In Principle, Not Practice
The Americans we surveyed were nearly two-and-a-half times 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.” The strong preference for this particular understanding of American exceptionalism is consistent across partisan affiliations and age groups. This suggests support for American exceptionalism is not necessarily related to or synonymous with support for an activist or interventionist foreign policy.
This differs from how political leaders typically refer to exceptionalism. At a presidential campaign event in 2011, Mitt Romney claimed, “we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world… that of a great champion of human dignity and human freedom.”3 At a 2009 press conference in Strasbourg, France, President Obama elaborated his assertion, “I believe in American exceptionalism” by referring to the “sacrifices of our troops” and the “enormous amount of resources” invested in postwar Europe.4
Moreover, a plurality of Democrats and a plurality of respondents under 30 years old believe “America is not an exceptional nation. Every country has attributes which distinguish it, but ultimately acts in its own interests.”
There was another point in our survey which reinforced the observation of public support for the idea that America’s greatness and leadership comes less from its active intervention in global affairs and more from what it represents. When asked to select a statement which “best expresses your view,” 60 percent of our respondents chose “a great leader must lead by example” while only 10 percent chose “a great leader should try to change the world.” An additional 30 percent chose “in the real world, any leader must often choose the least of many bad options.”
Though this specific question does not explicitly refer to international relations, its placement in our survey leads us to interpret significant support for the kind of national leadership which is characterized by conduct and values worthy of emulation. This sentiment was recently expressed by Vice President Biden: “America’s ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example.”5
It’s Coming from Outside
When asked about the “greatest threat” facing the United States during this century, Americans were split along partisan lines. Lack of trust in democratic institutions and a decrease in civic participation was significant, ranked second by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. But to Republicans, this concern was overshadowed by a fear of “losing… national identity due to high levels of immigration.” Democrats and Independents ranked immigration last among four potential threats, and their number one preoccupation was with “a rise in populist and authoritarian governments [which] threaten democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across the world.” Among Republicans, this rise of authoritarianism was ranked second to the last, higher only than “trade wars that will damage America’s economy and trade relations with other countries.”
These results reflect a stark contrast in how people with different partisan identities view threats to national security. These lopsided views may be explained by “selective exposure”—in a fragmented news media environment, audiences segregate along ideological lines and stories to which they’re exposed reinforce existing perceptions and biases.6
The media’s role in political polarization is well documented, but the new research out from Harvard and MIT shows how an increasingly Breitbart-led conservative media ecosystem has intensified President Trump’s anti-immigration message among Republicans.7 Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets more heavily consumed by Democrats and Independents are dedicating significant coverage to the increasingly authoritarian regimes in Russia and China.
Beyond Military Dominance & Democracy Promotion
Ever since President Reagan popularized the phrase “peace through strength,” Republicans have supported America’s military dominance as a deterrent. Conversely, Democrats have traditionally sought to establish peace by promoting democracy and human rights around the world.
So it was somewhat surprising that, when asked which of four options “best achieved and sustained” peace, military dominance and democracy promotion were the least popular. Instead, the most popular answer option among Democrats was “establishing, encouraging, and reinforcing global economic integration, as well as the growth of free trade” and the most popular answer option among Republicans was “keeping a focus on the domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States.”
Some might see a paradox in Republicans’ support for “domestic needs” and Democrats’ support for “free trade” as the primary drivers of peace. After all, the Republican Party gave birth to the kind of neo-conservatism which advocated for preventive war, while Democrats are widely seen as the party of bread and butter domestic policy issues. Moreover, Democrats are traditionally the party of trade unions which most forcefully oppose free trade while Republicans are often associated with big, multinational corporations which are among its beneficiaries.
But again, the most striking observation is that the following two answer options, long regarded as the drivers of peace by foreign policy elites in the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, were roughly tied for last place: “maintaining overwhelming strength and deploying it only when America is attacked or our vital interests are compromised by another power” and “promoting and defending democracy around the world.”
Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions
The Desire for Diplomacy
Support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) has been a source of partisan division since the plan was enacted. During his candidacy, President Trump criticized the deal and promised to abandon it if elected. In May of 2018, the United States officially withdrew from the agreement.
We asked Americans how they thought the United States should respond if, in the wake of the withdrawal, “Iran gets back on track with its nuclear weapons program.” A bipartisan consensus in support of diplomacy over military action was both broad and deep. Approximately 80 percent of Americans chose one of the answer choices related to diplomacy: “working with… allies to impose stronger economic sanctions even if business interests of America and its allies are negatively affected” or “attempt to revive nuclear negotiations and pursue a diplomatic solution even if it means Iran is a nuclear power in the short term.”
This latter choice, which explicitly tolerates a nuclear-armed Iran, received more support than preventive military action by a factor of nearly five-to-one. The answer option for preventive military action (1) emphasizes the limited scope of the action and (2) acknowledges its possible consequence: “the U.S. should launch a preemptive strike on Iran to prevent its government from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if it risks starting a full-scale war.”
This was the least popular answer option among respondents of every partisan affiliation, as well as those who chose not to identify. It was less popular within each of these groups than the answer option, “the U.S. should not intervene. Iran has the right to defend itself even if it means developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent.” Clearly, after nearly two decades of U.S. military engagement in the Middle East, the public has little appetite for military confrontation with Iran despite public assertions from the Trump administration that “if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price few countries have ever paid.”8
Responsibility to Protect
Neoconservative interventionism often takes the form of preventive military action and “regime change” with the justification that these actions reduce the likelihood of future attacks upon the United States. Neoliberal interventionism often takes the form of military strikes upon dictators and foreign troops responsible for human rights abuses with justifications that we have a moral obligation to defend vulnerable populations and that doing so is conducive to global stability.
But just as liberal foreign policy leaders have supported preventive wars, conservative foreign policy leaders have pushed to deploy troops to stop humanitarian abuses. In fact, our content analysis shows a majority—approximately 60 percent—of foreign policy leaders have publicly expressed support for the United States interceding with force to protect vulnerable populations outside its borders.
According to our survey results, however, the American public is not as enthusiastic about United States-led overseas military operations when Americans are not directly threatened.
Abstinence from military intervention was the most popular approach for every age group, except for people older than 60 years old, when we combined responses for non-intervention.9 This older group did not support unilateral U.S. intervention into human rights abuses. They were more than twice as likely to believe “organizations such as the United Nations should take the lead in responding to human rights abuses, not individual countries such as the U.S.” than “the U.S. should use its influence, including military intervention, to stop human rights abuses.”
People under 30 years old were the most likely to want the United States to abstain from intervening in human rights abuses, and these young people were most likely to believe “the U.S. should fix its own [human rights] problems [‘such as mass incarceration and aggressive policing’] before focusing on other countries.”
When confronting human rights abuses, consistently across party affiliations, restraint was the first choice, U.N. leadership was the second choice, and American intervention was the last choice.
NATO Military Retaliation
Treaty-Bound or War’s Unsound?
After reading a hypothetical situation in which a NATO ally in the Baltics is invaded by Russia, reminded of the treaty’s requirement for mutual defense, and told “the only way to expel Russia… is a military response,” Americans were deeply ambivalent on whether to retaliate. Fifty four percent supported military action while 46 percent opposed. These results are similar to those of a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.10 We probed with follow-up questions to understand the primary drivers of Americans’ support for or opposition to retaliation.
In recent decades, Russia has invaded parts of neighboring countries with no military response by the US. Russia has just invaded Estonia, a small, democratic country which is on Russia’s western border. Estonia had been occupied by Russia from 1940 until it gained independence in 1990. In 2004, it joined NATO, the American-led alliance established after World War II which requires member countries defend each other militarily. In response to Russia’s invasion, Estonia’s government invokes the NATO treaty and calls upon allies to help it to fight the Russian troops. The only way to expel Russia from Estonia is a military response.
There was some expected variation between party identification, with two-thirds of Democrats and a slight majority of Independents opting for retaliation and a slight majority of Republicans opposing it.
We asked respondents who supported retaliation to rank in order of importance four commonly given rationales and then weighted the results. Notably, a straightforward desire to live up to our treaty obligations received the most responses, whereas the choices which contained the underlying rationales of the NATO alliance received less support.
We asked respondents who opposed retaliation to rank in order of importance four rationales for opposition and then weighted the results. Here, an apparently war-weary public expressed reluctance based on anticipated costs and consequences of a conflict with Russia and less on ideological and isolationist grounds.
It should be noted here that, while the public is somewhat evenly split on whether to go to war in support of our Article Five obligations under NATO, there is no ambivalence among foreign policy leaders. An overwhelming majority—95 percent—of those whose writings are included in our content analysis supported armed retaliation.
Reduce, Reallot, or Restore?
The U.S. military is an institution which enjoys a high level of public confidence. Yet the amount the government spends on the military’s budget is a topic of public disagreement. Other polling organizations have asked respondents whether they think the amount spent on the military is too much, about right, or too little, and generated predictable party-line results.11 However, we did not want to presume our respondents had a definite opinion on the topic nor the information readily available to develop an informed one. So, in order to provide balanced information with neutral language, our question informed respondents of the cost of the defense budget as a comparison to that of other countries in both absolute figures, and as a proportion of the countries’ economies:
“Today the United States budgets $610 billion each year for its national defense, more than any other country. By comparison, the next three countries in descending order of military spending are: China ($228 billion), Saudi Arabia ($69.4 billion), and Russia ($66.3 billion). As a percentage of its overall economic output (GDP), the U.S. ranks fourth in military spending, after Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia.”12
We then asked, “Do you think American lawmakers should increase, maintain, or decrease our current level of military spending?” Almost half (45 percent) of respondents thought lawmakers should maintain the level of military spending. Of the remaining respondents, more than twice as many thought we should decrease the level of spending than thought we should increase it.
As with a recent Gallup poll,13 we found more Democrats than Republicans wanted to decrease military spending, and more Republicans than Democrats wanted to increase spending. But unlike that poll, our survey showed Republicans significantly more likely to support current levels of military spending than wanting to increase spending.
As with the NATO question, we asked follow-up questions to probe further as to why respondents supported increasing or decreasing America’s defense spending. We asked people to rank three possible rationales and then weighted the results. The most popular rationale for decreasing military spending was the United States “has other priorities on which it could be spending this money.” This second most cited rationale was that the current “level of military spending is fiscally irresponsible” and that we should prioritize “pay[ing] down the national debt or reduc[ing] taxes.” Interestingly, the fewest people chose “the U.S. does not currently face enough of a security threat to justify the current level of military spending.” So even respondents who perceive real threats nevertheless want to reduce military spending to allocate for other priorities.
The most salient reason to increase military spending relates to perceptions of a weakened military under President Obama and a wish for it to be “restored to its full strength.” This was closely followed by the need to remain “the most powerful nation in the world” as “countries like Russia and China are becoming more powerful” and “enemies like ISIS” persist. The least salient reason to increase military spending had to do with America’s role as a global leader, “called upon not only to defend the American people, but to provide for the security of our allies and, to some extent, the world”. Even people who’d like to see us spend more on the military appear driven by a desire to reverse the budget cuts toward the end of the Obama administration, and report little appetite for the provision of security on a planetary scale.
To move beyond specific foreign policy preferences to an understanding of respondents’ broader views about the country’s foreign policy approach, we operationalized three worldview types described by Ian Bremmer in his book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. We found that significantly more Americans hold an “Independent America” worldview (i.e., America must focus more on its own domestic challenges than on the challenges that come with international leadership) than either an “Indispensable America” worldview (i.e., American leadership is necessary for global stability and therefore American peace and prosperity) or a “Moneyball America” worldview (i.e. foreign policy should be driven by a focused calculation of costs and benefits to the national interest).
Far from indicating a reflexive isolationism of one political or demographic group, the identification with an “Independent America” worldview—as measured by an aggregate of three survey questions designed to correspond to these three categories—was stronger than the identification with the two other worldviews across every age group, partisan political identification, and income level we surveyed. And it was stronger with high information than with low information respondents.
A separate content analysis of the published opinions of foreign policy leaders shows that the expressed worldviews of experts are inversely related to the public’s worldview. According to our methodology, among the public, 44 percent ascribe to an “Independent America” worldview and 9.5 percent ascribe to an “Indispensable America” worldview. Among experts, 47 percent ascribe to an “Indispensable America” worldview while just 9 percent ascribe to an “Independent America” worldview.
Using Mead’s typology, we found some differences in worldview by party identification. According to our study, Republicans and Independents are significantly more likely to fit a “Jeffersonian” type, which “hold[s] that American foreign policy should be less concerned about spreading democracy abroad than about safeguarding it at home.” Democrats are significantly more likely to fit a “Wilsonian” type, which “believe[s] that the United States has both a moral obligation and an important national interest in spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world, creating a peaceful international community that accepts the rule of law.” We also categorized people into a “Jacksonian” type (which “believes that the most important goal of the U.S. government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and economic well-being of the American people”) and a “Hamiltonian” type (which “regard[s] a strong alliance between the national government and big business as the key to both domestic stability and to effective action abroad”).14
While the public is somewhat evenly split among Jeffersonians and Wilsonians, the foreign policy experts we analyzed were significantly more likely to fit within a Wilsonian framework than any other category. Given that Jeffersonians are identified with support for a more restrained foreign policy and Wilsonians advocate a more expansive and internationalist approach, this finding adds further support to the observation that foreign policy experts and the public have measurably and meaningfully different visions for America’s appropriate role in the world.
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