Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

class="bluetext">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



When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Indonesia in July, he announced a significant change in U.S. policy by lifting a decade-old ban on assistance to its elite special forces unit, Kopassus. Earlier, it had a long record of human rights abuses.

The news produced vigorous protests by civil rights groups in the United States and Indonesia. A spokesman for Human Rights Watch said that "every abusive military in the world will sit up and say, if the United States is willing to go ahead and engage with Kopassus... why shouldn't the U.S. engage with other abusive militaries?" (New York Times, July 23)

Gates argues that this special force has made steady progress to rid itself of officers and staff who engaged in human rights abuses against dissident groups. Working with Indonesia's special forces in the anti-terror campaign, he says, will produce greater benefits in advancing human rights than "simply standing back and shouting at people."

The Washington Post gave its editorial support (July 24) to the policy shift: "Indonesia today is a democracy, one of the great political success stories of the past decade." Citing it as the world's largest Muslim-majority country (240 million people), it said that Indonesia "has fought Islamic extremism and intolerance," and that its military has been under civilian control since 1998, when Indonesia ousted the Suharto regime.

Indonesia provides the latest example of the age-old struggle in the U.S. government between those who want foreign policy to be based on realism about the true nature of the world, and those who think policy should promote American idealism and values abroad.

Realists argue that policy should deal with other countries primarily on the basis of U.S. national interests, not on whether they follow America's preference for how their societies are organized. Idealists claim that "power politics" leads to war and that America has a mission to foster a world order based on universal values, not power.

A provocative new book by Peter Beinart, "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris", traces the struggle between these competing foreign policy forces over the past hundred years, beginning with the idealist views of Woodrow Wilson when he led the country into the First World War. After it ended, a disillusioned public turned against his plan for remaking the world along idealist lines, because of the high costs.

Beinart contrasts this with the more realistic policies of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and of Harry Truman in the postwar period. They created a new world order based on realism about power politics and defending America's national interests.

Barack Obama is demonstrating in his second year that on foreign policy, he is much closer to the Roosevelt-Truman approach to world affairs than the Wilsonian view. Over objections of human rights groups and many in the Democratic Party, he altered U.S. policy toward Russia by modifying plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe. He also played down criticism of Moscow for human rights violations. In return, Russia now supports U.S. policy in Afghanistan and U.N. sanctions directed against Iran.

In the Middle East, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton softened their criticism of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States over their poor human rights records. The administration seems unwilling to risk a repeat of the political chaos that resulted adfter the Bush administration pressured Israel in 2006 to hold elections in the Gaza Strip, which brought the Hamas group to power.

China is the latest example of Obama's move toward a realist policy in dealing with its increasingly assertive policies in Asia. Unlike both Bush and Clinton, who pursued accommodation with China on economic and political issues, Obama's foreign policy team is pursuing a tougher line on restraining China's expansionist aims.

Secretary Clinton served notice at a recent international conference in Vietnam that the United States will assert its continuing interests in the strategic South China Sea, where Beijing is encroaching on key islands that are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. China protested vigorously when she suggested that Washington might step in to mediate these disputes, saying it was no one else's affair. As the Wall Street Journal (July 28) commented: "After years of Washington placating Beijing, the danger of allowing China to bully its neighbors seems to be sinking in."

It may seem ironic that Obama, who pursues a liberal, idealistic agenda in domestic policy, is taking a conservative, realist approach to major foreign policy issues. His tough, realistic policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are at odds with the increasingly vocal liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

An important historical mark of American foreign policy is that most presidents, regardless of party, become realists when dealing with the harsh realities of international politics. Barack Obama appears increasingly to fit that pattern.

File last modified on Saturday, 07-AUG-2010 2:35 PM EST

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