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 2015

Americans were convinced after the founding of the republic that all nations should adopt our system of individual rights and government elected by the people, because it's the best form of government. Most European states were then ruled by kings and nobility, not by citizens in free elections. A century and a half ago, we fought a costly civil war to reaffirm our commitment to government by the people.

Today all European countries, with the exception of Russia, have regimes that guarantee individual rights, free elections, and the rule of law. Despite vigorous efforts by Russia's liberals a few years ago to bring about a real democracy, Vladimir Putin turned the government into an increasingly repressive regime, while retaining the trappings of a democracy.

To our south, most Latin American states adopted democratic rule in place of military dictatorships which ruled many of them thirty years ago including Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. But Cuba, Venezuela, and Ecuador are Communist-led regimes (Cuba), or authoritarian ones that restrict individual rights and free press. It's notable that President Obama reopened relations with Cuba this year even though there's little evidence the regime will relax its tight controls. Human rights did not have top priority.

 In East Asia. many countries including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and Singapore are functioning democracies. But others, notably China, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma are ruled by Communist parties or by authoritarian military leaders. Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, with the world's largest Muslim population, is now a functioning democracy.

It's the Middle East and East Africa that present Washington with a major dilemma in foreign policy: How to promote democracy as well as regional security in this turbulent and highly strategic region. How far should we press human rights and democracy on countries that have never practiced it and whose support we need to pursue our vital strategic interests in the area?

Egypt is the best example of this quandary. Here's the largest Arab country with a long history, but no experience with democracy except the brief, chaotic rule last year by the Muslim Brotherhood party. Following the ouster in 2011 of Egypt's military chief and president, Hosni Mubarak, the Egypt adopted a constitution and hald elections 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood won a close election, but its policies to move toward Islamic governance and its failure to deal with the economic crisis, led to massive protests in Cairo. This brought about a new military takeover headed by General Abdel al-Sisi, Egypt's new president.

The Arab Spring brought hope to millions of Egyptians that democracy would finally arrive. But it was not to be, because the population wanted order to be restored and the military was ready to step in. The Obama administration continues providing Egypt with arms and economic aid, even though liberal members of Congress object to assisting its repressive government, Again,  Obama gave human rights  a lower priority.

Saudi Arabia is another example of conflict between human rights and other foreign policy priorities. Here is the richest country in the Middle East and one of America's oldest supporters in the region. It is also deeply concerned about Iran's efforts to undermine Arab governments. It was stunned by the Obama administration's acquiescence in the ouster of Egyptian President Mubarak and emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Saudi Arabia new King Salmon has appointed younger, more conservative members of the royal family to key cabinet posts, and they insist on continuing the air war against Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels, despite Washington's efforts to restrain Riyadh.

The New York Times headline April 23 highlighted the issue: "Saudi Defiance Reflects Limits on U.S. Strategy." And the Saudi ambassador to Washington said his government would continue the air strikes until Houthi insurgents stopped their war against Yemen's legitimate government.

Barack Obama and John Kerry insist on negotiating with Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions. But they are losing influence over the decisions of key Arab states because they, like Israel, fear Iran's eventual dominance of the Persian Gulf and regions to the west Eventually they may ask Washington not just for arms, but also a formal U.S. guarantee of their security. That would put the White House on the cusp of an even larger dilemma.

File last modified on Monday, 13-APR-2015 9:54 AM EST

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