For a decade or so, staunch supporters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have dismissed voters’ reticence about military action, as if voters are an inconvenient obstacle who should be ignored by high-minded leaders for the sake of the national interest. By contrast, severe critics of both wars and of American engagement in the world generally have pointed to voter fatigue about military action, have transformed that into opposition to all international engagement and have suggested that it’s impossible to persuade voters of the need for strategic engagement. Both misunderstand public opinion and the relationship between leaders and voters.
A fascinating study put out by the Center for American Progress, consisting of both qualitative data (focus groups and individual interviews) and quantitative data (polling), gives considerable insight into attitudes about foreign policy and what is and isn’t getting through to voters. CAP’s study gives support for the conclusion that neither military interventionism nor isolationism captures the state of public opinion. The study also points to the utter ineffectiveness of much of the foreign-policy debate and to the need for more voter engagement on issues that ultimately affect their safety and security.
Foremost, CAP’s study shows “high levels of uncertainty among voters about U.S. foreign policy goals.” Less-educated voters seem especially uncertain about our goals. (“Nearly 6 in 10 college educated voters, those with a 4-year degree or higher, feel they generally have a good understanding of foreign policy goals, while 39% of these voters say they are generally confused. In comparison, only 47% of noncollege educated voters, those without a 4-year degree, say they have a good handle on what the United States is seeking to do with its foreign policy, with a nearly equal proportion, 46%, saying they are confused.”)
A good deal of the problem stems from how politicians talk about foreign policy, the report said:
“Traditional language from foreign policy experts about ‘fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship,’ ‘promoting democracy,’ or ‘working with allies and the international community’ uniformly fell flat with voters in our groups. Some participants questioned the idea that an international community actually exists. Democracy promotion reminded others of the 2003 Iraq war and the failures of the George W. Bush administration. When asked what the phrase “maintaining the liberal international order” indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases and ideas meant or implied.”
If leaders want to solicit support for foreign policy, they have to explain in concrete terms what we are doing and why it’s going to benefit us.
Second, voters aren’t anti-engagement, but they are wary and skeptical of engagement. According to the report, 51% believe: “ ‘America is stronger when we take a leading role in the world to protect our national interests and advance common goals with other allies,’ vs. 44% who believe the opposite, that ‘America is stronger when we focus on our own problems instead of inserting ourselves in other countries’ problems,’ with another 5% of voters not sure either way.” The authors call this “restrained engagement.” When politicians talk about engagement or leadership, they need to explain the scope of our commitments and make clear whether they are advocating military/hard power engagement or diplomatic and economic/soft power engagement.
Third, there is large agreement in making certain that our domestic needs are met before or even while we pursue foreign-policy goals. The report says that 68% agree: “In order to remain competitive in the world, the United States must invest more to improve our own infrastructure, education and health care, not just increase military and defense spending.” The idea of cutting domestic spending to pay for the military is strongly rejected. If politicians, especially Democrats, want to maintain support for international leadership, they better make clear that this will not detract from their domestic priorities.
Fourth, there are two foreign-policy objectives that garner supermajority support: “protecting the U.S. homeland and its people from external threats — particularly terrorist attacks — and protecting jobs for American workers.” It’s true that voters also want to protect our democracy, work with allies and promote human rights, but these are secondary concerns. (Republicans continue to prioritize as exceptionally important protecting the country from illegal immigration; Democrats are more enthusiastic about fighting global threats such as climate change and disease.)
If politicians want public support, they better start explaining why bolstering democracies, maintaining bases around the world and sustaining foreign aid (to name three mainstays of bipartisan policy) will ensure our safety and security. The answer might be as simple as: “We will protect against cyberattacks that can wreck our economy and steal our technology” or “We need to give aid to certain countries to protect against transnational epidemics, mass migration and drug trafficking.” It’s going to be hard to justify pursuit of abstract goals (“maintaining the international order”) unless we tie specific actions to specific benefits to Americans.
Finally, President Donald Trump is bombing on foreign policy. Only 40% agree with his handling of it. Moreover, “only 31% of voters overall believe, ‘The United States is more respected around the world because of President Trump’s leadership,’ vs. 62% who believe, ‘Under President Trump, America is losing respect around the world and alienating historic allies,’ with 7% not sure.”
If you’re a Democrat running for president, you would look at this data and see some major arguments: Trump isn’t making us safer (e.g., North Korea is testing missiles again, and we have no coherent policy on North Korea). Trump’s trade wars hurt our economy, while his indulgence of dictators makes us less safe. He is either too in need of emotional approval or too financially conflicted to look out for Americans’ interests.
In contrast to Trump, Democrats should tell voters that we are safer and more prosperous when we lead in the world and work with allies on mutual problems. We cannot address threats such as terrorism, cyberterrorism, nuclear proliferation or climate change by ourselves. That’s not a very detailed or definitive foreign-policy agenda, but the projection of a calm, rational and restrained commander in chief is likely to receive favorable reviews. If nothing else, it would be a change of pace for a Trump-weary public.