Unipolar Disorder

Why are American voters so all over the place when it comes to foreign policy?

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the more challenging aspects of writing a column about the politics of U.S. foreign policy is trying to fully understand the views of average voters on national security and foreign-policy issues. In this regard, Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, has only made life more difficult. Last month he released a fascinating poll examining public attitudes on America’s role in the world, the country’s current alliance structure, and its foreign-policy preferences — and it provided a somewhat schizophrenic and at times irreconcilable perspective on how Americans view the world and America’s place in it. So rather than try to makes heads or tails of the results, I went to the source and sat down for an email interview with Valentino in which we discussed what he believes the poll tells us about current foreign-policy attitudes.

Foreign Policy: I’ll start today with a rather broad question to get the conversation going: When I read through the poll results for the first time, I couldn’t help but shake my head because for me the big takeaway is that voters have incoherent and often contradictory views about foreign policy and national security — and I pity the policymaker who tries to glean from it what voters think about international issues (not to mention the political scientist)! For example, voters are generally supportive of the United States creating new alliances with states like Brazil and India and maintaining old ones — while at the same time they think the U.S. can no longer afford its overseas commitments. Is there a consistent belief system in these results that I’m missing?

Benjamin Valentino: It’s true that the poll results could be read as reflecting some kind of schizophrenia among the public. On the one hand, Americans showed little willingness to reconsider any of our major overseas commitments and even some readiness to establish new ones. On the other hand, although most of the public seems to recognize the increasing difficulty we face in paying for these commitments (more than 60 percent agreed that America "can no longer afford to maintain its commitments to defend all of its current allies around the world"), there was relatively little support for increasing taxes to help pay for them. Unfortunately, we get this kind of result all the time in public opinion polling. Americans want to have their cake and eat it too. I suspect that Republican respondents, who were the most supportive of expansive overseas commitments, would argue that we should pay for these policies through cuts in other government programs (just not Medicare or Social Security). Whether that is realistic or not, of course, is another question.

Still, my main takeaway from the survey is that the American public remains broadly supportive of the alliances and informal security commitments that America has today, even though many of them were forged over 60 years ago in a very different international environment. I saw very little evidence that the public would support a major retrenchment or Ron Paul-style foreign policy.

FP: This is one of the more interesting results from the poll: Republicans are broadly supportive of deficit reduction and yet strongly opposed to pretty much every possible solution for actually reducing the deficit — military spending, cuts in Social Security or Medicare, and certainly not higher taxes. Along these lines, some of the results suggest a rather stark partisan divide. This shouldn’t necessarily be that surprising — one can imagine in a rather polarized political environment that Republicans would be more critical of current foreign policy and Dems more supportive. But on the big foreign-policy issues, do you detect a broad consensus of views? We hear a lot of talk about a bipartisan consensus in U.S. foreign policy; is there a bipartisan consensus among voters beyond the support for global commitments and alliances that you note above?

BV: Yes, given the strong anti-tax, anti-government spending mood in the Republican Party, I don’t think we should be surprised at those answers. On that score, the results of this poll are broadly consistent with other recent polls on deficit reduction. Republicans want to decrease taxes and reduce the size of government, but it is difficult to get them to point to specific programs that they would agree to cut that could make a meaningful contribution to reducing the deficit. One of the few areas you can get Americans to agree on cutting back is, of course, is foreign aid, which accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. If Americans knew that a large portion of our foreign aid goes to Israel, which our poll shows gets a lot of support from Americans, I’m not sure they would even favor that.

The poll shows some areas of polarization and some areas of consensus. Perhaps the most polarizing foreign-policy question in the survey asked respondents whether they believed today that "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003." Sixty-three percent of Republicans said yes, while less than 15 percent of Democrats did. You can also see pretty serious partisan divides on other questions regarding the use of force. For example, almost twice as many Republicans as Democrats were willing to use force to defend Taiwan if China attacked. Likewise, 47 percent of Democrats claim to have always opposed the war in Afghanistan (although many are clearly reconstructing history since close to 90 percent of Americans approved the war in 2001), while only 16 percent of Republicans do.

On the other hand, I see much more consensus than polarization in most areas of the poll. Although Republicans are usually more supportive of extensive foreign commitments than Democrats, almost across the board more people from both parties tend to support an engaged and active foreign policy than oppose it. Most Americans from both parties agree that "the United States should demand all nations respect human rights even if that means hurting our relationships with strategically and economically important countries." Majorities from both parties agree that the United States should use force "to stop massive human rights abuses by the government, such as the killing of thousands of civilians." And sizable majorities from both parties agreed that "The United States faces greater threats to its security today than it did during the Cold War," a proposition that many scholars who study the Cold War will surely find hard to accept.

What this shows me is that neither the long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nor our current economic and budgetary problems have caused most Americans to fundamentally re-evaluate the expansive, interventionist post-Cold War foreign policy we have been pursuing since the early 1990s.

FP: Yes, in retrospect I probably should have noted, not one of the most interesting results of the polls — but rather one of the more incoherent ones! I’m struck by a few things that you’ve said here, but especially the last sentence that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the country’s budget challenges — have had no discernible impact on the expansive, interventionist post-Cold War foreign policy we have been pursuing since the early 1990s. One could make the same comment about the foreign-policy elite, and I wonder if voters are, in part, taking their cues from policymakers on how they think about these issues.

But I also want to challenge this a bit. Question No. 8 is one of the most, I think, surprising in the poll. You ask, "How closely does America’s current foreign policy reflect your own preferred foreign policy?" And while you’d expect Republicans to say that it does not, 60 percent of Democrats feel the same, along with a stunning 83 percent of independents (a higher number than Republicans). Only 25 percent of Americans think that current U.S. foreign policy is very or somewhat close to their own preferences. How do you explain that result? What about current U.S. foreign policy do you think most troubles voters? Something clearly is not connecting with voters, or is this result a bit of statistical noise?

BV: Indeed, it’s my impression that there is even more consensus among elites on foreign-policy "activism" than the public. Ron Paul is the only politician with any kind of national recognition who challenges this kind of foreign policy, and most of his supporters seem to back him in spite of his foreign-policy positions, not because of them. So yes, it’s probably true that this high level of elite consensus is one reason why we don’t see more willingness among the public to re-evaluate our foreign policy today.

I agree that Question No. 8 is an interesting one. Of course it’s not possible to know from this exactly what Americans are unhappy about, and the best bet is that it is not any single issue in particular. Still, if I had to pick just one thing, my guess would be the war in Afghanistan, which only around 13 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans support. Since this is probably the single-most visible aspect of our foreign policy, it seems likely that it’s a big part of that result.

If so, I think this reflects the broader trends we’ve been discussing. There is no question that the American public is seriously divided about specific policy choices or interventions like Iraq or Libya. But on the broader questions of American grand strategy: Should we keep military forces deployed around the world? Do we have a responsibility to promote American values abroad and protect innocents from massive human rights abuses? Is it important to make sure America remains the most powerful country in the world? [On this] there is very little debate.

FP: To your last point about Americans wanting the U.S. to be the most powerful country in the world, the result that I found most disturbing in the entire poll was the answer to Question No. 57, in which Americans basically say that if given a choice between having their income double but China being the biggest economy in the world, and slower growth but America being No. 1, they chose the latter — and overwhelmingly. It’s a shocking result, and one that, I think, really speaks to the strong streak of exceptionalism in American foreign policy. In addition, when this poll was released there was, not surprisingly, quite a bit of fixation on two results in particular — that a majority of Republicans have always believed Obama was not born in the United States and that a majority of Republicans believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, both of which have long been debunked and both of which were sort of tangential to your research aims! What for you was most surprising about the results? What about the poll did you consider to be the most revelatory or provide the most unexpected result?

BV: There were many surprises, including the ones you mention, but one of the most unexpected findings to me was Question 59, which asked whether respondents agreed that "During the Cold War, the fact that both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons made war less likely between the United States and Russia." Over 60 percent of Americans agreed, including majorities from both major parties, and only 9 percent disagreed. Given the concern about nuclear proliferation in other parts of the world today (sizable majorities in this poll also thought that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons it would be very or somewhat likely to use them against Israel), I was quite surprised to see that many Americans saw deterrence and nuclear weapons as a force for peace during the Cold War.

FP: The bookend to this is the poll result that suggested the vast majority of Americans believe the world is more dangerous today than it was during the Cold War. It seems that Americans now look upon the Cold War almost with a tinge of nostalgia. The world was less complicated, "we knew our enemy," etc. — the whole nuclear annihilation thing seems to be put aside or at the very least remembered with oddly rose-colored glasses (does no one else remember The Day After and Red Dawn)?

How does one explain this — is it simply a function of voters viewing the international environment today as one that is more inscrutable and thus more dangerous?

BV: Again, it’s hard to say with confidence exactly what is driving this. I suspect that there is some kind of general psychological mechanism that causes people to exaggerate current threats over past ones. The fact that no open war with the Soviet Union actually occurred also might tend to increase the hindsight bias that such a war was never a serious danger. And, of course, our leaders from both parties (and many academics, as well) have been working hard since 9/11 to convince Americans that we are facing existential threats from terrorists and rogue states with nuclear weapons. As you know, the political scientist John Mueller has written a lot about this, arguing that these threats have been massively "overblown." But this poll shows that the American public continues to believe that despite America’s massive military advantage and the lack of a true great-power rival, we still face threats that justify a foreign policy as activist and a defense budget as large as we had during the Cold War.

FP: OK, now that we’ve gotten some sense of what Americans are thinking (ish), I’m curious for your take on the political implications. The sense one gets is that Americans want, perhaps above anything else, for the United States to remain No. 1 — even if they want to see U.S. allies share more of the foreign-policy burden. It’s hard to see from this perspective how one makes the case for reform of our national security policy, a shift in Cold War alliance structures, even a serious reduction in defense spending. If you were a policymaker or, more important, a politician reading these results, would your takeaway be "just keep doing what we’re doing" — it has broad popular support?

BV: Well, one thing the poll made clear is that foreign policy is not the most important issue to the public right now. Only 6 percent of Americans said foreign-policy issues were more important than domestic ones in deciding their vote for president — compared to 44 percent who said domestic politics were more important (the other 50 percent said they were equally important). This is nothing new and should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the campaign. But I think it does mean that policymakers might have a bit more flexibility on these issues than they do on domestic affairs.

I’d agree that proposing major changes to our foreign policy would be a risky choice given these attitudes, and we know that policymakers tend to avoid risky choices. Nevertheless, it’s always possible that public opinion could change if there were a concerted effort by one of the major parties to convince Americans that we need to rethink our foreign policy. A lot of research shows that the public takes their cues from elites, especially on foreign -policy issues. But right now, I think the broad consensus between parties on the overall shape of our foreign policy makes this highly unlikely.

FP: What’s most interesting about this result, I think, is that you often hear critics of U.S. foreign policy say that there is a huge disconnect between how elites view America’s role in the world — and how the American people look at this issue. But your poll seems to suggest that the divide isn’t as wide as we think and in fact that elites and non-elites have relatively overlapping views — even if, as you note earlier, there are probably more outliers in the general public than among foreign-policy professionals. I’m curious if you share that view and if you have any final thoughts that you think readers should take away from what is really a rather fascinating set of poll results? 

BV: Yes, I think that’s correct. While the public is obviously not as well informed about foreign affairs as elites (the poll found that only 37 percent of Americans know we are part of a formal alliance to defend Germany, while 55 percent incorrectly believe we have a treaty to defend Israel), they do seem to share the broad view of elites from both parties that the United States must continue to play the role of the "indispensable nation."

We discussed earlier that polls like this one often find that Americans want to have it all. We don’t like to make hard choices or accept painful tradeoffs. We want an expansive foreign policy backed by the most powerful military in the world, but we don’t want to pay for it. We want to protect human rights around the world, but we don’t want to risk American military casualties to do it. We want to maintain a strong alliance with Israel, but we don’t want to suffer the consequences of angering Muslims who oppose Israeli policies. Although it is understandable that the public might be attracted to such unrealistic views, ultimately America cannot escape reality.

The bills will come due. Change is always difficult, but it is important to remember that maintaining the same foreign policy America has pursued for the last 20 years is just as much a choice as is adopting a radically different one. The essence of political leadership lies in recognizing this reality and having the courage to change direction on our own terms rather than waiting for the world to force a new course upon us.

[A note about the survey methodology: This project emerged out of research Valentino is conducting on developing a sustainable national security strategy for the United States. The research has been sponsored by the Tobin Project, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to motivate scholars to work on policy-relevant research and help scholars share their research with policymakers. As part of the project, he solicited questions from more than a dozen political scientists and historians, which formed the core of the poll. The poll was conducted by the polling firm, YouGov, which interviewed more than 1,000 Americans.]

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