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


JULY 2010

The G-20 Summit in Toronto two weeks ago underscored the reality that America no longer has the power it once had to guide the economic and political decisions of other governments, including some of our closest allies.

What accounts for this decline in U.S. fortunes?

One factor is the emergence of new economic powers, notably China, India, and Brazil, that are challenging the economic domination of the western G-7 powers, which largely determined international economic policy for thirty years, until 2008. George W. Bush convened the first G-20 summit before he left office that year, and the Washington gathering signaled that the world's economic power structure had changed significantly.

A second factor results from two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, the United States had NATO's support and cooperation from Russia because the 9-11 attacks by Al-Qaeda affected all of them. In Iraq, however, major NATO allies, notably Germany, France, Canada, and Turkey, did not support the U.S. invasion, and European public opinion turned sharply against the United States.

Today, most NATO governments support Barack Obama's request to increase their forces in Afghanistan, to help defeat the Taliban insurgency. However, many of those forces will be withdrawn in 2011. Washington's apparent inability after nine years to build a viable country under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai causes both Europeans and Asians to doubt America's ability to bring real security to Central Asia.

A third factor is the financial crisis that enveloped the United States and Europe in 2008 and continues to batter their economies. Unlike in 2001, when Europe and America acted in concert on Afghanistan, the current economic crisis finds Washington and its European partners diverging seriously in their responses.

Their dispute was highlighted by a Washington Post headline on the eve of the G-20 Toronto summit: "G-20 Riven by National Interests" (June 25). In essence, European governments reject the Obama administration's call for fiscal stimulus to spur economic growth. Instead they are slashing budgets in order to avoid the kind of financial crisis that hit Greece in the spring and could also affect them.

In reviewing the actions of three U.S. allies--Turkey, Germany, and Mexico, one can see good reasons why the United States is losing much of its influence abroad.

Turkey. Washington was stunned last month when Turkey, a staunch ally since the 1950s, voted against a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution that imposed tougher economic sanctions on Iran because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Ankara's government suspects the United States and Europe, strongly supported by Israel, of edging toward a military confrontation with its neighbor and trading partner. Turkey was also outraged by Israel's attack on its cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

Ankara accuses Washington of soft-peddling criticism of Israel's Gaza blockade and its intensive bombing of the Palestinian territory in January 2009. The result is that Turkey is distancing itself from Washington and adopting policies based on its own national interests in the Middle East. The New York Times characterized the situation in its headline June 9: "Turkey Goes From Pliable Ally to Thorn for U.S."

Germany. Although Angela Merkel's government remains a good U.S. ally, it now parts company with Washington over economic policy and is pursuing its own interests in Europe's financial crisis. Berlin disagrees with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who wants it to stimulate the economy and increase imports, in order to strengthen the economies of its eurozone partners. But German voters oppose helping other Europeans who are deeply in debt because of their profligacy during the last decade. Many Germans feel their country has for too long been "taken for granted" by its partners.

Mexico. President Felipe Calderon blames the United States for the drug violence that has claimed more than 23,000 lives in his country over past three years. Last week, a candidate for governor in one state was assassinated after pledging to fight the drug lords. In June, Calderon's issued this sharp rebuke to the United States: "The origin of our violence problem begins with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world. It is as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world." (Washington Post, June 16, A1)

These allies disagree with U.S. leadership for different reasons, but their criticism of American policy reflects widespread views heard in their neighboring countries, in the Middle East, Western Europe, and much of Latin America. The result is a sharp decline in American influence in three regions where U.S. interests are considered vital.

In order to arrest this decline and bring about a resurgence in American influence, the U.S. government urgently needs to strengthen its economy, end the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reduce its dependence on foreign oil, curb illegal drug consumption, and listen more closely to what our allies cite as their national interests.

That is a tall order for Obama or any U.S. administration to fulfill.

File last modified on Wednesday, 07-JUL-2010 11:55 PM EST

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