The Phantom Demand for Retrenchment
By and large, Americans don’t want to pull back from the world
Here at The Liberal Patriot, we’ve already delved into the results of a recent Pew survey on public attitudes toward American foreign policy and explained how our political discussions of international affairs don’t address the main concerns of ordinary Americans. But there’s another important area where elite foreign policy discourse diverges from public sentiment: America’s military footprint abroad.
To understand from Beltway debates, average Americans are sick of supposedly “endless wars” and want to dramatically reduce America’s military commitments abroad. Indeed, a cottage industry has arisen in recent years to push a form of neo-isolationism under the rhetorical banner of “restraint.” It’s received a respectful reception from elite institutions, with many of its proponents already ensconced in academia and writing for prestigious media outlets. A number of progressives see this school of thought as at least in some alignment with their own political and policy goals, calling as it does to end America’s security commitments and bring virtually all American troops home from overseas.
But here’s the rub: most Americans seem fine with their nation’s current overseas military presence. In the recent Pew poll, just 29 percent of all Americans named reducing U.S. military commitments abroad as a top priority – with equal numbers of both Democrats and Republicans agreeing with the idea. Though the public doesn’t see issues like democracy promotion or the defense of human rights as priorities either, it’s still clear that Americans don’t agree with the restraint school’s central argument that America’s foreign policy problems result from its military commitments abroad.
Despite the sins the restraint crowd attributes to America’s post-World War II foreign policy, most Americans do still seem to agree with the broad contours of international involvement that approach entails. To be sure, significant partisan divides exist on core questions like improving relationships with allies (63 percent of Democrats say it’s a top priority versus 44 percent of Republicans) and burden sharing (57 percent of Republicans say “getting other countries to assume more of the costs of maintaining world order” should be a top priority against just 30 percent of Democrats who say the same). But by and large, there’s significant consensus that America should continue to shoulder the geopolitical responsibilities that come with its considerable power and standing.
Some 78 percent of the public believes the United States should be as active overseas as other leading nations, for instance, and a further 11 percent think the United States should “be the single world leader.” That response, Pew notes, has been relatively consistent since the end of the Cold War – though Americans remain evenly split between those who say we should pay more attention to problems at home (50 percent) and those who say it’s best to be “active in world affairs” (49 percent). Similarly, some 71 percent of Americans believe the United States derives at least some benefit from NATO, the country’s main military alliance.
All in all, Pew’s poll shows that average Americans have little real appetite for retrenchment overseas. To the likely consternation of restraint advocates, they remain instinctive internationalists – though with significant partisan and ideological differences over specific security priorities and how much other nations should contribute to the maintenance of international order. A number of these differences can be explained by simple partisan cueing: half of Democrats and a third of Republicans, for example, saying that “limiting the power and influence of Russia” should be a top priority, while 51 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats say the same about Iran.
This broad-based support for American involvement in the world likely has its roots in what the historian John Milton Cooper has called the “shock of recognition” that occurred over the course of the First World War. It was then, he argues, that “Americans had finally come to see that they were involved in world politics, whether they liked it or not.” Though it took two decades and another world war for the debate between broad camps of internationalism and isolationism to resolve itself, resolve itself it did – and it ended in a decisive victory for internationalism in the minds of political leaders, foreign policy elites, and the general public alike.
None of this means that Americans automatically support the use of military force or continued involvement in a particular conflict. Many Americans remain ambivalent at best about keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for instance. But public support for ending direct American military involvement in specific conflicts like Afghanistan – or caution about entering into new ones like Syria’s civil war – should not be conflated with a widespread popular desire to pull back from the world. Justified caution regarding the use of military force does not necessarily or logically entail support for restraint.
However much they may disagree about the particulars and no matter how cautious they remain about the use of military force in specific cases, though, Americans remain largely comfortable with their country’s military presence overseas. Neither President Trump’s racketeering approach toward America’s allies nor progressive calls for wholesale retrenchment find much purchase with the American public. Even more specific calls to reduce U.S. military commitments in the Middle East will have an uphill climb ahead of them, with defense against terrorist attacks and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction still overwhelming and bipartisan foreign policy priorities for the public.
In other words, America’s current military presence abroad remains politically sustainable at home – and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Strong partisan and ideological disagreements about security priorities and burden sharing do not alter that fact. Nor do Americans necessarily perceive an inherent tradeoff between an increased focus on domestic problems and the country’s military commitments overseas.
Restraint and other flavors of neo-isolationism may be somewhat fashionable in elite foreign policy circles and certain quarters of academia, but they’re not what Americans want to see in their country’s approach to the world.