The headline read: “The Crisis in Iran: Could it lead to Warfare?” It was dated Dec. 9, 1979, in The Daily Progress, the newspaper in Charlottesville. 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, 40 years later, Iran and Afghanistan remain as festering sores on U.S. involvements in Asia.
These 40 years brought challenges, even crises, to U.S. foreign policy. Among them were the end of the Cold War; the USSR’s collapse; a brief war in Kuwait; civil war in Bosnia; the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan; war and occupation 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 U.S. response; (2) Impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on the perception of U.S. power and influence; and (3) China’s challenge to American supremacy in Asia.
» The Soviet Union’s collapse. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 stunned Europe and set in motion the unification of Germany (1990); the ousting of Communist governments in Poland, Hungary what was then known as Czechoslovakia; 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 after Communists revanchists had tried to reverse the Soviet Union’s decline in August of that year. 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.
» The impact of Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 2001, were a rude wakeup call for Americans. The attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin 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 W. Bush decided to attack Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaida’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, 18 years later.
Another result of Sept. 11 was 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.
Americans learned from the Sept. 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 were determined to reduce U.S. commitments abroad.
» Sept. 15 and China’s challenge. Most Americans don’t appreciate that the financial crisis that occurred on Sept. 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 challenging 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 is growing.
Instead of encouraging a mellowing of China’s Communist rule, America’s long-term interest now is that China as a serious adversary. How Trump and future presidents handle this challenge will determine whether a peaceful future in Asia is achievable.
Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville. He writes a regular column for The News & Advance.