The new Economist/YouGov poll asked its American respondents about a number of countries and asked which they considered to be allies or enemies. The good news is that there are no countries on the list that a majority considers an enemy, except for North Korea, which actually has been and continues to be one. For whatever reason, Iran was not included on the list. There are sizeable minorities that regard China and Russia as enemies, but these never rise above 20% overall. Despite some concerted mainstream conservative efforts to stir up anti-Russian animus in the last few years, even among conservatives only 20% see Russia as an enemy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Washington will not continue to take actions that Moscow finds provocative or unacceptable, but it is mildly encouraging that a relatively smaller part of the population has been affected by nearly two decades of mistreating Russia and at least a decade of grossly exaggerating the threat that a “resurgent” Russia might pose.
The more remarkable result is the very low percentage of respondents saying that Israel is an ally (39.4%). We hear quite often that U.S. Israel policy is the way it is and Washington provides the support to Israel that it does because of broad and deep public support for Israel, but as I keep saying U.S. foreign policy is not automatically or directly guided by public sympathies and sentiments. Broad support might exist, but it would not be why policy is made in a certain way. On the other hand, policy might not align with the views of the majority, but that probably isn’t going to lead to a change in policy. I have discussed this a few times already, but I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough. If a vast majority supported U.S. Israel policy, the support of a vast majority would not be why the policy is the way it is. More likely, that support would be a result of accepting an existing policy that political leaders and the media have affirmed is good and necessary. Likewise, if a large majority did not agree that Israel is a U.S. ally, as YouGov says they do not, that would not necessarily ever translate into a change in U.S. support of and protection for Israel. Foreign policy is remarkably well-insulated from shifts in public opinion, and public opinion typically follows the government’s lead on any major initiatives overseas. More to the point, people in this 39.4% who say that Israel is an ally (and especially the 51.1% of Republicans who say this) tend to be more interested, engaged and involved than those who do not.
Even though this 39.4% do not outnumber those who do not agree, they vastly outweigh them in influence. Just 31% of people belonging to the majority party say that Israel is an ally, but it is a certainty that the White House, the party leadership in both houses and the overwhelming majority of Democratic members in Congress will continue to represent the view of this distinct minority within their own party. On a more practical level, the majority that disagrees with this position does not necessarily have any specific policy preferences that unite them, and there is no organization of any consequences that represents such a view. Affirming that another country is an ally recommends certain obvious moves, but taking a different view does not easily translate into a policy agenda.
For that matter, almost all American critics of certain aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship accept that Israel is and will continue to be an ally, so even most of the critics are aligned with this 39% minority. The majority is basically completely unrepresented in our political debate on this question. Perhaps there are even good reasons for this, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it might be worth acknowledging that this is so.