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Support for Restraint Is on the Rise

The Eurasia Group Foundation’s new survey of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy finds that support for greater restraint continues to rise:

Americans favor a less aggressive foreign policy. The findings are consistent across a number of foreign policy issues, and across generations and party lines.

The 2019 survey results show that most Americans support a more restrained foreign policy, and it also shows an increase in that support since last year. There is very little support for continuing the war in Afghanistan indefinitely, there is virtually no appetite for war with Iran, and there is a decline in support for a hawkish sort of American exceptionalism. There is still very little support for unilateral U.S. intervention for ostensibly humanitarian reasons, and support for non-intervention has increased slightly:

In 2018, 45 percent of Americans chose restraint as their first choice. In 2019, that has increased to 47 percent. Only 19 percent opt for a U.S.-led military response and 34 percent favor a multilateral, UN-led approach to stop humanitarian abuses overseas.

38% of respondents want to end the war in Afghanistan now or within one year, and another 31% support negotiations with the Taliban to bring the war to an end. A broad majority of Americans wants to bring the war to a conclusion. I already mentioned the survey’s finding that there is majority support for reducing the U.S. military presence in East Asia last night. Americans not only want to get out of our interminable wars overseas, but they also want to scale back U.S. involvement overall.

The report’s working definition of American exceptionalism is a useful one: “American exceptionalism is the belief that the foreign policy of the United States should be unconstrained by the parochial interests or international rules which govern other countries.” This is not the only definition one might use, but it gets at the heart of what a lot of hawks really mean when they use this phrase. While most Americans still say they subscribe to American exceptionalism either because of what the U.S. represents or what it has done, there is less support for these views than before. Among the youngest respondents (age 18-29), there is now a clear majority that rejects this idea.

The survey asked respondents how the U.S. should respond if “Iran gets back on track with its nuclear weapons program.” That is a loaded and potentially misleading question, since Iran has not had anything resembling a nuclear weapons program in 16 years, so there has been nothing to get “back on track” for a long time. Framing the question this way is likely to elicit a more hawkish response. In spite of the questionable wording, the results from this year show that there is less support for coercive measures against Iran than last year and more support for negotiations and non-intervention:

A strong majority of both Republicans and Democrats continue to seek a diplomatic resolution involving either sanctions or the resumption of nuclear negotiations. This year, there was an increase in the number of respondents across party lines who would want negotiations to resume even if Iran is a nuclear power in the short term, and a bipartisan increase in those who believe outright that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself. So while Republicans might be more likely than Democrats to believe Iran threatens peace in the Middle East, voters in neither party are eager to take a belligerent stand against it.

With only around 10% favoring it, there is almost no support for preventive war against Iran. Americans don’t want war with Iran even if it were developing nuclear weapons, and it isn’t doing that. It may be that the failure of the “maximum pressure” campaign has also weakened support for sanctions. Support for the sanctions option dropped by almost 10 points overall and plunged by more than 20 points among Republicans. In 2018, respondents were evenly split between war and sanctions on one side or negotiations and non-intervention on the other. This year, support for diplomacy and non-intervention in response to this imaginary nuclear weapons program has grown to make up almost 60% of the total. If most Americans favor diplomacy and non-intervention in this improbable scenario, it is safe to assume that there is even more support for those options with the real Iranian government that isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons.

There is substantial and growing support for bringing our current wars to an end and avoiding unnecessary conflicts in the future. This survey shows that there is a significant constituency in America that desires a more peaceful and restrained foreign policy, and right now virtually no political leaders are offering them the foreign policy that they say they want. It is long past time that Washington started listening.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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