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


JULY 2019

Do candidates aspiring to the White House need experience in dealing with the dangerous world?

Recent incumbents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, had limited knowledge and experience in foreign policy when elected. Trump's experience in real estate abroad hardly prepared him for dealing with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

Our most experienced and knowledgeable presidents since World War II were Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. They were ready from the first day to deal with a dangerous Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had been Allied commander in Europe during World War II, and Nixon was his vice president for eight years and knew most foreign leaders.

A third president who knew the job from day one was George H.W. Bush. Vice president for eight years under Ronald Reagan He had also been director of the CIA and served as our first envoy to Communist China in the 1970s. These presidents also supported a strong military to deter other powers from doing what Japan inflicted on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Ronald Reagan, who forced an end to the Cold War in 1980s, had little experience in foreign policy. But he was a two-term governor of California and brought to Washington a strong national security team that included George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, and William Casey.

In contrast, John Kennedy who became president in 1961 was unprepared for dealing with Russian president, Nikita Khrushchev. His first year in office was disappointing to allies and to those concerned about Kennedy's willingness to contain the Soviet Union's aggressive behavior. He recouped his standing in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba.

While watching the twenty Democratic candidates auditioning on NBC/TV June 27 and 28, one might wonder who among them had serious knowledge and experience in coping with the complexities of international politics. Perhaps the next round will include questions that force them to show they have more than a rudimentary knowledge of major foreign policy issues facing the the 2020s.

Joe Biden is the only one in the group who has the needed experience. He was a U.S. senator for many years and he served eight years as Obama's vice president. Pundits and some Democrats say Biden is too old to serve as president; but he demonstrated on TV that he's the moderate among a field of mostly radical leftists. Another candidate, Senator Amy Klobushar of Minnesota, has the moderate outlook and demeanor that makes her an attractive candidate. How much she knows about foreign policy remains to be seen.

We have a year before the Democratic National Convention, and it's far too soon to predict which of these twenty candidates will be finalists. In those states holding primaries early next year, they should be asked tough questions about their views on foreign policy issues. The reality is that no one knows in July 2019 what the international situation will be a year from now. What's important is for primary voters get a better idea of how well these candidates understand the dangerous world they will face as president and how they would defend U.S. interests.

When the next TV debate occurs among qualifying Democratic candidates, here are four questions they should be asked:

  1. How would you protect U.S. interests in the Middle East, specifically in the Persian Gulf area?
  2. What would you do about China's militarization of the South China Sea, a major international waterway?
  3. What would you do about Russia's pressure on Ukraine and the Baltic States to accept Moscow's political influence?
  4. How high a priority will human rights have in deciding your foreign policy?

Their answers will give voters a better idea of who is presidential caliber.

File last modified on Sunday, 21-JUL-2019 10:05 AM EST

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