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 2021

"America is back," President Biden declared when he met with European leaders last month. "America First" ex-president Trump asserted when he took office in January 2017 and then criticized NATO's leaders. Which view reflects America's outlook for the world?

The gulf between those visions of America's international role runs deep. After the Cold War ended in 1990, many voters who had accepted armed interventions in Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq as supporting U.S. security, decided in 2008 that the cost of policing the world was too high. They wanted Washington to wind down the wars abroad and focus resources on America's domestic needs. As the new president in 2009, Barrack Obama's task was to begin that process.

Change was slow in coming. Even though Obama tried to reduce military involvements abroad, Iraq and Afghanistan remained in turmoil. Earlier, similar crises in Bosnia diverted Bill Clinton, the 9-11 attacks forced George W. Bush to focus on Afghanistan, and Iran's quest to be a nuclear power consumed Obama's second term. This hindered Obama's efforts to improve the lives of Americans, although he was able to persuade a united Democratic party to pass his Affordable Care Act.

Trump's success

Donald Trump capitalized on Americans' frustration with previous administrations' internationalism in foreign policy. Instead of touting America's leadership abroad. He articulated the sentiments of many voters, especially in the Mid-west, that the cost of world leadership was too high.

Trump wanted America to rebuild its economic power after China and other low-wage countries siphoned off many American jobs. That view had resonated earlier with disgruntled voters who were attracted to a newcomer to politics, billionaire Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and captured 19 percent of the vote.

Joe Biden took a political risk, in my view, by reversing Trump's policies on NATO and the European Union. He underestimated the allure of the America First theme that criticized Europe's contribution to security in the Middle East and North Africa, leaving those strategic areas to Washington to handle. The Europeans chose instead to concentrate on Russia's pressures in Eastern Europe, specifically in Ukraine and the Baltic States. Many Americans didn't agree with Europe's failure to help in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iraq.

Despite their differing priorities, Biden was convinced America needed Europe's economic and political support to help him confront China in East Asia, Iran in the Persian Gulf, and Russia in the Baltic Sea. His international goal was highlighted in a Washington Post: story titled, "Blinken back in Europe as U.S. seeks to reestablish global leadership role." (June 23)

Biden's challenge

Will President Biden succeed in turning around Donald Trump's view of the world? After four years of Trump's dismissal of NATO's value and asserting a desire to go it alone, his legacy cannot easily be dismissed. He believed America was so strong economically and militarily that we don't need allies except, as he put it, "they pull their own weight."

This is not the isolationism America experienced in the 1930s. But it signals a deep divide between those who believe this country should stay strong militarily and rely on its own power, and those who argue that since 1945 America's national interests have been grounded in the idea that this country is not safe if it pursues nationalist America First policies abroad.

As president, Mr. Biden must persuade Americans that his collaborative views in foreign policy were supported by all presidents since World War II and are correct today, that Donald Trump's go it alone views are dangerous.

It's ironic that Trump's view of U.S. priorities finds more support among progressives in the Democratic Party than among mainstream Republicans who generally accept the president's collaborative/internationalist view. This suggests bipartisanship in foreign policy is possible during Biden's presidency.

The outlook

The next six months should give us a clearer picture whether Joe Biden will succeed in reestablishing America's world leadership role. If Trump's attractiveness begins to wane and Biden's approval ratings remain high, Republicans in Congress who currently fear Trump's pressure may move away. By then, Biden will be encouraged to downgrade the leftist influence of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

File last modified on Sunday, 04-JUL-2021 11:25 AM EST

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