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


APRIL 2020

This may be a dangerous time for U.S. foreign policy. Other powers sense an opportunity to take advantage of this country's political divisions and the impact of Covid-19 on its health care system. How would we respond to aggressive moves by America's adversaries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East?

President Trump's critics assert this danger started when he entered the White House because his nationalist policies alienated allies and friends and made the world less safe. They cite his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Trans-Pacific trade pact as evidence.

But critics overlook Barack Obama's policies, in the Middle East which emboldened governments in Iran, Russia, and Syria to expand their influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. In Europe, they argue, Obama's policies encouraged Vladimir Putin to test NATO with invasions into Ukraine. Like Trump but with less bluster, Obama pressed NATO allies to take more responsibility for defending Europe against Russian pressure; But Obama's reluctance to protect Syrian refugees resulted in a massive flow of refugees into Europe.

Historical perspective

History suggests that great powers that show signs of decline become the prey of competing powers that expect to expand their own influence.

Our Civil War is a good sample. America was tearing itself apart politically in 1861 when South Carolina fired on the federal arsenal at Charleston Harbor and unleashed a war that took over 600,000 combat deaths in four years. The British government, hoping to capitalize on the civil war by securing its thriving cotton trade with the Confederacy, came close in 1862 to granting the South diplomatic recognition as a sovereign country. That decision was thwarted when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. France also took advantage of America's weakness in 1860s by invading Mexico and installing a French king to make the country a bridgehead for encroachment on U.S. territory.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan sensed that isolationist pressures in the United States would prevent President Roosevelt from taking action to stop their aggressive moves in Europe and China. In the 1890s, a rising Prussia, bolstered by unification of the German states decided to challenge what it viewed as British and French decline to expand its role in Europe and Africa. When it decided to build a powerful navy to challenge Britain's dominance of the seas, the seeds of World War I were planted.

Strategic waterways in Asia, Europe and the Middle East are prime targets for U.S. adversaries. China wants to control traffic through the South China Sea that borders six countries; Russia seeks to expand its influence in the Baltic Sea that borders seven others. Iran aims to control traffic in the Persian Gulf, where a major share of world oil is shipped.

The U.S. is the only power today with the capability and willingness to protect international traffic in those vital waterways. If Washington falters, China, Russia, and Iran will conclude, as Germany and Japan did in the 1930s, that the U.S. is not prepared to confront them militarily in 2020. In that case, the international outlook will quickly change. America's detachment instead of isolationism is the real danger today.

Here are three scenarios of trouble we should prepare for:

South China Sea. China claims most of this as territorial waters and has challenged transits by the U.S. Navy to reinforce international rights of transit. Recently China built bases on artificial islands to assert its sovereignty. What will be Washington's response if China decides to challenge a commercial ship heading to Taiwan, insisting on inspecting its cargo? How would the U.S. react if China challenges a Japanese commercial ship?

In 1946, the Soviet army carved out a strategic port in northern Germany, Kaliningrad, where Russia now bases its Baltic fleet. The USSR and now Russia have sought to extend Moscow's power in the Baltic; but since 1949 the NATO alliance has restrained its ambition. How will Washington and European capitals respond if Russia now decides openly to challenge NATO's military presence in the Baltic?

The Persian Gulf is called a "choke point" because a major share of world oil exports transits that vital waterway. Iran historically has dominated the area, but the U.S. sent its fleet and air power to the region in 1979 after Iran declared the Islamic Revolutionary regime and threatened U.S. interests. In 2020, what will be Washington's response if Iran's navy detains a tanker destined for Japan or South Korea? Only the United States has the power to act militarily. Would it do so?

File last modified on Sunday, 05-APR-2020 06:45 PM EST

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