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


(Delivered at the University of Virginia , November 14, 2009)

In his acclaimed 1987 book, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," Professor Paul Kennedy argued that all great powers in modern history declined in world influence because of "strategic overstretch," an inability of their economies to sustain imperial foreign policies. In a brief final chapter, he suggested that the United States could succumb to a similar fate.


A brief review of American foreign policy since 1945 shows the steady rise of the United States to a hegemonic role at the end of the 20th century.

In the immediate postwar period, 1945 - 47, this country reached the zenith of its influence in the world. All the other major powers were exhausted by war and their economies were shattered. America alone had the wealth and military power to create a new world order, based on democratic principles. The only competitor for world influence was the Soviet Union whose troops occupied all of eastern Europe and nearly half of defeated Germany. The Marshall Plan in 1948 and creation of NATO in 1949, which restored the economies of Western Europe and guaranteed its security, brought on the Cold War to determine whether the United States or the Soviet Union would win the contest between democracy and communism in Western Europe. In 1950, the outbreak of war in Korea made it clear that Soviet leaders and the new Communist leadership in China were serious competitors with the United States for dominant influence in East Asia. As a result, America and its allies fought a war for three years to prevent South Korea nd potentially Japan from succumbing to Moscow's and Beijing's pressure.

The Vietnam War in the 1960s caused the United States to overreach in S.E. Asia and led to a decade of soul-searching about America's role in the world. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union expanded its influence in Africa and Latin America and expanded its military forces. New leadership in Washington in the 1980s led to resurgence in U.S. military power and determination to confront the Soviet Union. At the same time, a serious economic crisis emerged in that country and moderate leaders emerged who decided to end the Cold War. The reunification of Germany, a Soviet military withdrawal from Eastern Europe, and the USSR's implosion in 1991 enabled America to emerge as the world's sole superpower.

As a result of the Cold War's end and Russia's emergence as a weakened military power, the United States felt safe in reducing its military forces in Europe and Asia and concentrating on rebuilding its economic strength. Americans grew complacent about being No. 1 in the world, and celebrated the country's victory in the Cold War and achieving dominance in the world. The events of September 11, 2001, shattered those dreams. People now realize the country is no longer safe.


America, like most powers, has four basic national interests which guide its foreign and national security policies. They are:

  1. Defend the U.S. homeland, including all of North America;
  2. Enhance America's economic well-being:
  3. Maintain a favorable world order:
  4. Promote democracy and U.S. values.

The first two basic interests have been pursued by American leaders since the founding of the Republic. Defending U.S. territory, our constitutional system, and U.S. citizens has never been in question. Promoting prosperity at home and commerce abroad has also been a long-term interest of the United States. However, the third and fourth interests, maintaining world order and promoting U.S. values abroad have been prominent parts of American foreign policy since the country emerged victorious from World War II. For the next sixty years, America's power and influence around the world were pervasive. Today, however, the public asks: "What is the price we have to pay to be the guarantor of peace around the world?" On promoting U.S. values, many ask: "How strongly should our leaders press democracy on other countries, especially those that have never had experience with it?" America's leaders must now address fundamental questions about this country's international role. Specifically, which regions of the world are truly essential for U.S. security? What are the limits of America's ability to provide economic aid and security for large sectors of the world? Should other powers be persuaded to take responsibility for keeping the peace in their regions?

This leads to a discussion of what are America's "vital" national interests, those that are so important to this country's well-being that the government may find it necessary to use force to protect them if all other measures fail. There are various degrees of coercion that might be used, including economic sanctions, surveillance of military installations, armed embargo of strategic materials, and a limited blockade of ports. If the interest at stake is of crucial importance to America's security and economic well-being, stronger measures may be taken, including a full blockade, the movement of troops into position to invade, and limited air strikes on strategic installations. But these measures would not be used unless the vital issue cannot be negotiated and the stakes are so high that armed conflict becomes necessary to persuade an adversary to change course.


At the beginning of the 2010s, America needs to reevaluate its basic national interests and decide on a grand strategy that protects and enhances them at an acceptable cost. Here are three discreet but overlapping alternatives:

  1. Hegemonic superpower, a role the U.S. played in the 1990s and early 2000s
  2. Collaborative superpower, the one it followed during the Cold War years
  3. Aloof but vigilant superpower, a new option open to it in a new era

A "hegemonic" role is probably no longer feasible for the United States because its weakened economy will not sustain it, at least in the short term, and because other powers have risen in the past twenty years to compete for influence in various regions of the world. Moreover, the U.S. public increasingly questions whether the United States should play a dominant international role in the future.

A "collaborative" role is possible if America is prepared to see other major powers take a primary security role in their areas of the world. However, collaboration entails sharing decision-making responsibility, a posture that recent U.S. presidents have not favored. Today, China, Brazil, India, and Russia aspire to greater influence in their regions, and a united Europe desires to chart its own foreign policy course. Is the United States prepared to cede its leadership role in East Asia to China, South Asia to India, the Mediterranean area to Europe, South America to Brazil, and the Persian Gulf area to Iran? The new G-20 gathering of twenty nations, replacing the G-7 trans-Atlantic-Japan forum, is a step in the direction of according other powers larger economic and political influence on many international issues. Still, the United States retains, with the consent of most other nations, a central role in the world's security matters.

An "aloof but vigilant" role is a difficult, but feasible, alternative for the United States in the next decade. It may be difficult to scale back U.S. security commitments in the world, in Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, South America, and in South Asia. This strategy would entail a sizeable reduction in U.S. armed forces, as many troops are withdrawn from Korea, Japan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and eventually Afghanistan. Still, America would maintain a major military presence in the Pacific area, the Caribbean Basin, the North Atlantic region, and also work out a collaborative arrangement with Europe to provide security in the Mediterranean area. This strategy does not suggest that America would reduce its ability or willingness to use military force to support its vital world order interests. But it does mean that policymakers must be more discriminating in deciding whether a given security threat outside the Caribbean, North Atlantic, and Pacific regions reaches the level of "vital" interest. Many experts say that scaling back military forces abroad and reducing economic assistance projects abroad will help strengthen the economy, as it did in the 1990s. Moreover, if the American public can be induced to consume less gasoline and oil, this would improve the U.S. balance of trade and strengthen the dollar's value. Nevertheless, this course could lead to increased protectionist and nationalist pressures at home and to trade wars abroad. It could also result in a less stable world order than now exists.


Many American presidents, faced with a crisis abroad, have ignored public opinion in formulating foreign policy. Examples are: Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 when he transferred 50 old destroyers to Britain to secure the North Atlantic before the United States entered World War II. Harry Truman who ignored public opinion in 1950 by responding militarily to North Korea's attack on South Korea. Richard Nixon in 1972 who opened relations with Communist China despite strong public opposition. Ronald Reagan when he sent Pershing and cruise missiles to Europe in 1983 and Bill Clinton when he sent bombers to defend Kosovo in 1999, despite strong criticism to both. George W. Bush in 2003 encountered major opposition by sending forces to oust Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

In each of these cases, the president decided that vital national interests were at stake and he used the power of the presidency to defend them.

In my view, Barack Obama will be judged as a leader by how successful he is in moving America away from a hegemonic foreign policy and into a renewed collaborative role that permits the United States to curtail many military operations overseas. His dilemma is to persuade the public and Congress that retrenchment is necessary while reassuring allies and friends that America is not moving to an aloof role in international affairs. Are this president and Congress up to the task of managing retrenchment in the U.S. world role and making major adjustments in the domestic economy? If not, America will surely be in decline as a superpower. If yes, it can emerge as a more confident and economically secure superpower.

File last modified on Wednesday, 23-DEC-2009 10:25 AM EST

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