The foreign policy consensus in Washington DC is so stubbornly pro-intervention that our most recent president—who dragged the country into several foreign entanglements and whose military dropped 26,171 bombs last year alone—is seen as, at best, a ditherer. The World Politics Review summed up his legacy by saying, “The problem with Obama’s foreign policy has been inaction, not weakness.”
Get outside of DC and the estimation of what we ought to be doing is much different. Americans who are actually stretched to pay for those wars and whose children may be serving in the military are not as gung-ho about going there.
That is my takeaway from the latest Charles Koch Institute/Center for the National Interest poll of American attitudes toward foreign policy. A majority of those surveyed in late January turned out to be deeply skeptical that what America has been doing has been working. It’s hard to argue they don’t have a point.
For instance, when asked if America’s foreign policy since 9/11 has made us more or less safe, a non-dangling-chad majority (51 percent) said “less safe.” Only 11 percent thought we were safer after two costly large-scale wars involving nation-building and countless smaller interventions across the Middle East and Arica.
Intervention Hasn’t Gone So Well
They thought that what was true for America was probably true for the larger world as well. A huge plurality (47 percent) said we had made the world “less safe” versus only a tiny minority (9 percent) who said we’d made things any better.
Our country’s national interest is what ought to drive our foreign policy going forward, a supermajority (69 percent) in the poll believe. They don’t necessarily like the ring of “America first” (only 30 percent signed on to more exclusive language), but they’re not okay with most of the things our country is doing that fall outside of a national interest framework.
Democracy promotion through military power? A plurality of 41 percent thought we should knock it off versus 24 percent who said full speed ahead. Only 11 percent thought the country ought to deploy more troops to Europe, and 27 percent said even our current garrison levels are too high.
We’re Not Getting What We Want
Although they are not typically aware of just how much America is spending on defense, Americans by and large do not want more spending for more wars. Fully 79 percent said that any additional tax dollars that come in should go toward domestic spending, not a military buildup. They think the amount of money we budget for military now is enough for a truly national defense.
In sharp contrast with DC, they’re also not wild about poking Russia or China. Only 12 percent said Russia was America’s greatest security challenge, and only 17 percent said that Russia should mainly be viewed only as a rival. Large numbers thought Russia should be viewed either mainly as a partner (29 percent) or as a realistic mix of partner and rival (35 percent). And only 5 percent signaled that they wanted confrontation with China.
These numbers are not flukes. They’re mostly consistent with two polls the same two groups commissioned in October and December of last year. If they persist, and if American foreign policy under President Trump does not significantly change, we may have a long-term democracy problem on our hands.
What the people want is not what we are getting. Our leaders need to know this, and either change course or tell us in convincing words why they are right and we are wrong.