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


APRIL 2012

Foreign policy and national security are not among the public's priorities as we head into the November presidential election. Opinion polls show voters to be far more interested in the economy, jobs, and energy prices than in serious foreign policy issues like Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria, even though they get extensive media attention.

In a recent discussion hosted by the Charlottesville Committee on Foreign Relations, I posed four questions that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive contenders in the election, should discuss in a national television debate. They are:

Changing interests. Despite the claims of many experts and politicians, America is far more secure today from a massive foreign attack than at any time since the Cold War's end. No longer are American cities and military bases threatened with nuclear devastation, as they were by the USSR. Although the 9-11 terrorist attacks shocked the country, they inflicted damage only in New York and Washington. And a new strategic arms treaty with Russia reduces the threat of a nuclear attack for the foreseeable future.

World Leadership. That leads to a key question: To what extent, and at what cost, should the United States accept responsibility for securing the peace in other parts of the world, for example, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Japan/South Korea sector of East Asia? Specifically, at what cost should Americans shoulder responsibility for protecting the Arab states and Israel against Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons?

Similarly, what is America's long-term responsibility for ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't again become a destabilizing factor in South Asia and home to al-Qaeda terrorists? And how strongly should Washington confront Beijing over its veiled claims to sovereignty over the entire strategically-located South China Sea?

The question here is not whether the United States has a major interest in these important areas. Instead, it is how large a role, both economic and military, this country -should be willing to accept in order to keep the peace.

Shared responsibility. That raises another crucial question: Is the United States in 2012 financially capable of shouldering the economic and military burden of policing the world, as it did during the Cold War and fifteen years thereafter? I believe not. Washington needs to insist on an arrangement of shared responsibility with other powers, which usually have as much, or even greater, interest in regional security as does the United States. For example, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, three major powers in the Middle East, should take the lead in dealing with the crisis in Syria. They, along with Washington, should have a large voice in promoting Palestinian statehood as well as guarantees for Israel's long-term security.

In Asia, India, China, and Russia should be an important part of any long-term arrangement to ensure stability and peace in the volatile Afghanistan/Pakistan sector.

NATO's future role. For half a century, U.S. foreign policy was based on the premise that a stable, democratic Western Europe would be an active partner in deterring Soviet expansionist policies in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This partnership worked well during the Cold War. But beginning in 1992, Europe, including Britain, France, and united Germany, has deeply cut its' armed forces and defense budgets and shows reluctance to be involved in peace-making outside Europe.

Even though their governments joined the U.S. in ousting Afghanistan's Taliban regime in 2001-02, Europeans contributed only modest forces to the counter-insurgency operations. As a result, Washington committed by far the largest force and paid the largest bills. In Libya in 2011, Europeans could not continue for more than a few weeks a bombing campaign against the Gaddafi regime due to a lack of sustainability.

The reality today is that NATO is not the strong partner that the U.S. government can count on to participate in significant peace-enforcing operations. Europeans are so absorbed in saving the euro and European Union from financial disaster, and preserving their cherished social well-fare programs, that they have no real interest in international security.

Will Obama and Romney seriously discuss these fundamental questions facing our foreign policy and military planners? Probably not. But they deceive themselves, and the American people, if they persist in asserting that America's allies will be full partners in future peace-enforcing operations. And they deceive us all if they insist that America is capable of acting unilaterally to resolve the world's problems.

File last modified on Saturday, 21-APR-2012 10:40 AM EST

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