U.S. Foreign Policy and American Public Opinion

Commentary 339, Oct. 15, 2012

As the U.S. elections approach, U.S. foreign policy is gingerly becoming one of the issues. It is no secret that over the past half-century, there has been a certain long-term consistency to U.S. foreign policy. The sharpest internal differences took place when George W. Bush became president and launched a supermacho, deliberately unilateral attempt to restore U.S. dominance in the world by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bush and the neo-cons hoped to intimidate everyone around the world by using U.S. military strength to change regimes that were deemed unfriendly by the U.S. government. As seems clear today, the neo-con policy failed in its own objective. Instead of intimidating everyone, the policy transformed a slow decline in U.S. power into a precipitate decline. In 2008, Obama ran on a platform of reversing this policy, and in 2012 he is claiming that he has fulfilled this promise and therefore undid the damage the neo-cons caused.

But did he undo the damage? Could he have undone the damage? I doubt it. But my intent here is not to discuss how successful U.S. foreign policy is or is not at this moment. Rather I wish to discuss what the American people think about it.

The most important element in current U.S. public opinion on U.S. foreign policy is uncertainty and lack of clarity. Recent polls show that for the first time a majority of Americans think that the military interventions Bush undertook in the Middle East were an error. What these people seem to see is that there was a large expenditure of U.S. lives and money for results that seem to them to be negative.

They perceive the Iraqi government to be closer in sentiment and policy to the Iranian government than to the United States. They perceive the Afghan government to be on very shaky grounds – with an army infiltrated by enough Taliban sympathizers that they can shoot U.S. soldiers with whom they are working. They want U.S. troops to leave by 2014 as promised. But they do not believe that, once these troops leave, there will be a stable government in power, one that is somewhat friendly to the United States.

It is significant that, in the U.S. debate between the two vice-presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Biden asserted with vigor that U.S. troops would not be sent into Iran. And Republican Paul Ryan said that no-one on his side was thinking about sending in troops. They both may or may not have been telling the truth about their positions. The thing to notice is that they both seemed to think that any threat on their part to send in ground troops would hurt the chances of their party with the voters.

So then what? That is precisely the question. The very same people who say that the U.S. interventions were an error are in no way ready to accept yet the idea that the United States should not continue to maintain, even expand, the scope of U.S. military forces. The U.S. Congress continues to vote budgets for the Pentagon that are larger than the Pentagon itself requests. In part this is the result of legislators wishing to retain jobs in districts in which there are jobs linked to the armed forces. But it is also because the myth of U.S. superstrength is still a very strong emotional commitment on virtually everyone’s part.

Is there a creeping isolationism in prospect? Up to a point, no doubt. There are indeed voters on the further left and the further right who are beginning to assert more boldly the necessity and the desirability of reducing U.S. military engagement in the rest of the world. But I believe for the moment this is not, or not yet, a strong force.

Rather, what we may expect is a slow and quiet, but nonetheless very important, revision of how Americans feel about particular sets of allies. The turn away from Europe, however Europe is defined, has been going on for a long time. Europe is regarded as somehow “ungrateful” for all that the United States did for them in the last seventy years, militarily and economically. To many U.S. citizens, Europe seems too unwilling to support U.S. policies. U.S. troops are currently being withdrawn from Germany and elsewhere.

Of course, Europe is a big category. Does the ordinary American have different views about eastern Europe (the ex-Soviet satellites)? Or about Great Britain, with which the United States is supposed to have a “special relationship”? The “special relationship” is more the mantra of the British than of the Americans. The United States rewards Great Britain when it toes the line, and not when it deviates from the line. And the ordinary American seems hardly aware of this geopolitical commitment.

Eastern Europe is different. There have been real pressures from both sides to maintain a close relationship. On the U.S. side, there has been the government’s interest in using the eastern European link as a way to counter western European tendencies to act independently. And there have been pressures from the descendants of immigrants from these countries to expand the links. But eastern Europe is beginning to feel that the U.S. military commitment is thinning and therefore unreliable. It is also beginning to feel that economic links with western Europe, Germany in particular, are more crucial for them.

Antagonism to Mexico because of undocumented migrants has come to play an important role in U.S. politics and has been undermining the theoretically close economic links with Mexico. As for the rest of Latin America, the growth of its independent geopolitical stance has been a source of frustration to the U.S. government and a source of impatience to the U.S. public.

In Asia, so-called China-bashing is an increasingly popular game, despite all the efforts of U.S. governments (both Democratic and Republican) to hold it in check. Chinese firms are barred from some kinds of investment in the United States that even Great Britain welcomes.

And finally, there is the Middle East, a central area of U.S. concern. Currently, the focus is on Iran. As in Latin America, the government seems frustrated by its limited options. It has been pressed constantly by Israel to do more, although no one is quite sure what “more” means.

Support for Israel in every possible way has been a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy since at least 1967, if not longer. Few dare to challenge it. But the “few” are beginning to get more open support from military figures, who suggest that Israel’s politics are dangerous in terms of U.S. military interests.

Will the pervasive support of Israel continue unabated in the coming decade or two? I doubt it. Israel may be the last of U.S. emotional commitments to fade. But fade it almost surely will.

By 2020 probably, and certainly by 2030, U.S. foreign policy will have begun to digest the reality that the United States is not the all-powerful single superpower, but simply one of quite a few loci of geopolitical power. The change in outlook will have been pushed by the evolving views of ordinary Americans, who continue to be more concerned with their own economic welfare than with problems beyond their borders. As the “American dream” attracts fewer and fewer non-Americans, it turns inward in the United States.