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



After America emerged as a major international power in the early 1900s, its foreign policy was guided by two contending views of US national interests: idealism which emphasized American values, and realism which put a premium on protecting the country and building a strong economy. These views competed for influence with various presidents beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.

A new book by British historian David Milne traces the history of these philosophies that undergirded American foreign policies. He looks into the writings and speeches of nine political thinkers who exercised a major influence on U.S. foreign policy during the 20th century and into the 21st. Two of them became presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama.

The first was Admiral Alfred T. Mahan. Writing before the turn of the 20th century, his book on the influence of naval power in history epitomized the realist view. It's impact on the thinking of Theodore Roosevelt was huge: he believed America's national interests were global and required a powerful navy to protect them against competing great powers. Acquisition of the Philippines made the U.S. a Pacific power in 1900, and building the Panama Canal assured its domination of the Caribbean area.

Woodrow Wilson was the personification of America's idealism in foreign policy. He believed America should lead the world away from the balance of power politics which had dominated Europe for a century and strived instead for a new world order based on the universal principles of democracy and justice.

After America emerged victorious from World War I, Wilson championed a new international system based on collective security under a League of Nations. But his unwillingness to compromise his principles led in 1919 to the Senate's rejection of the Versailles treaty and his League of Nations proposal. This defeat produced two decades of a foreign policy based on what is called isolationism.

Historian Charles Beard, writing after World War I, exercised major influence in articulating a narrow view of America's national interests, with focus on the Western Hemisphere. Although some called his ideas isolationist, he simply had a more restricted view of U.S. interests than did Mahan or Wilson. Beard's views were eclipsed, however, by the outbreak of World War II when Americans realized they were no longer protected by two oceans.

A syndicated columnist, Walter Lippmann, then emerged as a major influence on official thinking in Washington. He believed America had no choice but to lead the world to a realistic view of collective security, one based on an Atlantic alliance. Lippmann was a strong supporter of America's Cold War policies.

Postwar foreign policy strategists and presidents oscillated between idealism and realism in the formulation of foreign policy. Among these were diplomat-historian George Kennan, Wall Street banker Paul Nitze, Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, scholar-diplomat Paul Wolfowitz, and Barack Obama.

Milne believes Wolfowitz should be studied because his expansive neo-conservative ideas on America as the guarantor of international security had a major effect on the thinking of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. As deputy Secretary of Defense during the disastrous US occupation of Iraq in 2203, his globalist view of U.S. ambitions is not likely to be resuscitated.

Milne includes Barack Obama among major thinkers because he offered a new way of thinking about foreign policy, pragmatism. Early in his presidency, he delivered a major acceptance speech of his Nobel Peace Prize, on December 10, 2009. Describing a "tension" between the advocates of realism and idealism, which he called "a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world," Obama rejected those choices and pledged to pursue policy goals that "transcended them."

During his first term, Obama followed a pragmatic approach to decision-making regarding Afghanistan, insisting on a careful evaluation of potential costs and risks as well as benefits before agreeing to increase U.S. forces. But signs of Wilsonian idealism also emerged, specifically his May 2009 Middle East policy speech in Cairo that came to be known his "Arab Spring" initiative.

In his second term, Obama slowly moved toward a realistic view in dealing with some challenges, such as Russia's annexation of Crimea and continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. But on the ISIS terrorist threat to Europe and America, his statements reflect more the idealism of Woodrow Wilson than the realistic views of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

File last modified on Tuesday, 10-NOV-2015 9:54 AM EST

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