Survey Says

The Chicago Council's new report might have answers as to what Americans want when it comes to Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. The only problem is, it asked the wrong questions. 

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

What do the American people want from U.S. foreign policy? If you’re a die-hard neoconservative, a committed liberal interventionist, or somebody who thinks the solution to most global problems should be Made-in-America, then you’re probably worried that the American people are becoming disenchanted with the costly and mostly unsuccessful foreign policy of the past couple of decades. But if you seek reassurance and would enjoy reading a "glass half-full" analysis of that issue, then I commend to you the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ recent survey of U.S. public opinion, titled "Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment."

It is important to recognize that a key mission of the Chicago Council, like that of many other nonpartisan membership organizations, is "educating the public" about contemporary global issues. The purpose of such education, of course, is to encourage greater U.S. engagement in world affairs and to counter any tendency toward "isolationism." The people who support the organization — and especially some of its biggest donors — also tend to be committed internationalists who support using American power to advance various foreign-policy goals. Chicago Council President Ivo Daalder (a co-author of the report) is a card-carrying liberal internationalist who was a prominent advocate of NATO expansion and has repeatedly proposed creating a global "league of democracies." Back in 2012, he hailed the toppling of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi as a great victory for NATO and as a "model intervention" (sadly, this so-called victory actually spawned a dangerous failed state). Neither the Chicago Council nor its current leaders are likely to be anything about enthusiastic about active U.S. leadership on the world stage.

So what does the report say? It begins by warning that "a specter is haunting America — the specter of isolationism." But don’t be alarmed: The next paragraph reassures us that "isolationism is not the appropriate term to describe current public opinion" and goes on to say that "[p]ublic support for international engagement remains solid."

Daalder and co-author Dina Smeltz acknowledge a "growing desire among Americans to ‘stay out’ of world affairs," a trend they see as linked to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a diminished sense of threat, concern for domestic problems, and emerging divisions within the Republican Party. But they are quick to say, "the data do not show a desire to disengage from the world." In their words, the "most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement," which in their view "have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago." In short, talk about growing isolationist sentiment is overblown, and politicians and pundits should not pay much attention to it.

But a closer look at the data raises serious doubts, especially when one considers some basic limitations in the Chicago Council survey itself.

For starters, although a subheading announces that "Public continues to support an ‘active part’ for the United States in world affairs," the text and data show a somewhat different trend. Seventy-one percent of Americans favored an "active part" in 2002, but the percentage has declined steadily since then and now sits at 58 percent. Moreover, the question asks respondents to choose between a positive-sounding but vague status quo (where the United States plays an unspecified "active part") and a stark alternative ("staying out"), which probably favors the former and leaves other possibilities unexplored.

One wonders, for example, how many respondents would favor an "active but somewhat reduced part" or an "active, but less interventionist part." The data presented elsewhere in the report suggest that these more specific alternatives might be quite popular. For example, only 30 percent of Americans say they support using military force to defend Ukraine, only 17 percent favor sending U.S. troops to fight in Syria, and only 33 percent want to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Only 25 percent of respondents support sending arms to the Syrian rebels (a percentage that may have gone up since the survey was conducted, about which more below).

These figures don’t sound like resounding support for the hyperactive foreign policy that the United States has been conducting in recent decades, but Smeltz and Daalder maintain the results aren’t all that new. As they put it, "Americans have consistently expressed reluctance to use military force to solve international problems, especially when doing so involves putting "boots on the ground.’" In other words, U.S. politicians have routinely committed the country to missions most Americans oppose, in part by creating institutions (such as the all-volunteer force) that limit the political costs. In any case, public reluctance to use force mostly shows a degree of good judgment, especially given the U.S. track record in recent years.

The survey also suggests that Americans will support using force "when they feel directly threatened" or "if they expect the response to be relatively low cost and low risk." This result is hardly surprising either, but it points to a flaw in the way that the Chicago Council tends to pose its questions. For example, when asked, "Would you favor or oppose the use of U.S. troops to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?" a striking majority of 69 percent said yes. But this question, like virtually every question about U.S. engagement in the Chicago Council survey, omits any mention of what such an action might cost. It’s a bit like offering someone a private jet without telling them they have to pay the fuel and maintenance bill; of course most people will say yes. But if Americans were asked, "Would you support the use of troops to stop Iran, even if it cost a few billion dollars or 500 U.S. soldiers’ lives?" support for military action would plummet.

Similarly, if respondents were asked whether they are in favor of U.S. "global leadership" or support an "active U.S. role," but were not told what this might cost or what the trade-offs might be, then you’d be bound to get an answer that overstated public support. Such results as those in the report can be useful if you want to compare trends over time, but they don’t tell you very much about what the American people really want or what they would be willing to pay to get it.

Interestingly, the Chicago Council survey offers some intriguing evidence on this point, noting that those who did favor the United States’ "staying out" of world affairs usually justified this position by pointing to the need to address domestic problems or the ineffectiveness of past U.S. interventions. In short, once people begin to consider the costs of global activism, support for it tends to drop.

The survey also reveals further gaps between the positions that U.S. officials routinely take and the attitudes of the people whom they have sworn to serve. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members, for example, which means the United States has a formal commitment to defend them if they are attacked. Yet only 44 percent of Americas support using U.S. troops to defend these Baltic states. The United States has a similar commitment to South Korea, but only 47 percent favor defending it in the event of a North Korean invasion. U.S. politicians routinely refer to the U.S. commitment to Israel as "unshakeable," but that’s not what the public thinks: A slight majority (53 percent) actually opposes using U.S. troops to defend Israel. The situation is even worse with regard to Taiwan, where only 26 percent of those surveyed support using American troops in the event of a Chinese attack on the island.

To be fair, it is not clear just how seriously one should take any of these findings.

Most Americans remain blissfully ignorant about world affairs, which means any survey of this sort is tapping into gut feelings more than carefully reasoned conclusions. In 2006, for example, after three years of war in Iraq, only 37 percent of young Americans could locate that country on a map. This year, a trio of survey researchers reported that only 16 percent of U.S. respondents could correctly locate Ukraine, and the less respondents knew about Ukraine’s location the more inclined they were to favor intervention. Results like these help explain why political leaders pay attention to public opinion but do not feel strongly bound by it.

Moreover, public opinion is notoriously volatile and tends to respond to elite rhetoric, vivid events, and any sort of "decisive" presidential action. Case in point: Nearly two-thirds of Americans now support "taking action" against the Islamic State, a clear reaction to the group’s rapid emergence, the drumbeat of alarmist rhetoric about it, and the group’s own videotaped beheadings of two American journalists (which the group may have done in order to goad Washington into an ill-advised response). This expression of support may be sincere but is probably quite soft, and it is likely to dissipate quickly if the U.S.-led campaign does not produce quick and decisive results.

Finally, there is still a significant gap between the public’s views on foreign policy and the prevailing views within the foreign-policy elite. In 2009, for example, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) members supported President Barack Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, compared with only 32 percent for the general public. Last year’s Pew survey found that 51 percent of the public believed the United States did "too much" in world affairs and 17 percent thought it did "too little," but only 21 percent of CFR members thought the United States was doing "too much" and 41 percent maintained the United States was doing "too little." Of those in the public who said the United States should play a "shared leadership role" in the world, only 28 percent thought the United States should be the "most active" of the leading nations; but 55 percent of total CFR members think the United States should be the "most assertive."

If an activist foreign policy is sometimes expensive, and if the people who run U.S. foreign policy are more enthusiastic about this policy than the American people are, then how do they persuade the public to go along? Simple: by exaggerating threats, keeping lots of things secret, concealing the true costs, emphasizing the importance of U.S. credibility, and constantly proclaiming the need to promote America’s liberal values overseas. These time-honored techniques have been around for decades, but they are even more significant when dangers are diffuse and do not pose serious threats to the American way of life.

But as "Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment" reveals, a growing number of Americans no longer believe a highly activist foreign policy can diminish the remaining dangers, preserve U.S. prosperity, or protect (let alone promote) basic U.S. values. And if they are (mostly) right, what will it take to convince the institutions, interest groups, and individuals who still believe the United States is "indispensable" and who believe it must take the lead in solving most (if not all) global problems?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.