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


MAY 2014

Barack Obama is roundly criticized for being "feckless" in foreign policy because he refuses to intervene in Syria's civil war or provide arms to Ukraine's interim government to defend the country against pro-Russia separatists. Foreign policy expert Richard Haass reflects that view in his commentary "A Foreign Policy Flirting with Chaos." (Wall Street Journal, April 30).

"Where is American leadership," laments Senator John McCain and other critics convinced that inaction in the Middle East and Crimea emboldens Vladimir Putin to conclude that Obama and his European allies will talk tough but do little to prevent Russia from imposing its hegemony over Ukraine.

Retrenchment is a word that describes Obama's foreign policy. He defends this course by citing two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and warns against the folly of sending American forces into conflicts abroad that are not in vital U.S. interests. Recent opinion polls support that view.

Many historians and diplomats claim that America has pursued a consistent foreign policy since World War II, taking leadership of the West during the Cold War and assuming a world leadership role after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

That view is disputed by scholar Stephen Sestanovich in his new book, Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama, He argues that foreign policy has oscillated since 1945 between two poles, a maximum effort to dominate international relations, followed by retrenchment and withdrawal from interventions abroad. These surges and retrenchments caused allies and friendsto question America's steadfastness as a leader.

Nixon's retrenchment

Richard Nixon, a Republican president, faced this reality after he entered the White House in 1969. "America cannot and will not," he asserted, "conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defense of the free world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest." Nixon was reacting to the Kennedy administration's major overreach of U.S. power, which resulted in the costly, unsustainable, and unwinnable war in Vietnam.

Maximalist reviews U.S. foreign policy since 1945 and concludes that presidents who took the country to war also greatly increased defense budgets which strained the U.S. economy.

Harry Truman supported retrenchment after World War II. But when North Korea invaded the south in 1950, he not only sent troops to Korea but asked for major increases in the size of military and the budgets to fight that brutal war. Truman believed that America's leadership in Europe, as well as Asia, was being challenged by the Soviet Union and sent more troops to Europe.

When Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, was elected president in 1952, he decided that retrenchment, especially in the ballooning defense budget, was essential to ensure the nation's financial health. He instituted government-wide budget cuts, put emphasis on air power to deter the Soviet Union, and practiced forceful diplomacy to preserve America's power and credibility as a world power.

Kennedy's surge

John Kennedy, a youthful president in contrast to the aging Eisenhower, was determined to reorder the world to suit America's needs. He expanded America's ability to intervene abroad whenever its power was challenged. Sestanovich labels Kennedy's youthful team as "Boy Commandos of the New Frontier."

Vietnam became an American war when Kennedy sanctioned the ouster of President Diem in 1963 and installed a military leader. Lyndon Johnson, who became president after Kennedy's assassination, took responsibility for sending half a million troops to war in Vietnam, which then became a tragedy for U.S. foreign policy. Nixon tried valiantly to extricate the country from a disaster, with mixed results.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan instigated another massive surge in U.S. power to end the Cold War, and George H.W. Bush then began a new period of retrenchment that Bill Clinton continued in the 1990s. However, collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that America had emerged as the world's sole superpower, and this led to a national mood of complacency.

When this mood was shattered on September 11, 2001, a new president, George W. Bush, reacted by taking the country to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and greatly expanding the military and defense budgets. This new maximalist surge resulted in growing budget deficits because Congress failed to raise taxes to pay for the wars.

Obama's caution

Barack Obama now finds himself in the strange company of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in pursuing retrenchment at home after their predecessors engaged in hugely expensive and unpopular wars abroad.

How long will the public mood of withdrawal and retrenchment last? Probably until another major crisis erupts that causes the country to demand greater emphasis on national security. Barack Obama, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964 may hope to concentrate his efforts on domestic priorities. But will he be able to avoid a truly major crisis abroad before completing his term in the White House?

File last modified on Friday, 7-MAR-2014 3:57 PM EST

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