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The Building Blocks of a Restraint Coalition

There is strong support among voters of both parties for increased diplomacy and decreased military engagement.

The American public is increasingly supportive of a foreign policy that is more engaged diplomatically and more restrained in its use of force. Large majorities want the U.S. to rejoin agreements and institutions that the U.S. has left over the last four years, but there is also substantial support for reducing America’s military footprint in many other parts of the world. Most Americans don’t care for the wrecking of successful agreements, including the nuclear deal with Iran, but many would welcome troop withdrawals from deployments overseas.

Those are some of the findings from the Eurasia Group Foundation’s annual survey of what Americans think about U.S. foreign policy and our country’s role in the world. There is a major constituency in both parties for a foreign policy that is less militarized and more involved in constructive international cooperation. This could be the foundation for a broad coalition in favor of greater restraint, and it shows that most of the public is not interested in maintaining the status quo of militarized hegemony.

The survey divides the respondents into four groupings based on their answers. There are the “traditional internationalists” that don’t want to reduce U.S. forces overseas and want to remain in international institutions, and then there are the “hard power primacists” that have no use for institutions and treaties but want to dominate militarily. There are the “global ambassadors” that want deeper diplomatic engagement, but also want to reduce military forces overseas and move away from a militarized U.S. foreign policy. Finally, there are the respondents that the survey classified as so-called “genuine isolationists.” The choice of isolationist here was unfortunate because even among these respondents the preference is for reduced engagement of all kinds, but not necessarily the separation from the world that the isolationist label implies. When push comes to shove, almost no one is a “genuine isolationist” in this country or anywhere else, and a more extensive survey might be able to tease out how these “isolationists” really think the U.S. should act in the world.

Out of these four, the “global ambassadors” made up the largest contingent: “The most popular position was that of the Global Ambassadors, who support active diplomacy and participation in international institutions, trade and treaties but oppose global military primacy.” It would be fair to say that this position is closest to the views held by advocates of restraint. According to the survey, 38% of respondents fit this description, and they were pretty evenly distributed between different political affiliations. 40% of Democrats gave answers that put them in this group, and the same was true for 32% of Republicans.

There is a clear majority that doesn’t support a strategy of primacy. As the report notes, “When “engagement” is split into military and non-military components, only three in ten Americans favor liberal hegemony.” Between the “global ambassadors” and so-called “genuine isolationists,” those opposed to primacy to one degree or another made up almost 60% of the total. These are potentially huge blocs of voters that prefer a more peaceful, less interventionist foreign policy, and they are woefully underrepresented in Washington today. This is a large audience that would seem to be receptive to what advocates of restraint have to say, and so we need to find more ways to reach them.

The most overrepresented group in Washington, the “hard power primacists,” is also the one with the most destructive track record. This is the group that cheers on John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as they trash America’s reputation while putting us at greater risk of pointless wars. Only 10% of the respondents belonged to this group, and even among Republicans they make up less than 25%. There is remarkably little popular support for the position that has become the default Republican Party agenda.

There is more popular support for bringing U.S. forces home from all over than there is for keeping them there. 44% say that the U.S. should decrease the number of troops it has in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and they also say that the U.S. should reduce its commitments to other countries in these regions. Only 31% were in favor of the status quo or an increase in troop levels. This is consistent with the findings of other surveys, including the new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found that 57% approved of the announced troop withdrawal from Germany, and another 16% wanted full withdrawal of all of the remaining troops.

One of the other interesting results that the Chicago Council survey found is the growing partisan gap over the question of “American exceptionalism.” 80% Republicans are in agreement with the definition of exceptionalism the survey provided (the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world”), and only 35% of Democrats held the same view. It is possible that this gap is exaggerated by the fact that Democrats seem to have soured on the idea during Trump’s presidency, and the numbers may go up again in the future, but there seems to be something more significant going on. Insofar as “American exceptionalism” has been turned into a motto for excusing U.S. rogue behavior in the world, it has become an increasingly loaded phrase that provokes strong reactions in both directions. The experience of the last twenty years would also give many people good reasons to doubt that the U.S. deserves to be called the greatest country.

The EGF survey likewise asked a question about American exceptionalism, but phrased it a bit differently. They asked if America was exceptional for what it had done in the world (20% agreed), exceptional because of what it represented (40%), or not exceptional (38%). While most of these respondents still affirmed some support for the idea, support is declining with each generation. While the president proposes “teaching American exceptionalism” in schools (whatever that might mean in practice), such lessons seem likely to fall on deaf ears. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a myth of exceptionalism when our institutions are so faulty, our infrastructure so derelict, and our political leaders so inept. If each new generation is more disillusioned than the last with this myth, it is because they have seen how false it is in real life and they have seen how it has been used to rationalize some of the worst policies imaginable.

Probably the most discouraging result in the EGF survey came in response to a question about war powers. There is a large majority that thinks that Congress has to authorize the use of force first, and that is something that advocates of restraint can build on, but it is disturbing that so many would support presidential overreach in matters of war. When asked if the president needed Congressional authorization before ordering military action abroad, 26% said that he didn’t. While this is a distinctly minority view, it was supported by half of the Republican respondents, and it shows that roughly a quarter of the public holds an important part of the Constitution in contempt. When such a large group endorses illegal presidential warmaking, it is another sign that our political culture has been badly corrupted by decades of war and arbitrary presidential power grabs. The failure to prevent previous illegal wars and the failure to hold presidents accountable for trampling on the Constitution have paved the way for this.

Foreign policy tends to be a low priority for most voters, and few use these issues to determine their voting decisions, but public opinion still has to be kept in mind in any foreign policy debate. Most Americans are not paying close attention to what the government is doing in the world, but there are limits to what they will tolerate. The public also has fairly clear preferences for greater international cooperation without the unnecessary burdens of endless wars and excessive military commitments around the world. There is an opening here for a prudential and restrained internationalism that draws support from across the political spectrum, but to take advantage of that will require organizing these disparate groups of Americans to achieve greater influence in both parties.