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



President Trump issued a remarkable National Security Strategy document before Christmas that gives guidance to his administration for the next three years. Its focus is on U.S. national interests in a dangerous world.

The strategy asserts that "Four vital, national security interests ---organized as the strategy's four pillars--- form the backbone of this commitment" They are:

  1. Protect the homeland and its people.
  2. Promote American prosperity and free market system.
  3. Preserve peace through strength in the world.
  4. Advance American influence and values.

The paper adds: "The NSS and its four themes are guided by a return to principled realism." (Emphasis added)

Donald Trump regularly proclaims an emphasis on "America first" in his foreign policy and critics charge that he's promoting an isolationist view. The NSS argues that putting America first in dealings with other countries does not mean withdrawal from the world; instead, it asserts that for too long the United States let its concern about other countries' views on international agreements, especially trade, cloud its vision of what is best for Americans.

If we acknowledge that these pillars of national interest guide Trump's decisions, how should we assess his performance during the first year? Here's a review of his two top priorities.

Pillar 1: "Protect the homeland and its people." Trump's willingness to confront North Korea's nuclear menace is a major change in U.S. policy. Neither Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama faced up to the reality that North Korea expects recognition as a nuclear state in order to extract large concessions from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. They include ending sanctions, withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, and eventually from Japan. If we conclude that North Korean and Chinese leaders eventually want America to withdraw its military power from Northeast Asia, including from Japan, the danger to U.S. security commitments in Asia and the U.S. homeland is enormous.

Pillar 2: "Promote American prosperity." The most significant favorable trend for the U.S. is the accelerating pace of its economy. Many economists think the GDP will grow by nearly 3 percent this year and may be larger next year. This is much better than predictions a year ago, about 1.9 percent. A strong economy is a major plus for foreign policy because it gives the State Department and Treasury Department more credibility in persuading other countries that America is not in decline, as many believe. It provides Rex Tillerson with greater leverage in dealing with China and Russia. And it helps reassure Europeans that Washington will continue its leadership role, with greater emphasis on U.S. interests.

Trump's decision to withdraw support from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was denounced by supporters of free trade. But the administration argued that the costs to U.S. workers and small business outweighed the gains. They said the agreement with fourteen countries would further harm U.S. jobs and increase the trade deficit. That view is challenged by large corporations and business interests that benefit from globalization. However, the political reality is that Trump's view resonated with voters in key states that won him the 2016 election.

On the negative side of Trump's policies, cancellation of U.S. participation the Paris Climate Accord was a mistake because it alienates key allies and generates few benefits. Similarly, the president's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy was a negative diplomatic move because it has generated few benefits. The U.N. Security Council voted 14-l, against the U.S. and Arab governments declined Vice President Pence's visit to explain the decision. As a self-proclaimed "deal-maker," Trump got nothing in return from Benjamin Netanyahu for doing him a large favor.

Finally, Trump's threats to cancel NAFTA unless Canada and Mexico make major concessions to U.S. interests will leave a lasting negative legacy among two good neighbors and leading trading partners. Even though a revised NAFTA will likely emerge, Trump's performance was less than exemplary.

Early-morning presidential tweets confuse Americans and foreign leaders. They often are not consistent with Trump's cautious foreign policy which emphasizes diplomacy while maintaining the military option. And a strengthening economy enables the president to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea, Russia, and Iran that seem to be having a positive effect. Preventing war and strengthening the economy are not inconsequential achievements during Trump's first year.

File last modified on Monday, 8-JAN-2018 10:07 AM EST

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