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



One hundred years ago, a million US. troops were fighting in France to save Europe from German domination and "make the world safe for democracy," as President Woodrow Wilson had pledged. In viewing Donald Trump's worldview, it's useful to look at how various presidents viewed the world since that period.

Here are three different ways Americans view foreign policy: Idealists, who want their president to promote freedom, human-rights, and democratic governments abroad; Realists, who view the world as a competitive arena that requires robust economic and military power to protect America's interests; Pragmatists, who want to achieve results by focusing on policies that gain support from both idealists and realists, as a way to cope with a complicated and dangerous world.

Woodrow Wilson was the epitome of the idealist view because he believed America could bring peace and democracy to Europe following the tragedy of World War I. But Wilson failed because the public was not ready to accept U.S. responsibility for keeping world peace. As a result, America spent the next twenty years in detachment/isolation from the world.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman operated as pragmatists in foreign policy. They understood the risks of ignoring public opinion and pressing Congress to reject isolationism and accept a leadership role after World War II. But Roosevelt won acceptance of the United Nations in 1945, and Truman eventually won congressional approval of Marshall Plan aid to Europe and the NATO alliance.

Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were realists who clearly saw that Stalin and Khrushchev might use force to gain control of Western Europe. Eisenhower expanded US strategic power as a deterrent to Moscow, but he also showed a willingness to negotiate "d├ętente" relations. Nixon's huge task was withdrawing from Vietnam while also defending Europe against the USSR. He showed pragmatism and courage in opening relations with Communist China in 1971.

John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were idealists, but had different objectives. Kennedy declared in 1961 that "America would go anywhere and pay any price in the cause of freedom." He did that in Vietnam, with disastrous results. Carter thought America could be a peacemaker by promoting democracy and human rights. But that failed when Russia invaded Afghanistan and Iran's new Islamic Republic held 52 American officials hostage in 1979.

Ronald Reagan was firmly realistic about the Soviet threat but idealistic in wanting to rid the world of nuclear weapons. George H.W. Bush operated as a pragmatist and supported German reunification in 1990 when European governments were opposed. As a result, Germany remains a united, democratic country and member of NATO. Bill Clinton operated as a pragmatist, while George W. Bush was a pragmatist who became an idealist about building democracy in Arab countries. And Barack Obama, like Woodrow Wilson, was an idealist who thought America should spread freedom, human rights, and democracy abroad, not military power.

This brings us to Donald Trump who talks and operates as a hard-nosed realist, emphasizing "America First." His stands on Europe's contribution to NATO, on NAFTA, TPP, Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal, and his confrontation with North Korea clearly cast him as a realist.

But as 2018 begins, we see signs that Trump's top foreign policy team -- Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin -- operate as pragmatists in carrying out the president's policies. This despite Trump's early-morning tweets and insulting remarks that temporarily set back their efforts to achieve results in negotiations with other countries.

Mr. Trump says he admires Ronald Reagan, but there are major differences: Reagan was an experienced two-term governor of California who displayed a warm, sunny personality. Neither attribute is true of Trump. The major question is whether he is capable of growing into the job.

In viewing major foreign policy challenges of 2018, optimists seem confident that the president's experienced, sober-minded, national security team will guide his policies in a way that achieves positive results. While Idealists demand that human rights and freedom should guide foreign policy, and realists want much larger defense spending and early deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, Trump's NSC team needs to persuade him to adopt pragmatic policies and help them deal with a range of difficult issues. Trump's recent presentation at the Davos economic conference was a step in that direction.

In 2018, I remain a pragmatist and feel confident that America will avoid war and gradually improve its image abroad. That's progress.

File last modified on Monday, 3-FEB-2018 10:07 AM EST

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