The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has a storied history of conducting public opinion surveys on U.S. foreign policy. For decades, it has helped establish how Americans’ sensibilities and policy views have changed. Unfortunately, the recently released 2019 version of its report, titled “Rejecting Retreat,” reads too much like an argument with the strawman of isolationism and not enough like an objective assessment of where Americans are on foreign policy today. The council’s effort to convince elites that the public is demanding a return to the status quo ante Trump obscures several important lessons.
The first lesson is that the American public would prefer a more restrained foreign policy than elites have delivered in past decades. The council report suggests otherwise. Speaking of the survey findings, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and report coauthor Ivo Daalder announced that the public believes “the way you make America safe is the traditional way in which the United States has made America safe, which is U.S. military superiority, strong alliances, basing forces overseas, and being willing to defend your allies when they’re attacked.”
Similarly, the report’s introduction argues that:
The American public wants to reinvigorate the time-tested alliances and strategies of US foreign policy that have been in place for the last seven decades . . . [It] broadly supports the kind of measured, active engagement pursued by administrations from both political parties for decades . . . There are no signs of Americans wanting to withdraw from the world; to the contrary, they want America to be engaged, and they reject any idea of retreat.
The American public does not reject any idea of retreat. Although they favor international engagement, in the abstract, the public has exhibited a decided lack of enthusiasm for many areas of recent foreign policy. Moreover, much of that displeasure concerns the most important elements of recent foreign policy: namely the endless and costly post–9/11 wars dotting the globe.
Consider public support, or lack thereof, for these campaigns: By 2009 a majority had decided that the war in Afghanistan had not been worth fighting, and today 46 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan made the United States less safe, compared to 43 percent who believe it made America safer. The Chicago Council report itself finds that 47 percent of Americans want to reduce or entirely withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Similarly, a majority of Americans believe the United States mostly failed to achieve its goals in Iraq. A plurality think the 2003 invasion was a bad decision, and there was never a consistent majority to send ground troops to either Iraq or Syria even to combat the Islamic State. Regarding Syria, aside from support for Trump’s cruise missile strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons, the public was consistently opposed to involvement in the Syrian civil war during the Obama administration. In 2011, when the administration attacked Libya, the public again expressed opposition, with pluralities and majorities answering that the United States should not be using military force.
Most vividly, in the wake of the attack on the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, elites and the public were on different pages. A Business Insider poll showed that only 13 percent of Americans favored joining Saudi Arabia in a military response, with almost 25 percent saying that “the US should remove itself entirely from the affairs of the region and let Saudi Arabia handle the issue itself.” This is not a view that finds much support among policy experts in Washington. It is also not “Rejecting Retreat,” if one wants to use that phrasing.
The word “retreat” is loaded and negative, but as shown above, when it comes to America’s post–9/11 wars, the public does not reject retreat. Instead has displayed a clear preference for a less aggressive and more restrained approach. To a far greater extent than elites, the public has displayed a pragmatic sense of realism in the face of the accumulated evidence about the limits and failures of American foreign policy since 9/11.
Moreover, the council authors’ effort to derail the retreat narrative also obscures the important fact that the American public has never been as supportive of international engagement—of any kind—as political elites in Washington. People can reasonably disagree about the extent to which public preferences should influence the conduct of foreign policy, but recent reports by the Chicago Council and other organizations illustrate that the gap between elites and the public may be wider than ever.
A February 2019 study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, for example, found that 47 percent of foreign-policy elites believe that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” compared to just nine percent of the American public. The same report also found that while 95 percent of foreign-policy elites would support using military force if Russian invaded Estonia, a NATO ally, just 54 percent of the public would do so. The 2017 Chicago Council report likewise found that while 64 percent of Democratic elites and 71 percent of Republican elites felt that defending allies was a very important foreign-policy goal, just 36 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats felt that way.
In other words, though the council is correct that the American public continues to support international engagement of various kinds, it is incorrect to conclude that the public shares Washington’s enthusiasm for military intervention, defending allies, or indeed the pursuit of most other foreign-policy goals.
This leads to the second lesson obscured by the council’s report: the critical connection between elite rhetoric and the formation of public attitudes. Left to their own devices and absent a shooting war, Americans know and care little about foreign policy. Foreign policy in the United States is an elite sport; when the public gets involved, they root for their team. In this way, the impressions they have are inextricably bound up with the messages they get from partisan elites. This is an insight that has been with us for half a century—Philip Converse’s The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics was published in 1964. John Zaller’s seminal work on public opinion in 1992 expanded on the strength of the finding.
A central pillar of this research is the importance of elite consensus in determining patterns of public support. The connection is straightforward: When Republicans and Democrats in Washington agree on an issue, so do Republicans and Democrats in the rest of America. When elites in Washington are divided along party lines, the rest of American tends toward polarization as well.
Thanks to the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus around containment during the Cold War, and to widespread support of the pursuit of primacy in the post–Cold War era, the American public has typically received a unified message from Washington elites.
But scholarly research has shown that even elite cues have their limits. As Matthew Baum and his coauthors have noted (Baum and Potter 2008; Baum and Groeling 2010), reality is “elastic” but not infinitely so. Eventually, the ability of the president and other elites to generate public support gives way to the reality on the ground. If the mission goes badly enough, then even elite consensus won’t be able to sell the public on it.
This, in turn, helps explain why in 2013 and 2014 pollsters like the Chicago Council and Pew started seeing significant dips in public support for international engagement. The failed approach of the last two decades, not a spontaneous embrace of retreat, has led the American public to voice skepticism of continued military intervention, despite the elite consensus in Washington.
And though rising public discomfort with foreign policy has likely contributed, it is also their own failures since 9/11 that are driving the growing sense in both political parties that American foreign policy needs to chart a new direction. Though support for an activist foreign policy remains the default mode in Washington, the cracks in the consensus grow larger by the day.
Finally, the Chicago Council’s zeal to put the most internationalist spin on its data ignores one of the most important dynamics of modern American politics: the increasing polarization of Washington and the nation. In its executive summary, the council notes that “support for NATO, military alliances, and trade have never been higher in the history of the Chicago Council Survey.” But what the council fails to do is to offer any explanation for this apparently spontaneous embrace of liberal hegemony, even though a simple explanation exists: Donald Trump.
Partisanship so colors our views on war and peace that, as MIT’s Adam Berinsky memorably put it, “in the battle between facts and partisanship, partisanship always wins.” This has always been true, but never more so than in our intensely partisan era today, and especially when it comes to our radioactively polarizing chief executive. As a report from the Pew Research Center noted in 2014, Republicans and Democrats were more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy was deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades. Since then polarization and its effects have only gotten worse.
The Cold War consensus gave rise to the saying that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” That was never true, but it is patently untrue today. Put differently, there is no amorphous American “Russia policy,” or “Afghanistan policy”; there was Barack Obama’s policy and now there is Donald Trump’s policy. A voter’s opinion of the policy will turn on her opinion of the leader, and the messages she hears about the policy from elites she trusts.
Ironically, a June article, written by Dina Smeltz for Foreign Affairs, shows that it is opposition to Trump, not support for liberal hegemony, that is propping up support for engagement, allies, and trade. As Smeltz argued, what Democrats are seeking is “what Trump said, but the opposite.” To take one of her examples, Trump is seen as friendly with Russia. In 2016, 38 percent of Democrats saw Russian military power as a critical threat. By 2018 the number was 65 percent.
Trump is also seen as an opponent of free trade. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in December 2015, 49 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats said that international trade was good for the economy. By August 2019, the same poll found 77 and 73 percent, respectively, said it was good, rocketing support for international trade to an all-time high of 64 percent, with only 27 percent opposing it.
In short, the council has things backward. The public is not calling on Washington to stand tall. To the extent voters support liberal hegemony, it is out of habit borne from the decades-long elite consensus on these matters, and because policies seen as closely affiliated with Donald Trump turn off voters who dislike Trump. But the council has promoted the report to policymakers and media elites as if to show that voters are demanding they, too, reject retreat.
Elite rarely have to follow public opinion when it comes to foreign policy. Instead of sending a message to “much of Washington and its foreign-policy elite” that the public is clamoring for a return to pre-Trump liberal hegemony, scholars should urge elites to consider the lessons learned from past decades, the changing international system the United States finds itself in, and to think about what might be the best policies on the merits. Once they have settled on what those are, elites can make their case to the public, win support from their constituents, and put the country on a sounder footing.
Justin Logan is director of programs and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinTLogan.
A. Trevor Thrall is associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @trevor_thrall.