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



What do Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ali Khamenei, the leaders of Russia, China, and Iran, share in foreign policy? It's nostalgia for a time when their countries were treated as major powers and they exercised hegemony in their regions of the world.

Mr. Putin looks back with nostalgia not only to the period after World War II when Soviet armies had defeated Hitler's forces, captured Berlin, and extended Moscow's domination of Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia; he also recalls that Soviet influence expanded to the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Putin also recalls\from history that Russia defeated Napoleon's army in 1812 and expanded the Russian empire across Central Asia and into Afghanistan.

President Xi. like all Chinese, appreciates China's glorious history, which dates back more than two thousand years. During that time China exercised hegemony over most of East Asia. However, in the 19th century, it suffered the humiliation of being attacked by the British navy and forced by London to open Chinese ports to trade This encouraged other European powers to demand similar trading concessions, the result being that China's east coast was divided into many foreign-controlled enclaves. This "great humiliation" ended, Chinese say, when Communist forces united the country in 1949.

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader who exercises ultimate control of its foreign policy, views with nostalgia Iran's centuries-old independence and influence in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Iran is also the center of a long religious tradition, shiism, which is a branch of Islam and dates to the seventh century. Khamenei sees his country as the center of a religious revolution that will spread Islamic teachings around globe. Like China's leaders, he believes Iran was humiliated by the West for two centuries and that it's time for it to be accepted as a major regional power.

Other major countries, notably France, Britain, and Egypt also look back with nostalgia on past national greatness, and this influences their recent foreign policies. Britain and France were global colonial powers before 1940, but then forced by economic circumstances after World War II to divest themselves of colonies in Indo-china, India, Singapore, and Africa.

In an earlier time, Egypt was a great empire in the Near East and Africa, but over time lost its independence to European powers and the Ottoman Empire. Today Egypt remains the largest and most influential Arab country and expects to increase its influence in the Near East and North Africa in coming years.

How should the United States deal with major states that expect to restore lost international power and influence?

Henry Kissinger, in his book, World Order, argues that U.S. policy should be able to accommodate some of the aspirations of other nations that seek to reclaim their influence. But this course would require the United States to be willing to relinquish some of the influence it acquired after 1945 in many parts of the world. This includes East Asia, Ukraine and Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

This is where nostalgia also plays a role in Americans' thinking about our role in the world.

Since 1945, when the U.S. emerged victorious from great wars in Europe and East Asia, we grew accustomed to the idea that America had world interests that required a robust foreign policy and large military forces to support it. The Cold War reinforced this idea of America's leadership role, which some viewed as America's mission. After the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, America lapsed into complacency and thought that as the world's sole superpower, its policies should prevail, not only because America was powerful, but because it was right.

This mood abruptly changed on 9-11, 2001, a blow to American security that led to two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But after ten years of warfare, the public is disillusioned with the cost of being the world's policeman.

President Obama and the leaders of the new Republican-controlled Congress in 2015 need to take a fresh look at priorities in U.S. foreign policy. They should assess which issues are truly vital national interests, those where diplomatic negotiations cannot ultimately resolve major issues and force may be required to persuade an adversary to pull back.

America's leaders must decide if U.S. interests in the Syria-Iraq-Jordan war with ISIS are at the vital level, and ground forces should be used. In cases regarding Russia and Ukraine, and China's claims in the South China Sea, these are not, in my view, vital interests and should be negotiated. In reality, America needs to be far more careful about what it concludes are vital national interests.

File last modified on Tuesday, 16-DEC-2014 9:15 AM EST

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