We’re told liberals and conservatives are deeply and hopelessly divided. After a spate of overseas adventures propelled by ill-fated strategies with jargony names like “preventive war,” “regime change” and “nation building,” Americans of all political stripes are becoming disillusioned with the arguments supporting U.S. military intervention.
To be sure, there are plenty of real differences between the political parties right now. But on foreign policy, the real disconnect seems to be between members of the public and the leaders who represent them. There has long been an awkward consensus among neoconservative hawks, who argue preventive military action makes Americans safer and neoliberal interventionists, who argue that toppling tyrants is our moral obligation. Both views are the products of specialized knowledge, good intentions and creative theorizing. But neither has made a convincing case to the American people, especially not recently.
This is certainly supported by a new study just put out by my organization, the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF), which found broad political agreement in the desire for a more restrained foreign policy. In fact, our national poll of more than 1,000 voting-age Americans found support for a more focused, foresighted and finite foreign policy crosses not just the usual party lines, but also generational boundaries, socioeconomic class and levels of foreign policy knowledge. In other words, we’re not talking about the usual anti-globalist suspects here.
President Donald Trump has channeled this feeling of war weariness. His calls for a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, though since moderated, even received support from the Senate Democrats making a bid to run against him. But perhaps the biggest test to the administration’s commitment to restraint will be the showdown underway in Venezuela.
Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, failed to contain his contempt for a freshman Congresswoman who, in a testy exchange, attempted to hold him accountable for the reckless Latin America policies of past administrations. And in a stunning display highlighting the dearth of innovative foreign policy ideas, national security advisor John Bolton invoked the Monroe Doctrine from the 1820s to explain why intervention in Venezuela is warranted while other dictators elsewhere are tolerated. The Monroe Doctrine has been resurrected throughout the past century to aid disastrous interventions on the continent, including the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile which led to brutal dictatorships in both.
Proponents of American-led intervention interpret the public’s embrace of American exceptionalism as license to insert ourselves into far-flung regional conflicts even if we would cry foul when other countries do as we do. They argue the United States is the “indispensable nation” — that America’s national security requires global stability, which in turn requires American primacy.
But according to our EGF study, Americans are more likely to believe “America is exceptional because of what it represents” than to believe “America is exceptional because of what it has done for the world.” In the context of foreign policy, respondents were nearly six times as likely to respond that “a great leader must lead by example” than “a great leader should try to change the world.” These results suggest American exceptionalism should not be construed as support for interventionist policies — including those being proposed for Venezuela.
This is the sentiment Joe Biden likely channels when he says, “The ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example.” But our survey respondents might chafe at Biden’s premise: namely, that America must continue to “lead the world.”
When asked how America could best achieve and sustain peace, Republicans surveyed were more likely to support “keeping a focus on domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the U.S.” than “maintaining overwhelming military strength and deploying it only when America is attacked or our vital interests are compromised by another power.”
Democrats were more likely to think peace is better achieved and sustained by “establishing, encouraging, and reinforcing global economic integration, as well as the growth of free trade” than by “promoting and defending democracy around the world.”
These results upend the conventional idea of Republicans as the party of “peace through strength” — a common Ronald Reagan refrain. This might be because recent Republican presidents haven’t used our strength primarily for deterrence or for keeping the peace (see: Bush, Iraq).
On the other side of the aisle, however, Democratic presidents have failed to anticipate how overseas democratic transitions — which typically must be prodded along with economic incentives — don’t yield fabulous success stories in the longer-term (see: Clinton, Hungary).
A preference for restraint showed up when we asked people how America should respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. When asked how America should respond if “Iran gets back on track with its nuclear weapons program” after Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal, roughly 80 percent of respondents favor diplomatic options. Of the rest, significantly more people thought the U.S. should “not intervene [because] Iran has the right to defend itself even if it means developing nuclear weapons…” than thought we should attack Iran “to prevent its government from acquiring nuclear weapons...” Trump administration hawks take heed.
And when it came to policing human rights abuses, Americans were more than twice as likely to identify with statements which would effectively abstain from American military intervention rather than with statements that would support it. This preference transcended partisan affiliations and age groups.
Young people are often assumed to be supportive of humanitarian intervention, driven by feelings of idealism and invincibility. They certainly lean left politically. But this liberalism does not necessarily lead to support for interventionism, a theory supported by out by our study as well. Perhaps this is because the only American military adventures they’ve directly experienced in their lifetimes have been largely unsuccessful.
When American foreign policy is pursued without significant public support, our country is perceived as a less reliable ally and a less resolute adversary. Moreover, whenever groupthink afflicts policymaking, smart and valuable policy ideas can be dismissed as illegitimate. Finally, as our leaders advance the cause of democracy overseas — in Venezuela and elsewhere — they would better exercise the power of our example if they showed more regard for the popular will here at home.