Eroding Exceptionalism | Threat Perception | Peace Promotion
Humanitarian Intervention | Defense Spending | The Rise of China
Afghanistan | Middle East Troublemakers
America In Decline
American exceptionalism is the belief that the foreign policy of the United States should be unconstrained by the parochial interests or international rules which govern other countries. Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, Jake Sullivan defines American exceptionalism as the understanding that, “despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.” Not only is the United States uniquely equipped to divine a larger common interest, but it has the singular opportunity to pursue and protect it.
Last year we discovered most Americans think the United States is exceptional because of the example it sets than for the active role it takes in world affairs. Americans were more than twice as likely to believe “America is exceptional because of what it represents” than believe “America is exceptional because of what it has done for the world.” Although this remains true this year, the number of people who believe America is an exceptional country because of what it represents declined by 7 percent since last year. Those who believe America is not an exceptional country increased by roughly that amount.
The rise in anti-exceptionalism was most pronounced among younger Americans. It was the top answer choice for respondents under 45 years old. Fully 55 percent of those between 18 and 29 believe the United States is not an exceptional country, as do a plurality of Democrats, Independents, and unaffiliated voters.
This sharp increase in the number of people disavowing American exceptionalism and decrease in people thinking America is exceptional for what it represents takes place amid a backdrop of escalating attacks on democratic institutions by the Trump administration, and an impeachment inquiry which highlights deep partisan divisions within Congress.
Split Along Partisan Lines
Americans continue to be split along party lines when asked about the greatest threat facing the U.S. in the 21st century. A plurality of Democrats and Independents are concerned with “a rise in populist and authoritarian governments.” Republicans, on the other hand, fear America is “losing its national identity due to high levels of immigration.” Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all ranked as the second most urgent threat: “Americans becoming distrustful of democratic institutions and less committed to participating in civic life.”
The potential threat posed by immigration and a loss of national identity was ranked last among Democrats and ranked first among Republicans. These results continue to reflect a stark contrast in how people with different partisan identities view different threats.
Authoritarianism and immigration aren’t the only issues that stoke anxiety among Americans. The trade war between the U.S. and China has Americans worried as well. A 2019 New York Times poll shows that Americans anticipate negative economic consequences.3 The perceived threat of economic damage caused by trade wars in the survey results increased between 2018 and 2019 among both Democrats and Republicans. It is likely the Trump administration’s ongoing tariff disputes with China have people across the political spectrum feeling pessimistic and frustrated.
Bringing Democracy Home
Democratic candidates running in the 2020 presidential election argue the strength of America’s foreign policy is linked to the strength of American democracy. Indeed it is awkward to promote certain democratic values abroad as America struggles to live up to them at home.
In his prominent typology of foreign policy worldviews, Walter Russell Mead distinguishes between Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian types.4 Voters in the survey prioritize the domestic needs and the health of American democracy as a precondition to the pursuit of international peace – what is essentially a Jeffersonian worldview. Although it’s not an orientation typically taken by foreign policy professionals, Richard Haass, arguably the dean of America’s foreign policy leadership, tapped into this sentiment in the title of a recent book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home. And this sentiment becomes more widespread as politicians begin to understand the necessity of linking the U.S. governments’ foreign pursuits to the well-being of everyday Americans.
As with last year, this Jeffersonian outlook was the top choice among Republicans and Independents. Democrats are more likely to embrace a Hamiltonian view – that economic integration and trade best promote peace. One notable exception to this is the finding that Elizabeth Warren supporters align more with Republicans and Independents in their support for the Jeffersonian view. Somewhat surprisingly, supporters of Bernie Sanders, who has vigorously opposed free trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP, chose economic integration and free trade (a kind of Hamiltonian view) as the best way for promoting peace.
The Wilsonian view which grants primary importance to the global promotion and defense of democracy is the least popular among Republicans and second least popular among Democrats. The least popular among Democrats is the Jacksonian view, which sees the threat of overwhelming military force as the best path to peace. This view was the second most popular, however, among Republicans (and among Trump voters).
Americans Still Favor Restraint
We asked respondents how the U.S. should respond to humanitarian abuses overseas. Like last year, a plurality of Americans – nearly half – favor abstaining from military intervention when Americans are not directly threatened. 5
In 2018, 45 percent of Americans chose restraint as their first choice. In 2019, that has increased to 47 percent. Only 19 percent opt for a U.S.-led military response and 34 percent favor a multilateral, UN-led approach to stop humanitarian abuses overseas.
In the past year, Democrats have become more reluctant to respond to humanitarian abuses with force. Last year, 26 percent of them favored a U.S.-led military approach. This year, that dropped to 19 percent. That 7 percent drifted primarily toward favoring nonintervention and secondarily toward favoring multilateral intervention.
These findings suggest Democrats are less supportive of U.S. unilateral military action, even in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. Democrats are apparently less committed to the notion that the U.S. is obligated to defend vulnerable populations, and that doing so improves global stability. Perhaps Democrats better appreciate how unilateral military action in the name of human rights can backfire, for example, in Libya or Afghanistan. Or perhaps their distrust of the Trump administration has eroded their support for liberal interventionism. In any case, restraint and multilateralism are more attractive policy options among Democrats today.
Nonintervention is even more attractive to Republicans, a majority of whom registered support for it. For Republicans, a preference to abstain from intervention in response to human rights violations increased from 51 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2019. Republicans in this camp favor restraint because they either believe the U.S. has its own domestic or human rights problems which America should focus on, or the U.S. should only put American troops at risk if there is a threat to American national security.
Maintain Or Reduce The Budget
The U.S. defense budget is set to reach historic heights, with the Trump administration proposing a budget of $750 billion for 2020. “The United States is expected to spend more on its military in 2020 than at any point since World War II, except for a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War,” according to a defense budget expert6. Candidates in the 2020 democratic primary like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg advocate increasing America’s defense budget while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders advocate decreasing and reevaluating America’s military expenditure.7
Like the pool of candidates running for president, Americans are also varied in their views about America’s heightened defense budget. About half of the respondents in this year’s survey thought lawmakers should maintain the current level of military spending, a slight increase from the 45 percent of respondents in 2018. Like last year, twice as many of the remaining respondents preferred decreasing rather than increasing the defense budget.
Consistent with last year’s findings, we found more Democrats than Republicans wanted to decrease military spending, and more Republicans than Democrats wanted to increase spending. However, the majority of Republicans favor maintaining current levels of military spending over increasing the budget. And the most popular answer choice for Democrats was to spend less on defense.
Maintaining current levels of military spending is the most popular answer among all respondents. It is also the most popular answer among supporters for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The majority of Elizabeth Warren supporters and nearly half of Bernie Sanders supporters favor decreasing military spending. This represents not only a divide between the right and the left on ideas about military spending but also a divide between supporters of Sanders and Warren and those of Biden. Democratic candidates and their supporters may be split on the issue of military spending as they work to build a unified platform on foreign policy. The majority of respondents who favor increasing the military budget also said they would support Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
We asked our survey participants why they thought the U.S. should increase or decrease the defense budget. The respondents chose between three possible rationales, and the results were weighted. In 2018, the most popular rationale for increasing military spending related to perceptions of a weakened military under President Obama and a wish for it to be restored to its full strength. In 2019, the most popular rationale had to do with increased fear of ascendent powers like China and Russia. In contrast, those who favor decreasing the budget, both in 2018 and 2019, believe there are greater needs at home where America should devote its resources.
The Rise of China
Relying on Regional Allies
In the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, great power competition topped the list of threats standing in the way of American peace and security. More of America’s national security resources have since been diverted to contain the perceived threats from “revisionist powers” like China and Russia.8
Fear of a rising China is not contained to the White House. The national security establishment in Washington mostly views China as a strategic competitor. One leading thinker has even referred to a “new red scare.”9 According to our survey, the American public does not share this preoccupation.
When asked which policy they prefer in response to a rising China, the majority favor recalibrating America’s presence downward. They prefer relying more on regional allies in Asia who, with a reduced American military presence, could move toward defending themselves by taking over greater responsibility for security in the region. Fifteen percent fewer thought more troops should be moved onto U.S. bases in allied countries such as South Korea and Japan and increase the naval presence in the Pacific Ocean.
Republicans, traditionally more hawkish, are ambivalent about America’s appropriate response to China. Roughly half support increasing America’s military presence in the region, and half support reducing it and calling on regional allies to take greater responsibility.
We asked follow-up questions to understand why respondents supported increasing or decreasing America’s military presence in Asia. The most popular rationale for decreasing America’s military presence had to do with the economic burden on taxpayers and the fact that our East Asian allies can better afford their own defense.
The second most cited rationale was that China sees the presence of American troops in Asia as a threat and they might respond aggressively which creates an unnecessary risk of war. The fewest people chose the rationale that China is a strong competitor which will naturally seek more influence than the U.S. in the region and the U.S. should accommodate China’s rise by reducing our military footprint. Even respondents who view China as a threat, nevertheless, want to reduce America’s military presence in the region because they believe the burden of security should be shared and a U.S. military presence heightens the security risk.
The most cited rationale for increasing America’s military presence in response to China’s growing influence also focuses on U.S. allies in the region. This group believes military power in Asia deters China from attacking America’s Asian allies and if the U.S. withdrew, such allies would engage in a dangerous arms race with China. This was followed by the rationale that China is an expansionist power that could directly harm American interests in Asia. The least popular reason to increase America’s military presence in the region had to do more with the ideological threat China poses to American values.
While many have given into “the new red scare,” the majority of respondents still favor reducing America’s military footprint in Asia. They instead call on U.S. allies to help fight off Chinese influence and overreach, sharing the responsibility for regional peace and stability. Like other policy priorities in Washington, American public opinion contrasts with the current national security strategy on how to respond to a rising China.
War Fatigue and Ambivalence Around Next Steps
It has been 18 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and the war continues. Over the summer, the Pew Research Center found a majority of the American public and a majority of veterans believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth fighting after considering the costs and benefits to the United States.10 And according to a poll last fall, members of the public were three times as likely to support than oppose withdrawal from Afghanistan, and past and present members of the military were more than nearly four times as likely to support withdrawal.11
According to our survey, Americans are divided over the urgency and best method to end the war. Roughly 30 percent of Americans take an aggressive posture: the U.S. should not negotiate with the Taliban and should remain in Afghanistan until all enemies are defeated. Another 30 percent of Americans support negotiations with the Taliban but to stay until a peace deal is reached. The remaining 40 percent — a plurality — of Americans want the U.S. to end the war either immediately or imminently.
Though public opinion is split on the next step in America’s longest war, a preference for a swift end to the war is clear when we combine responses to withdraw troops with or without a peace settlement.12
Middle East Troublemakers
Politicization in U.S. of the Region’s Main Rivalry
“We must stop politics at the water’s edge,” Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg from Michigan declared, shortly after bowing out of a bid to defeat President Harry Truman in 1948. The bipartisan consensus which emerged within the foreign policy community probably had less to do with this high-minded exhortation than the geopolitical realities in the wake of World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War.
Still, foreign policy analysts typically pay anxious attention when support for allies and opposition to adversaries appears driven by partisan affiliation. Our survey highlights one such statistically significant division. When asked to select countries which present a “significant threat” to peace in the Middle East, Republicans were about 13 percent more likely than Democrats to choose Iran (58% to 45%). Meanwhile, Democrats were approximately 10 percent more likely than Republicans to choose Saudi Arabia (28% to 19%).
To be sure, Iran was the country most considered a threat to Middle East peace and Saudi Arabia was the second most across partisan affiliation. But the significant difference in the intensity of this sentiment signals a rift between how voters view America’s relationships in a region so geopolitically complicated. In fact, among Republicans, Saudi Arabia is barely seen as more of a threat to peace than Turkey is. And if we limit our analysis to respondents who register high levels of political knowledge, significantly more Democrats than Republicans view Israel as a threat to peace in the region.
It is likely these poll numbers reflect a partisan polarization fueled by current events. The JCPOA (a.k.a., Iran nuclear deal) negotiated by the Obama administration was roundly criticized by Republicans and eventually jettisoned by the Trump administration. Meanwhile, despite bipartisan opposition to America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and condemnation for its gruesome murder of American resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration continues to tout the country as a partner for fighting terrorism and containing Iran’s influence.
Indeed, when we asked survey respondents how the U.S. should respond if Iran resumes its nuclear program in the wake of the Trump administration withdrawal, 10 percent of Republicans who last year favored diplomatic remedies now support a preventive strike on Iran. Though still a minority position, this uptick is probably a response to some of the combative rhetoric of the Trump administration.
A strong majority of both Republicans and Democrats continue to seek a diplomatic resolution involving either sanctions or the resumption of nuclear negotiations. This year, there was an increase in the number of respondents across party lines who would want negotiations to resume even if Iran is a nuclear power in the short term, and a bipartisan increase in those who believe outright that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself. So while Republicans might be more likely than Democrats to believe Iran threatens peace in the Middle East, voters in neither party are eager to take a belligerent stand against it.
Back to Table of Contents