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


JUNE 2018

Many pundits, scholars, and politicians have predicted for years the demise of America's influence abroad. Now, with growing chaos in Washington over immigration, a trade crisis with China, and gridlock in Congress over border security, leaders in Europe and elsewhere ask: Is America today capable of world leadership?

Changing public attitudes

America's role abroad has been an issue in national politics for years. As early as 1960, John Kennedy campaigned for the White House with a pledge to "get America going again" after charging "complacency" in the Eisenhower administration. He then took America into war in Vietnam whose failure persuaded voters to elect leaders who avoided international commitments and concentrated on improving conditions at home. Richard Nixon tried to stem the blow to U.S. Influence abroad by opening relations with China and concluding a nuclear arms treaty with Moscow.

Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 reflected continuing opposition to military interventions, and his emphasis on diplomacy and human rights and democracy was applauded. But Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, the new regime's seizure of fifty-two American hostages, and Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan, resulted in the voters' desire for a more robust foreign policy. In 1981, Ronald Reagan provided that by pursuing a policy of restoring America's influence abroad and defeating "international communism." His sustained efforts over eight years, supported by the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany, forced Moscow to end the Cold War in 1990. A year later the Soviet Union collapsed.

Public euphoria on "winning the Cold War" was shattered by the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, and by George Bush's costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama's election in 2008 reflected yet another swing in the public mood. Voters preferred diplomacy to solve dangerous international issues, and Obama provided it. His conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 reflected that outlook.

Trump's radical agenda

After a year and half in the White House, it's clear that Donald Trump is not interested in modest alternations in the way America deals with the world. Instead, he wants radical changes in how the U.S. interacts with Europe on trade and the Iran nuclear deal, with Asian allies after cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, and on negotiations with Canada and Mexico for changing NAFTA. He intends to act unilaterally instead of through international organizations to achieve his foreign policy objectives.

Even though critics abroad and at home deplore the president's nationalist rhetoric, his White House team wants few restraints on how he deals with international issues, notably trade disputes with Europe and China. One commentator observed that Trump doesn't want to be a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians and unable to break free.

Three areas of the world now feel the brunt of Trump's nationalist policies. Europe laments that America may not be the reliable ally it has been. East Asians were pleased with the Trump-Kim Jong-un Singapore summit, but leaders in Southeast Asia question if Trump will stand firm against China's militarization of the South China Sea. In the Middle East, the crucial issue is whether Trump will use force against Iran if it resumes its nuclear weapons program. The big question for leaders everywhere is this: Does the United States intend to remain a world power?

The trade conflict with China, some call it trade war, has long-range consequences for the entire world. The president's top economic and trade advisers tried during recent months to negotiate a large reduction in the nearly $400 billion surplus that China ran with the U.S. in 2017. Trump's hard-line advisers say if large tariffs are imposed on Chinese imports, the U.S. is in a far better position than China to cope with the consequences. That's because U.S. exports to China are far smaller than China's massive intervention in the U.S. market. They believe imposing the tariff's now is a risk worth taking. The Washington Post dubbed this "Mr. Trump's game of chicken." (Editorial, June 25)


Is the U.S. in decline? My view is the country is currently on a plateau, but a precarious one. An immigrant crisis on our southern border, serious trade disputes with our European and Canadian trading partners, an urgent need to correct trade imbalances with China, and the ballooning budget deficits at home, all make America vulnerable to international pressures that will sap our economic and political strength. If the Trump administration isn't successful in coping with these major problems, America risks a gradual, perhaps rapid, decline as a world power and erosion of its ability to defend vital national interests.

File last modified on Sunday, 1-JUL-2018 06:30 PM EST

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