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



In a recent lecture, I asked: "What has America learned since World War II about our role as a world power?" Here are five lessons we might consider.

Lesson 1. America was extremely fortunate to emerge unscathed from World War II. Every other major country was devastated by the war, either physically or economically, while ours came out of that epic struggle as the world's most powerful military force and its leading economic power. The lesson is that America should not enter wars unless it intends to prevail.

Lesson 2. We used our new power both wisely and unwisely during the twenty years that followed the war. The wise decisions were President Truman's rejection of the isolationist-nationalist policies of the prewar period, and his plan to rebuild Western Europe economically through the Marshall Plan and guarantee Europe's security through the North Atlantic Pact. Truman also wisely decided not to intervene to save a failing Chinese Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek. He was prepared to acquiesce in the emergence of a Communist regime in Beijing. Five years later, President Eisenhower wisely decided not to intervene in Vietnam to save a failing French colonial empire.

The unwise decisions were Truman's consent, after U.S. forces repelled a North Korean invasion of South Vietnam, to permit General MacArthur's forces to occupy North Korea. That triggered China's intervention in the war, which cost nearly 50,000 American lives. A second unwise decision was President Kennedy's in 1962, to intervene in Vietnam with limited U.S. forces. This was followed by President Johnson's massive escalation of the war in 1965, which eventually cost 60,000 American deaths and many more wounded.

Lesson 3. The United States started neglecting its economy in the late 1960s by not paying for the costly Vietnam War. By 1971, the dollar came under international pressure because of fixed exchange rates, and the Nixon administration forced the trading world to accept a devaluation of the dollar. Floating exchange rates were then instituted. But federal budgets deficits rose steadily in the 1970s and 1980s. Domestic spending increased, defense budgets remained at high levels during the Cold War, and federal revenues failed to keep pace. After the Cold War ended in 1990, however, the economy improved remarkably, and by 2000 the government was running substantial budget surpluses.

The attacks of 9-11 had a major effect on the economy because taxes had been lowered while defense expenditures shot up. The banking crisis of September 2008 made things far worse, as ballooning deficits and the national debt reached dangerous levels. The lesson is that taxes may now have to be raised to avoid an economic calamity.

Lesson 4. American leaders continue to engage in hubris, arrogance, about this country's power and influence in the world. A new book by Peter Beinert titled, "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris" presents a sobering account of how America came to believe that it has the power and a duty to bring the fruits of freedom to the entire world and preserve peace wherever it is threatened. Starting with Woodrow Wilson's dream in the First World War of "making the world safe for democracy," and ending with George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Beinart argues that America must shed its illusions about being able to police the entire world.

Unfortunately, this country's foreign policy elite, centered in Washington and New York, continues to speak in terms that recall Madeleine Albright's assertion that America is the world's "indispensable" power. The gulf between that idea of America's role and the average American's worry about the costs of U.S. involvements abroad has grown rapidly, as the human and financial costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars strained our economy The Tea Party movement is a result of the public's frustration with Washington.

Lesson 5. Each generation in America seems to produce a new crop of young imperialists who insist that America should use its power to reshape the world in our image. Most of these "hawks" have had no experience in the military and seem unconcerned about financial costs. Although they are in eclipse today because of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems likely that a new group of expansionists will in time again fill the key defense and foreign policy jobs in Washington.

Conclusion: Many prominent writers, among them historians Paul Kennedy and Niall Ferguson, and businessman/financier Peter Peterson, have written books warning that America could lose its leading world power position because its economy cannot sustain all the world-wide commitments it undertook during and after the Cold War. Neither the Republican nor Democratic Party seems prepared to deal with this danger. If not, America will continue its decline as a superpower while other countries move to fill the resulting regional power vacuums. That process is already underway in Asia where China is asserting its new economic power.

File last modified on Saturday, 06-SEP-2010 5:05 PM EST

Feedback to Author