Killer Elite

America's foreign policy establishment is out of touch with America -- and the numbers prove it.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Who speaks for American foreign policy? The public or foreign affairs elites? It is a question that people outside the United States frequently ask, confused by the contrast between the erudite reassurances about the U.S. role in the world that they often receive from American diplomats and think-tank pundits and what foreigners disconcertingly perceive as politically driven Washington foreign policy.

This disconnect in perception and priorities between the views of experts and the general public is often discounted (by elites) as either expected or irrelevant. And it does reflect the inevitable tension between policy and politics in any democratic country. But it also comes with a cost: an often contradictory and confusing mixed message to foreigners about America’s intentions on the world stage.

The public and the elite do see eye-to-eye on one thing: America’s declining stature as a global leader. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than five-in-ten members of the public and roughly six-in-ten members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, agree that the United States plays a less important role around the world than it did a decade ago. Just four years ago, less than half of both groups said that the United States played a less powerful global role.

But the public and the experts judge this relative decline differently. About half of the public says the United States already does too much in terms of helping solve world problems, while only about two-in-ten CFR members see the United States as overextended.

There is similar disagreement on a range of specific international challenges facing the country and the world. With Washington engaged in negotiations to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, six-in-ten Americans who have heard at least a little about the talks do not believe that Iranian leaders are serious about addressing U.S. concerns. At the same time, half of CFR members say Iranian leaders are serious.

When it comes to the Middle East peace process — a major foreign policy priority of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — the public and the experts see the U.S. role there differently. Roughly four-in-ten CFR members support greater Washington involvement in resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. But the same proportion of the public says the United States should be less involved in the region.

Seven-in-ten CFR members say the use of military drones to target extremists in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen has made America safer. Just five-in-ten members of the public agree. And more than four-in-ten foreign policy experts think the war in Afghanistan has improved Americans’ safety. Only about three-in-ten members of the public agree.

Recent revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) phone and Internet surveillance similarly divide the public and elites. Roughly seven-in-ten experts say such spying has left the U.S. safer, but only about four-in-ten in the public see it that way. So, it is little wonder that while nearly seven-in-ten CFR members say the leak of classified information about NSA programs by Edward Snowden harmed the public interest, only five-in-ten of the public concur.

Looking forward, the public and elites agree that protecting the United States from terrorist attacks should be a major goal of U.S. foreign policy. More than eight-in-ten members of the public and about three-quarters of CFR members say counterterrorism should be a top priority.

But the public sees many foreign policy goals through a domestic lens. Roughly eight-in-ten Americans rate a decidedly domestic issue — protecting the jobs of U.S. workers — as a top long-range foreign policy priority. Only about three-in-ten CFR members agree. This disparity in perspective may help explain the tension foreigners often perceive between the willingness of State Department and Pentagon officials to use U.S. trade policy as a tool of American foreign policy, writ large, and the resistance this tradeoff has encountered on Capitol Hill.

The public also wants U.S. foreign policy to be used in pursuit of other largely domestic objectives. Majorities say that reducing the country’s dependence on imported energy sources and combating international drug trafficking should be top international priorities, while nearly half say the same about reducing illegal immigration. But less than half of the experts surveyed see energy independence as a foreign policy goal. And just one-in-six rate drug interdiction as a priority, while only one-in-nine place great value on using foreign policy to halt illegal immigration.

Finally, climate change stands out as yet another issue area where the public and the experts disagree.  Over a third of the public says dealing with global climate change should be a top foreign policy goal, while over half of CFR members would make it a priority.

Some disconnect between public and expert opinion is to be expected. The two groups often have differing insights and interests. But for those outside the United States trying to understand Washington’s foreign policy, it is important to understand that the elites they talk to do not necessarily speak for the American public. And that when congressional and White House policies clash with what officials abroad are hearing from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, it may be because the elite is out of touch with the American public.

Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. Twitter: @bruceestokes