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 2020

When President Trump instructed the Pentagon to cut 9,500 troops from Germany, he was denounced by editorial writers, pundits, members of Congress, and European leaders. He also put a limit of 25,000 military personnel that can be stationed in Germany. Critics charged he was abandoning NATO.

Joe Biden didn't join the chorus. It's possible he agrees that America is overextended in Europe and needs to retrench. As the presidential campaign heats up, Trump and Biden agree on most foreign policy issues, except how to deal with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Regarding China, Europe, and the Persian Gulf, their positions are not in conflict, although they differ on tactics for handling them. They agree that Putin interfered in 2016 elections and that China is a dangerous threat to U.S. global interests. They share the view that a nuclear-armed Iran would be dangerous in the Persian Gulf and to Israel. In sum, the two candidates believe America must reduce its involvement abroad, especially military presence, in order to strengthen itself for the long-term competition with China.

American foreign policy since World War II may be divided into three distinct periods that correspond to changing world conditions:

  1. Containment, from 1948 to 1990 when the Cold War ended
  2. Globalization, from 1990 to 2008 when the U.S. was the sole superpower and promoted international trade and investments
  3. Retrenchment, 2009 to 2020 when Obama and Trump decided to limit America's military and political exposure abroad

Here's the situation today:

Russia and Europe

Biden hasn't disagreed with Trump on major decisions on relations with Europe, or on sanctioning Russia for its moves into Ukraine and harassment of three Baltic States. His reticence to criticize Trump on his troop withdrawal from Germany and threat to impose tariffs on imports from the European Union reflects the reality on Capitol Hill: Democrats haven't challenged the president on reducing the costs of stationing the military abroad, or on taking a stand against what he calls "unfair trade practices." When Hillary Clinton eventually opposed Barack Obama's Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement (TPP), that potential trade issue disappeared from the campaign.

A major issue for both parties is how to challenge Vladimir Putin's determination to reestablish Russian influence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic. The next president will need the cooperation of Western Europe's leaders, particularly Germany's because it emerged from the Cold War as the dominant economic and political power in Europe. Trump alienated European leaders with his anti-NATO rhetoric and U.S. tariffs on imports from Europe. Biden believes in cooperation with Europe and will make those views known in coming months.

China's ambitions in Asia

There is consensus in Congress and the business community that China is a dangerous long-term threat to U.S. interests in Asia and potentially in Europe. In just twenty years, Communist China has become an economic power with spreading trade relations across the globe. It builds a formidable military force, including cyber warfare capability, to confront commercial shipping in the South China Sea and in Japanese and South Korean seas. It sponsors a global espionage network that steals technology from U.S. and European businesses and laboratories.

As on Russia's ambition in Europe, congressional attitude on China is openly negative, especially after Beijing's clamp down in Hong Kong. Biden hasn't criticized Trump's handling of rocky relations with North Korea or its pressure on South Korea. But Trump and some members of Congress think 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea is excessive and should be reduced.

Iran and the Persian Gulf.

Like Xi Jinping in Asia and Vladimir Putin in Europe, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei is determined to recover Iran's lost influence in the Persian Gulf area. At present, the U.S. 5th fleet, based in Bahrain, stands in his way. It protects the major oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Iraq, vital to the economies of Japan, South Korea, and several European countries. Tehran's drive to become a nuclear power, designed to increase its influence in the entire Middle East, prompted Barack Obama in 2015 to agree to a time-limited nuclear agreement with Iran in return for lifting economic sanctions. Joe Biden as vice president favored the agreement, but Donald Trump did not. He soon withdrew U.S. support after reaching the White House. Biden has not raised this as a campaign issue, and congressional Democrats have avoided the question.

If Trump and Biden agree that U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq should be reduced and withdrawn, and approve reducing forces in Germany and Korea, a serious domestic issue results: What happens when those troops return home? It reopens this question: Should the Army be reduced in size and the defense budget cut? That issue will no doubt confront the next Congress.

File last modified on Sunday, 05-JUL-2020 07:45 PM EST

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