The new Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of American opinions on foreign policy and America’s place in the world is revealing in a number of ways. There are several encouraging signs that a majority of Americans is taking a very sensible view of how activist and interventionist the U.S. should be in the future. There appears to be much more acceptance of relative decline in U.S. preeminence and the rise of more independent powers, and there is clearly a desire for the U.S. to be engaged in international affairs through greater consultation and cooperation with other states along with an interest in the more selective exercise of U.S. power. Some of the findings that I find particularly noteworthy were the reaction to the rise of increasingly independent states such as Brazil and Turkey, and the view on what the U.S. should do in the event of a war between Israel and Iran.
A large majority (69-28%) said that it was “mostly good” for Turkey and Brazil to become more independent of U.S. foreign policy, which suggests that the hysterical anti-Turkish reaction in the last few months has a very limited base of support. I should note that the questions might have biased the result towards the “mostly good” side by explaining that Turkish and Brazilian independence in foreign policy would mean that they do not rely on the U.S. as much. Arguably, the reason why there was such a favorable response to this option was that most Americans are under the basically false impression that Turkey and Brazil rely heavily on the U.S. for something, so they might assume that greater independence implies greater self-sufficiency, which ultimately means reduced costs for the U.S. Even so, the strong support for greater allied self-sufficiency is indirect evidence that most Americans don’t want the U.S. subsidizing the defense of other countries that can fend for themselves perfectly well.
56% of Americans say that the U.S. should not enter a war between Iran and Israel. Of course, the question assumes Iranian retaliation against Israel alone, which is probably not what would happen in the wake of an Israeli attack. What is interesting is that there seems to be a significant majority of Americans that does not take for granted that the U.S. should intervene on Israel’s side in a war with Iran so long as the conflict remains a bilateral one. Perhaps more striking is a related result on Israel. As the report explains:
Contrary to the long-standing, official U.S. position, fewer than half of Americans show a readiness to defend Israel even against an unprovoked attack by a neighbor. Asked whether they would favor using U.S. troops in the event that Israel were attacked by a neighbor, only 47 percent say they would favor doing so, while 50 percent say they would oppose it.
It is possible that support for aiding Israel is relatively low because the idea of one of Israel’s neighbors launching an unprovoked attack against now seems so far-fetched and implausible. It may be that at least half of Americans recognize that Israel wouldn’t need U.S. help in defending itself, and perhaps there is also the recognition that Israel possesses sufficient military strength that none of its neighbors would be reckless enough to attack it. Then again, maybe there are just that many Americans who correctly see these conflicts as being none of our business.
Rather depressingly, 68% of Americans still believe Iran’s nuclear program represents a “critical” threat to the United States. Just 4% believe the U.S. should not try to stop Iran from enriching uranium, and 18% want U.S. military strikes now. 41% support economic sanctions, and 33% favor “diplomatic efforts” to get Iran to stop enriching uranium. If carried out with U.N. approval, support for military action increases slightly (21%), support for sanctions goes up (45%) and support for diplomacy decreases (26%). If sanctions and diplomacy fail, most Americans seem to understand that military action would not end Iran’s nuclear program and would merely slow it down, and they also understand that it would provoke greater resentment against the U.S. among Muslims and lead to retaliatory attacks on U.S. targets in the region and perhaps even here in America. A large majority assumes that Iranians would rally around their government, and 52% believe that Iran’s government would not lose support as a result of the strike. Despite all this, 47% would still favor military action if Iran persisted in enriching uranium. The good news is that slightly more would oppose an attack, and with opinion this sharply divided it would be more difficult for a President from either party to authorize an attack.
The report points out something strange:
In comparing the responses about the possible outcomes of a military strike among those who
would favor or oppose it if all else fails, it is striking that large majorities of both those who favor and
oppose a strike agree that such strikes would not lead Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program
and that strikes might slow but would not stop Iran’s program. Large majorities on both sides also
agree that retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets in neighboring states and the United States itself are
The question that needs to be asked then is how so many Americans can support taking military action that they assume will be ineffective and will lead to attacks on Americans. Apparently, supporters of an attack believe that simply by launching the ineffective attack the U.S. will deter other states from pursuing nuclear weapons. Of course, the exact opposite is true. An attack on Iran will convince other states that a nuclear deterrent is needed to prevent a U.S. attack, and an ineffective attack will lead other governments with nuclear ambitions to conclude that the U.S. will not be able to stop them. It will be at once encouragment for more proliferation and a demonstration that the U.S. is unable to prevent proliferation by force, which would make for the worst combination of threatening aggressiveness and impotence possible.
In light of all the demagoguery surrounded the Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year, it is worth noting that just 20% of Americans support the use of nuclear weapons if the U.S. has not suffered a nuclear attack, which puts the hawkish critics of the review on the opposite side from three-quarters of the public. For that matter, the administration position on the use of nuclear weapons makes the administration significantly more hawkish than most Americans. Administration policy is that non-compliant NPT states that launch chemical or biological attacks (or cyber-attacks) could be targeted with nuclear weapons, which is something most Americans don’t accept.
Perhaps most remarkable is the strong opposition to the use of U.S. forces to defend South Korea and Taiwan. At present, defending South Korea with U.S. forces is a given, and in the event of a North Korean invasion U.S. defense of the South would begin immediately, so it is more than a little amazing that 56% oppose it. Defending Taiwan with U.S. forces is understandably even less popular (just 26% favor it), but unlike Taiwan the U.S. has formal defense obligations to South Korea. Somewhat bizarrely, support for defending South Korea jumps from 40% to 61% if the U.S. were operating as part of a U.N. force. The distinction seems to be that the U.S. should not be the only one responsible for aiding in South Korea’s defense.
All of this is worth bearing in mind in the coming years as hegemonists and interventionists start claiming to speak in the name of the American people. Americans don’t want hegemony, they want to keep the U.S. out of most conflicts, and it seems that they don’t believe in risking American lives to defend countries that can defend themselves.