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


JUNE 2013

President Obama's decision to try negotiations regarding Syria instead of military intervention is consistent with his altered view of world-wide U.S. national interests .On this assessment, he parts company with predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A year and a half ago, when Obama announced a reorientation of U.S. strategic policy toward the Asia-Pacific region; the implication was that Europe and the Middle East would receive a lower priority in military planning. The Pentagon soon revealed that American forces in Europe, especially Germany, would be reduced, and Middle East leaders questioned whether Washington would withdraw its major presence in that region.

Bill Clinton continued to give Europe a high priority in foreign policy even after the Cold War ended. He pressed for the inclusion of former Soviet satellites, specifically Poland and Hungary, in NATO's membership, his objective being to ensure that Eastern Europe would not become prey to potential Russian imperialism.

In the early 2000s, George Bush saw the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf and peace in Palestine, as vital national interests. He launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to bolster U.S. power in the region and to warn Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons policy. He also pressed Israel's government and the Palestinian Authority to reach a peace settlement. But despite major efforts by the While House, he was largely unsuccessful.

Both Clinton and Bush promoted expanded trade relations with China and sought to build good political ties with Beijing's leadership. The assumption was that expanding trade relations with China would lead to political and strategic understandings.

Changed strategic landscape

When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, the international climate had changed significantly. America was fighting two inconclusive wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, little progress was seen in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. economy was reeling from financial crisis brought on by the September 2008 banking and credit panic, and apprehension arose that a resurgent China was pressuring neighbors along its East Asian periphery.

In his first term, Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq when its elected government declined to provide assurances regarding legal rights for a residual force. He also laid plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with the expectation that agreement would be reached for a small residual training force to remain.

However, lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations added to Obama's view that America's ability to induce major changes in the Middle East was limited and that greater involvement carried high risks if it included ground forces. The president's caution during Libya's civil war ("no boots on the ground") signaled his policy on Syria.

Evolving U.S. national interests.

President Obama's summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California this weekend and Secretary of State John Kerry's recent negotiations in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Syria suggest that a fundamental shift is underway in the United States' view of its vital national interests as well as altered national strategy.

Reinforcement of this new U.S. strategic outlook was given by defense secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore on June 1. By 2020, he stated, the Navy will base 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific, and the Air Force had already moved 60 percent of its overseas forces to the Asia-Pacific region. Despite current cuts in the Pentagon's budget, Hagel asserted, future U.S. military spending will continue to be roughly 40 percent of all world-wide defense expenditures. ("Hagel chides Chins for cyberspying," (Wash. Post. June 2)

From the perspective of Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel, the key architects of U.S. strategy, the world situation currently looks roughly like this:

President Obama's meeting with President Xi will test whether he can persuade the Chinese leader that America will remain fully involved politically and militarily in East Asia and will defend its allies.

File last modified on Wednesday, 5-JUN-2013 1:25 PM EST

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