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



The headline read: "The Crisis in Iran: Could it lead to Warfare?" It was dated December 9, 1979, in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. A month later the paper carried another column titled "Afghanistan: a Gathering Storm in Central Asia." These columns were my first foray into column writing.

The crisis in Afghanistan resulted from Moscow's decision to intervene massively in order to bring it under Soviet control. This invasion, launched one month after Iran's Revolutionary Islamic regime captured and imprisoned 52 U.S. diplomatic personnel, was hastened by President Jimmy Carter's ambivalence about how to respond to the hostage crisis. Today, forty years later, Iran and Afghanistan remain as festering sores on U.S. involvements in Asia.

These forty years brought challenges, even crises, to U.S foreign policy. Among them were: End of the Cold War; USSR's collapse; a brief war in Kuwait; civil war in Bosnia; 9-11 and invasion of Afghanistan; war in Iraq; China's rise in Asia, Russia's intervention in Ukraine; Iran's drive to become a nuclear power; and North Korea's nuclear threat in Northeast Asia. The most important ones, in my view, are these:

  1. Collapse of USSR and the US. response
  2. Impact of 9-11 attacks on perception of U.S. power and influence
  3. China's challenge to American supremacy in Asia

USSR's collapse

Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 stunned Europe and set in motion the unification of Germany (1990), ousting of Communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. President Mikhail Gorbachev tried to hold his empire together through "perestroika" but was ousted in a bloodless coup in 1991 by Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. Soon the various republics in Eastern Europe declared their independence, and a diminished Russia emerged under Yeltsin which President Bill Clinton had to deal with. America now emerged as the world's sole superpower.

The lesson learned from these momentous changes in world politics is now clear: The U.S. became complacent in the 1990s and assumed its leadership position was secure and the world would accept American policies. Hubris had set in.

Impact of 9-11

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, were a rude wakeup call for Americans... The bombing of the Trade Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington shook the prevailing view that we didn't need to worry about world order and military preparedness. Responding to public outrage, President George Bush decided to attack Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaeda's terrorist network. American forces soon defeated and occupied that country and Bush decided they should stay and help the Afghans build a democracy. We are still in Afghanistan, eighteen years later. Another result of 9-11 was George Bush's decision to invade Iraq and oust its dictator Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military accomplish that objective quickly, and the president decided they should stay and bring democracy to Iraq. We are still there, now to prevent Iran from subverting its independence.

Americans learned from the 9-11 experience that nation-building is a far larger challenge than the military task of invading another government and ousting its regime. As a result, Americans grew frustrated by the human and financial costs of Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2008 and 2016 they elected presidents who seemed determined to reduce U.S. commitments abroad.

9-15 and China's challenge

Most Americans don't appreciate that the financial crisis that occurred on September 15, 2008, shook the world's financial system profoundly. China took advantage of disruptions in U.S. and European markets and gradually advanced its objective of challening the U.S. as a financial superpower. China used its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to build huge trade surpluses with the United States while encouraging Americans businesses to invest heavily in China. At first, Washington and the business community encouraged this effort, because building international trade was good for the U.S. and world economy. Officials hoped that bringing China fully into the international trading system would modify rigid state control of its economy. Barack Obama and many American business leaders began to question investing in China, because of Beijing's control of Chinese business practices that were inimical to U.S. interests. When Donald Trump took office in January 2017, he quickly decided to counter Chinese trading practices and reduce ballooning trade deficits. A result: high tariffs on Chinese products.

The hard lesson learned from this experience in China is that Beijing has no interest in being a fair trader and instead plans to dominate trade relations with Asian countries where U.S. trade has been growing. Instead of encouraging the mellowing of China's Communist rule, America's emerging national interest is that China is a long-term adversary. How Trump and future presidents handle this challenge will determine whether a peaceful future in Asia is achievable.

File last modified on Sunday, 08-DEC-2019 06:45 PM EST

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