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Americans Want Foreign-Policy Restraint

A recent poll [1] 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 [2]. (The American Conservative is the recipient of a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to enhance its coverage of U.S. foreign relations.)

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Americans Want Foreign-Policy Restraint"

#1 Comment By Mark Thomason On December 26, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

15 years of war is too much. Nobody ought to be surprised by that. FDR and later Truman worried in 1944 about keeping the war against Japan popular even into 1946, even after Pearl Harbor, even winning.

On top of that, it has been 15 years of LOSING those wars. Losing is unpopular in itself, and in addition is discredits the coach and his methods.

Obama ran against the biggest war of the time 8 years ago, and with success against Hillary who then defended it.

This has been building a long time.

The only surprise is that anybody in charge IS surprised. And they are. Clueless. No wonder they are losing.

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On December 26, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

Such a welcomed, important end-of-the-year column! TAC readers are fortunate to have had one fine editor, Daniel McCarthy, followed by another fine editor, Robert W. Merry.

It’s encouraging that 89 percent of Americans say that “China should not be viewed as an enemy…42 percent favored the term competitor.”

Indeed, “competitor” is the right term for China. There is an urgent need for the US fix its bad trade deals with China and to bring home the American manufacturing jobs shipped to China.

But for the same reasons that “Americans want their government to exercise more restraint in foreign policy… [Americans] don’t want to leap to adverse conclusions about [China’s] ultimate intentions.”

It is unhelpful, for example, to view China as having an “expansionist vision.”

On the contrary, based upon the 67 years since modern China was born, China has been remarkably patient in terms of gradually re-asserting some of the regional hegemony to which China, as the world’s emerging #2 economic power, is entitled.

The US should seek to accommodate China’s justifiable assertions of regional hegemony, while renegotiating or ending all bad US trade deals with China.

#3 Comment By dog the wag On December 26, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

Yes, one of the most disturbing developments in the Trump transition period is all the attention being given to foreign policy.

I hope that’s not a harbinger of what’s to come.

Trump should be focusing on America first and last. Immigration, jobs, infrastructure. And get our troops out of the Middle East, stay out of foreign messes, and leave whatever residual diplomacy may be absolutely necessary to Tillerson and Co. As far as I’m concerned, we can abstain on UN Security Council resolutions til Doomsday. No skin off our back whatsoever.

#4 Comment By MULGA On December 26, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

Foreign wars are domestic issues. They cost in lives and resources. An inward looking American would benefit from a peace dividend. The economic problem is the problem of choice, of allocating scarce resources for unlimited wants. Take wars off the table and we have a lot more resources for domestic wants. Let us build from within. Remove the Fed and its ability to create money to fund these meaningless wars by nothing more than an electronic entry. American parents do not raise their kids to be cannon fodder in this irrational and ongoing carnage. Come home America. Lots to do here.

#5 Comment By richard young On December 27, 2016 @ 2:35 am

Well, it’s good to know that American public opinion largely disapproves the “regime change” activities that our Government has been pursuing for the past many years. Unfortunately, recent scientific studies show that American public opinion has essentially ZERO impact on what our Government actually chooses to do. And so it goes.

#6 Comment By Donna On December 27, 2016 @ 8:41 am

Excellent piece! I hope President-elect Trump or his people will read this. Some of his flip-flopping un-nerves me as well as some of his aggressive statements with regard to China and Iran…

People voted for real change. (I voted Republican for the first time in my life. Though I should mention, I do not vote for Democrats, period.) I support anti-interventionism and responsible (sane) Foreign Policy.

I do see the war hawks from both parties circling Trump and using their own language to define Trump’s policies.

We will see how this plays out soon enough.

#7 Comment By Andrew Allan On December 27, 2016 @ 8:59 am

Amen to that. And a good place to start would be by taking away Washington’s big stick, returning more power to the states. Our current way of doing things is ripe for despotism, regardless which party is in power.

#8 Comment By WPWIII On December 27, 2016 @ 9:13 am

One word was missing from this otherwise fine piece: Israel. If the word Israel were included in any of the poll questions, the results would have been very different, across all sectors of the polling sample.

#9 Comment By John On December 27, 2016 @ 10:09 am

There’s broad public agreement that Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t be cut either, and I doubt that’s going to count for much in the next Congress.

#10 Comment By Chris O’Brien On December 27, 2016 @ 10:44 am

Last two administrations?

US foreign policy as you describe has basically been like this since the early 1950s.

The vast majority of the foreign policy challenges we now face have their root in the utterly failed and frequently immoral implementation of the Truman Doctrine.

Modern US foreign policy is a series of brutal failures.

#11 Comment By Liam On December 27, 2016 @ 11:29 am

So far, Trump’s appointments don’t promise attentiveness to this message.

#12 Comment By Jane 5660 On December 27, 2016 @ 12:19 pm

The problem with ‘turning inward’ is that we are the focus of hatred from a great deal of the rest of the world. Some of that is resentment of the mistakes of past administrations, and some of it is envy of our material success. Turning our backs on these enemies, however, is a very bad idea. Next time, it might be a suitcase nuke planted in the basement of a skyscraper in New York…or Chicago…or LA.

#13 Comment By lowrider On December 27, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

:Turning our backs on these enemies, however, is a very bad idea. Next time, it might be a suitcase nuke planted in the basement of a skyscraper in New York…or Chicago…or LA

We don’t “turn our backs”. We just keep them the hell out of our country and make other countries pull their own weight and pay their own way. America doesn’t exist to do the fighting, dying, and paying for a bunch of foreign parasites.

#14 Comment By Remembrance On December 27, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

“The problem with ‘turning inward’ is that we are the focus of hatred from a great deal of the rest of the world. “

A lot of that hatred is the result of letting ourselves be dragged into other people’s messes. “The forces of hatred” didn’t start attacking us until we started siding with Israel’s nutcase faction against the Palestinians. Let the Israelis and Palestinians solve their own problems, and let us get out of the Middle East.

#15 Comment By Eileen Kuch On December 27, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

America’s foreign policy should reflect that of our 1st President, George Washington. In his Farewell Address after 8 years in office, Washington warned the fledgling nation to conduct friendly trade and relations with other nations and avoid entangling alliances as we’d avoid the Plague.
Turning inward isn’t what George Washington meant when he warned against entangling alliances. The 45th President (Donald Trump) does need to repair this nation’s crumbling infrastructure and bring good paying jobs back; but at the same time, he needs to reach out to Russia, China and Iran and end the hostility toward them. He’s already been reaching out to Russia, but he must also do that to China and Iran.
Trump must also reform the entire Federal Govt by weeding out every single dual-citizen Zionist neo-cons altogether. This would totally reform the Intelligence agencies and reduce their numbers. He needs to abolish the Rothschild Central Bank aka “Federal Reserve” and return the duty of coining money to Congress and the Treasury. I know this is a mighty tall order, but it has to be done in order to “drain the Swamp”, as he said.
He must also close the hundreds of bases abroad and bring the troops home. Many of those troops could be stationed at America’s southern border with Mexico to keep drug cartels, human smugglers and illegal aliens themselves from crossing in.