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



Prominent pundits and members of Congress warn that campaign statements by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders portend a rejection of America's foreign policy priorities and adoption of an "America First" outlook. They assert that the Trump-Sanders view of a U.S. international role abandons seventy years of outward-looking foreign policy and replaces it with isolationism reminiscent of the 1930s.

Richard Haass, a respected expert on foreign policy, recently authored a strong defense of U.S. foreign policy in a Wall Street Journal commentary titled, "The Isolationist Temptation: An Inward Turn We Can't Risk." (WSJ, Aug. 6) Haass says that after the Cold War ended in 1990, the debate among "foreign policy elites" focused on "how much to engage with the world, and how." The danger in 2016, he warns, "is whether to engage at all." He argues that those making and influencing foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s focused their attention on how to expand U.S. influence in the world, but ignored the growing frustration among millions of Americans who believed the price they had to pay pursuing a globalist foreign policy was too high.

But the term "isolationism" is employed too loosely by opponents of the Trump-Sanders worldview, which Internationalists claim will lead to America's withdrawal from the world. Americans who support Trump for president don't want a return to a 1930s-style isolationism, but to a more realistic appraisal of U.S. economic and world order interests, one that avoids costly military interventions abroad and insists on much tougher negotiation of international trade agreements. This view is usually called "realism."

It's often useful to look at history to find similarities to current debates on foreign policy. In 1952, for example, the Republican Party was deeply divided over whether it should continue to support President Truman's expansive view of America's responsibility to defend Europe and other free nations, or limit U.S. commitments abroad and avoid damaging our economy by providing large economic and military aid to other countries.

The Democratic Party in 1952 nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, an internationalist who largely supported President Truman's expansive foreign policy. The Republicans, however, were deeply split. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio led many congressional Republicans who argued that U.S. economic interests should be its top priority. Taft, who had voted for the Marshall Plan but against the North Atlantic Pact, warned that Truman's global anti-Communist policies would eventually bankrupt the country.

Democrats labeled the Taft group isolationists. But World War II had persuaded most Republicans that U.S. detachment from the world in the 1920s and 1930s had been a costly mistake. What was needed, the Taft group argued, was a realistic view about the limits of American power, not a globalist vision that involved world-wide commitments of American power.

In 1952, the Republican national convention in Chicago was split between the Taft supporters and a candidate promoted by the party's internationalist wing, General Dwight Eisenhower, hero of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Its internationalist wing, led by Governor Thomas Dewey of New York and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, had persuaded "Ike" to be a candidate in order to save the party from Senator Taft's brand of conservatism. Eisenhower not only won the election, but his administration ensured that the Republican Party would remain internationalist in outlook for the next sixty-four years.

In 2016, however, Republicans reversed their 1952 decision and nominated Donald Trump who questions America's commitments abroad, including to NATO and NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement). He raises serious doubts among U.S. allies and friends about whether America will return to a form of America First attitude in foreign policy.

Still, this does not constitute, in my view, a return to the isolationism of the 1930s. Instead, it is a resurgence of Robert Taft's view that the United States has limited resources and should not attempt to make the world "safe for democracy." Saving Europe was a monumental U.S. undertaking after World War II and Europe will continue to be a top priority no matter who wins in November. But new trade agreements and the use of military power to preserve world order will be under far more ­ careful scrutiny.

File last modified on Wednesday, 17-AUG-2016 5:44 PM EST

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