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



The Senate's confirmation hearing of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense underlined sharp differences among senators over America's military posture in the volatile politics of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the continuing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some Republicans think Hagel's earlier opposition to expanding U.S. combat strength in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests he's overly influenced by his combat experience in Vietnam. He opposes deploying U.S. forces in Syria's civil war, and he argued against involvement in Libya. Hagel also thinks tough sanctions on Iran should be sustained before military action is contemplated to stop its nuclear weapons program.

The reality is that most opposition to Hagel is aimed at President Obama. A major source of this comes from American Jewish groups who claim that Obama is not sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's view that Iran poses an "existential" threat to Israel and must be prevented from pursuing its nuclear weapons program. Hagel's testimony simply reflected Obama's cautious policy on Iran.

This debate is reminiscent of periods in the 20th century when Americans became frustrated with the costs of interventions abroad and elected presidents who pledged to focus on the country's domestic needs. Periods following the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam War are examples.

Spanish-American War

Following a short war with Spain in 1898, in support of Cuba's independence, the United States emerged as the dominant power in the Caribbean and Central America. It also became a major power in the Pacific after it acquired the Philippines and Guam from Spain and annexed Hawaii. President McKinley's military occupation of the Philippines, which precipitated a brutal three-year insurrection, produced a public backlash in the United States against "American colonialism." Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor, built a large navy to bolster America's Pacific power and to play a larger role in world politics. But a new Anti-Imperialist League, formed in 1898, gained wide public support and contributed to the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Wilson had pledged to focus on domestic policy.

World War I

America's entry into World War I in 1917 reopened the foreign policy debate that had raged a decade earlier. Unlike the easy victory over Spain in 1998, America's intervention in the European war against Germany was the largest and costliest conflict it had fought since the Civil War. The war, which lasted eighteen months and resulted in 53,000 American combat deaths, precipitated widespread public anger against involvement in Europe's conflicts. This sentiment contributed to the Senate's rejection of Wilson's treasured League of Nations in 1919. Anti-war pressures also led in 1920 to the election of Warren Harding who urged America to concentrate on domestic affairs. As a result, the next two decades in foreign policy has been characterized as "isolationism."

World War II

Japan's attack on Hawaii in 1941 shocked the country out of its complacency, led to reversal of the isolationist policy after World War II, and enabled Washington to take the lead in forming the United Nations in 1945. But victory in war also persuaded the country to largely disarm itself until 1950 when war in Korea led Congress to substantially increase the defense budget. The Truman administration then organized the NATO alliance with Western Europe to counter the Soviet Union's aggressive moves. For fifteen years, from 1950 until 1965, the United States used its power to counter Soviet and Chinese communist pressures in Europe and Asia. Its intervention in the Korean war was part of that global strategy.

Vietnam War

President Johnson's decision to send large combat forces to South Vietnam in 1965, to prevent its fall to North Vietnamese forces, precipitated a major war that lasted eight years and resulted in 58,000 American deaths. It caused massive protests in Washington, D.C. and around the country and led many who fought in Vietnam, men like John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John McCain, and Jim Webb, to conclude that America should never again be involved in a foreign land war unless the United States itself is attacked. The war also caused Americans to turn inward and question the country's role in the world. This ten-year turning away from the world ended when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and persuaded the country to support his plan to end the Cold War by forcing Soviet leaders to retreat from Europe. The Cold War's end left America as a sole world superpower, and it produced an American hegemony in world affairs that led inexorably to U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A New Retrenchment?

A persuasive case can be made, I think, that Barack Obama's election in 2008 ushered in another period of reassessment of America's role abroad. It produced a more sober view of the tradeoff between costs and benefits of using armed intervention as a tool of foreign policy. As result of his reelection in 2012, Obama seems determined to define vital U.S. interests in a more restrictive manner than do most congressional Republicans and the many lobbying organizations, both domestic and foreign, that want America to continue being the world's policeman. With John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Jack Lew at the State, Defense and Treasury departments, respectively, we will now see far more emphasis in the coming years on tough negotiations and economic pressure than on a threatened use of armed forces in the pursuit of national interests.

File last modified on Monday, 10-FEB-2013 3:52 PM EST

Feedback to Author