the EU, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and Brazil, to take larger leadership roles in their areas.
  3. Disengagement. Withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and the Persian Gulf and give far greater attention to trade relations with major economic powers, specifically China and the Asian countries. Refrain from using American forces outside North America except in defense of vital U.S. interests, including threats to major allies.

A serious question for President Obama and the country is this: should the United States attempt to continue the hegemonic policies that were practiced by the aggressive diplomacy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, or adopt a more modest, even aloof, approach in dealing with many international issues?

My view is that Mr. Obama will not continue the policy of frequent military interventions abroad and instead pursue a course somewhere between Alternatives 2 and 3. . America's seriously weakened economy probably mandates that the president will show restraint in dealing with many security problems abroad and give far more attention to America‘s international economic interests. In doing so, however, the president will need to undertake the major task of persuading this country's allies and friends, as well as enemies, that he does not intend to abandon America's major responsibilities in the world, but to substantially reduce their costs.

File last modified on Sunday, 11-JAN-2009 5:24 PM EST

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