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Americans Want Foreign-Policy Restraint

A new poll shows how Trump captured the public sentiment that both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have ignored.

A recent poll by the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest sheds new light on why Donald Trump captured the White House. Its results amount to a public-opinion indictment of the foreign policy thinking—and the foreign policy results—of both parties over the past decade and a half. It exposes a divide between the establishment outlook of Washington and public sentiment at large, and the results don’t seem to make much of a distinction between the record of Republican George W. Bush and that of Democrat Barack Obama.

Asked, for example, if U.S. foreign policy over the past 15 years made Americans more or less safe, fully 52 percent said less safe. Only 12 percent said safer, while another quarter said the nation’s foreign policy actions over that time span had had no impact on their safety. The results were similar when respondents were asked if U.S. foreign policy of the past two administrations had made the world more or less safe. Less safe: 51 percent; safer: 11 percent; no change: 24 percent.

The poll indicates that many Americans attribute the chaotic state of the world today to their own leaders. Respondents, for example, took a dim view of the kinds of “regime change” operations pursued by both Bush and Obama—most notably, in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine. Fully 45 percent said cutting back on such operations would improve U.S. safety, while only 20 percent suggested greater regime change efforts could enhance American security.

Further, 49 percent favored diplomacy over military action as the best approach to enhancing national security, while 26 percent preferred military approaches. This sentiment was borne out more specifically with regard to U.S. relations with Russia. Asked if that country should be viewed as an adversary or potential partner of the United States, 38 percent of respondents viewed Russia as both an adversary and a potential partner, while 17 percent classified it as a potential partner. Only 33 percent said Russia should be viewed strictly as a U.S. adversary.  

Taking this one item as a reflection of the broader whole, it is worth noting that, at the beginning of the campaign year, both major political parties took a bellicose attitude toward Russia, and hardly a voice was heard advocating a diplomatic approach aimed at finding mutual interests. But Trump went against elite opinion in suggesting he would explore better relations between the United States and Russia.

In a broader sense, at the beginning of the 2016 campaign season, both parties seemed under the sway of determined interventionist forces—for the Republicans, the “neoconservative” elements that had spurred the Iraq invasion under George W. Bush; and, for the Democrats, the humanitarian interventionists who embraced a “responsibility to protect” peoples in other lands beset by the intermittent woes of humanity, such as those in Libya under Muammar Qaddafi.

Based on the new Charles Koch Institute/Center for the National Interest poll, it seems that the preponderance of public opinion ran counter to both of those foreign policy philosophies. Donald Trump, in his often crude manner, captured this opposition view.

The poll found that, when asked whether increasing or decreasing America’s military presence abroad would make the country safer, 45 percent of respondents chose a reduction in military activity, while 31 percent favored increasing it (while 24 percent didn’t know). Asked if there should be more U.S. democracy promotion abroad or less, 40 percent said less, while 31 said more (with 29 percent not sure).  

The poll overall seemed to suggest Americans favor a smaller U.S. footprint abroad than we have seen in recent years. Fully 55 percent of respondents opposed deployment of U.S. troops to Syria, compared to 23 percent who favored it (and 23 percent who weren’t sure). A plurality of 35 percent opposed the idea of a greater U.S. military presence in the Middle East, while 22 percent favored it and 29 percent favored no change.

But the poll also indicated the American people don’t want to retreat from the world into any kind of isolationism. A plurality of 40 percent favored increased military spending compared to 32 percent who wanted to keep it constant and 17 percent who favored reductions.

And the poll suggested Americans view China with a certain wariness. Asked if China should be viewed as a U.S. ally, 93 percent said no. But a like number—89 percent—said China should not be viewed as an enemy either. Some 42 percent favored the term competitor.

In general, the poll indicated that Americans want their government to exercise more restraint in foreign policy than it has demonstrated over the past two administrations. They want better relations with Russia, or at least an attempt to forge better relations. They are wary of China’s expansionist vision but don’t want to leap to adverse conclusions about that country’s ultimate intentions. They oppose regime change operations generally and greater military efforts in the Middle East specifically. They favor diplomacy over military action as a general rule, but want a strong military for any foreign challenges that require a martial response. They favor U.S. alliances but don’t want them to be one-sided, and a sizable minority is wary of military alliances that might get America into wars unrelated to U.S. national interests.

A foreign policy driven by these sentiments would differ significantly from what the United States has done since Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on U.S. soil in 2001—and thus points up the disparity between popular sentiment on U.S. foreign policy and the views of those who have been formulating it. Trump campaigned on a foreign policy platform closer to popular sentiment, as reflected in this poll, than any of his adversaries. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that that contributed to his election.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is President McKinley: The Art of Stealthy Leadership. (The American Conservative is the recipient of a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to enhance its coverage of U.S. foreign relations.)