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


JULY 2015

When the United States changes presidents, as will occur in January 2017, the world doesn't wait to see whether U.S. foreign policy will remain the same. More likely, other powers will test the new president and national security team, to see how far they can expand their influence without triggering a response from Washington.

Presidents Harry Truman and John Kennedy faced serious challenges during their first years in office: Truman in 1946 when Stalin broke a wartime pledge to remove Soviet troops from Iran, and Kennedy in 1961 over a Soviet-supported communist threat in Laos and Thailand. Stalin tested Truman again in 1948 by imposing the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps the most dangerous challenge occurred in 1975-76 when Gerald Ford became president, following Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate affair. U.S. influence in the world plummeted after North Vietnamese forces overran South Vietnam forced all Americans to flee Saigon in humiliation

Ford was challenged by a huge Soviet troop build-up in East Germany and Moscow's major effort to persuade Germany to leave NATO. West German leaders stood firm, but they feared a demoralized America and reluctant Congress would not strongly resist mounting Soviet military pressure.

Transitions also work the opposite way. During the final year of a president's second term, as happened to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and will likely affect Barack Obama, hostile powers take advantage of a "lame duck" incumbent to expand their influence.

Clinton, for example, found it difficult to deal with the growing threat of al-Qaeda terrorists because of political problems at home, especially his affair with a White House intern that led to congressional impeachment proceedings. Bush was tested on Iraq policy in his final year by Iran's strong efforts to gain influence among Iraq's majority Shiite population and an ineffective government.

Because the campaign to succeed Barack Obama is in full swing eighteen months before he leaves the White House, we face an unprecedentedly long transition. What accounts for this change?.

America's media, especially television news, craves issues that attract public attention. Controversy among candidates seems to be a prime way to achieve it. Another factor is public disenchantment with presidents after they've served seven years. Even Obama's Democratic party showed its disenchantment by deserting him on crucial trade legislation, forcing him to rely on Republican votes.

Finally, candidates face an enormous task in raising huge sums of money, which requires an earlier start to their campaigns. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, current front-runners for their parties' nominations, spend most of their time raising money and reducing the pool available to their competitors. And the parties' nominating conventions won't be held for another year!

Two international realities are predictable in the coming eighteen months: Vladimir Putin will surely test Obama's foreign policy by pushing ahead with Russia's creeping invasion of Ukraine. He may also initiate serious intimidation of the Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, with their Russian-speaking minorities. In East Asia, China's President Xi will likely test Obama over Beijing's claims to large swaths of the South China Sea. Four neighboring countries also have claims and they expect the United States to protect shipping rights in that strategic region.

In the Middle East, Iran will push ahead with expanding its influence among the Shiite population in Iraq and Persian Gulf states, regardless of whether agreement is reached this month to freeze its nuclear ambitions.

Finally, there is ISIS. It's adherents don't care whether America is about to change presidents. Its objective is to undermine Arab governments, intimidate Europe and the United States into inaction while they do it, and recruit thousands of recruits abroad with the dream of creating a unified Islamic empire that defeats western military power and rolls back "detested western culture."

In the next year and a half, we will learn whether Barack Obama will jeopardize his presidential legacy by failing to deal effectively with foreign crises. Hopefully, he will not wish to emulate Jimmy Carter, who in 1979 failed to deal forcefully with Iran when it took fifty-two American diplomats hostage. His failure led to disillusionment among our allies, and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

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

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