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


MAY 2022

Historians and pundits expert on foreign policy conclude that America's stance beginning in 1947 with President Harry Truman remained internationalist for the rest of the 20th century. This was a sharp turn away from the isolation (detachment) that characterized U.S. policy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The disastrous Vietnam War was an extreme form of internationalism, some labeled it imperialism. Launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Vietnam was inherited by Richard Nixon in 1969. He and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, gradually steered the country back to a non-interventionist policy.

It's remarkable that presidents of both political parties maintained stability in foreign policy from 1947 until the end of the century. They were: Truman (D), Eisenhower (R), Kennedy (D), Johnson (D), Nixon, (R), Ford (R), Carter (D), Reagan (R), George H.W. Bush (R), and Clinton (D). When the Cold War ended in 1990, America emerged as the only superpower, and Bill Clinton had the luxury of dominating the international arena without competition. In 1999 he hosted a gathering of NATO leaders in Washington to celebrate its 50th birthday. Then things changed dramatically.

9-11 changed U.S. policy

The U.S. was shocked in September 2001 by terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon while another hijacked plane heading for the Capitol crashed when the pilots were overpowered by a group of passengers.

President George W. Bush quickly rallied the country and vowed to invade Afghanistan and eliminate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorists that planned the attack. Where Bush parted company with earlier presidents, however, was deciding to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan and try to build a democracy.

That was an impossible task in a country that had been dominated for centuries by warlords. Afghanistan turned into a twenty-year stay for U.S. forces that three presidents, Obama, Trump, and Biden, wanted to end, Biden finally withdrew all U.S. forces in 2021.

America took on the trappings of an imperial power when George W. Bush, at the urging of Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon, with support from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, decided to invade Iraq and oust its dictator, Saddam Hussein

A decade earlier Saddam's army was ousted from its invasion of Kuwait by an international force led by the U.S.

But he continued to threaten his neighbors and Bush, following his success in Afghanistan, decided it was time to finally stop him. But the invasion triggered guerilla war that caused U.S. casualties. Worse, Bush's invasion caused a split in NATO, especially France and Germany, which denounced his action and caused serious damage to U.S. leadership.

Barack Obama sharply changed the direction of U.S. policy. He promoted democratic government abroad and gave support for liberal movements in the Middle East known as "Arab Spring." He tried to end U.S. occupation in Iraq but was only partially successful. He insisted on a low U.S. profile abroad but promoted policies that led to the ouster of a staunch U.S. ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Other presidents had not challenged his authoritarian policies.

When Donald Trump became president in 2017, no one doubted his intentions: "America First" he declared in his inaugural address. This was a call for America to look out for itself, not European allies, especially Germany, that he charged were not spending enough for defense while the U.S. defended them. His policies, a sharp change from internationalism, startled allies and friends abroad. In four years he set a tone of neo-isolationism that called for America to pull back from the world.

Since 2021, we have yet another turn in foreign policy. Joe Biden; rebuilt America's frayed relations with NATO and adopted a tougher policy toward China and Russia. When Vladimir Putin launched his war ageist Ukraine, Biden immediately took leadership of NATO's effort to arm Ukraine. Russian forces were prevented from capering Kyiv and dictating the peace terms.

The future

What troubles America's allies and friends is what happens to U.S. foreign policy when Biden leaves office. They seem painfully aware of the possibility that America will elect a president who resembles Donald Trump and turns American policy inward. Should that happen, international politics could revert to the pre-1940 era when aggression against neighbors instead of stability characterized the behavior of powerful states.

File last modified on Sunday, 08-MAY-2022 09:25 PM EST

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