On Monday, Memorial Day, Americans will honor those who lost their lives in service to their country.
The reverence extends to those currently serving, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll in which military members topped 10 professions in the percentage of Americans who say they contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being. Support for those in uniform remains high. But their missions are increasingly less uniform, and may morph even further if the military is asked to combat the more asymmetric anxieties reflected in a new Pew Research Center poll.
What’s more, like many issues today, Pew reports “deep partisan and ideological divisions in attitudes about U.S. foreign policy.” This divergent worldview has helped shape the race for the White House. And because the winner will greatly shape geopolitics, future military missions may be determined as much by domestic politics as by international events.
Overall, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the top global threat of eight listed, with 80 percent of Pew respondents considering ISIL a “major threat.” The asymmetric aspect of this challenge is also reflected in the next five: cyberattacks from other countries (considered a major threat by 72 percent), global economic instability (67 percent), the rapid spread of infectious diseases between countries (60 percent), the number of refugees leaving countries like Iraq and Syria (55 percent), and global climate change (53 percent).
Ranked lowest are national challenges from China’s emergence as a global power (50 percent) and tensions with Russia (42 percent). And, accordingly, partisan splits are more muted than they are for the poll’s higher-ranking transnational challenges.
Pew points out that there are “wide partisan and ideological differences in views of top global concerns” and that only climate change is seen as major threat by a greater share of Democrats than Republicans. This is especially true among more ideologically driven partisans: 81 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats listed climate change, for example, compared with only 18 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans.
Some of the split in diagnosing dangers is matched by divergence on policy options. In just one example, on “the best approach to defeating global terrorism,” nationally, there’s a 47-47 percent tie between those who believe that “relying too much on force creates hatred and leads to further terrorism” and those who say “using overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism.” But partisan divergence is clear: 70 percent of Republicans answered “overwhelming force,” compared with just 31 percent of Democrats.
Even if America’s military will have a different or even reduced role in combating issues triggering national apprehension, for the first time in 10 years more Americans believe in increasing spending on national defense (35 percent) than the 24 percent who say decrease it. (A plurality of 40 percent says spending should stay static). While a Republican-Democrat divide has been durable on this question, Pew notes a “particularly pronounced” GOP jump, including 67 percent support from conservative Republicans, up 28 percentage points since 2013.
Even if military spending spikes, most don’t want to go it alone, and so 77 percent still support NATO. But notably, self-identified Donald Trump supporters are more leery (30 percent say NATO membership is “bad for the U.S.,” compared with just 16 percent nationally). That may help explain why Trump is bucking bipartisan backing of the transatlantic alliance by calling it “obsolete.”
The presumptive GOP nominee’s “America First” foreign policy does seem more in keeping with his party’s views, however: 52 percent of Republicans say that in foreign policy, the U.S. should “follow national interests even if allies disagree,” while only 33 percent of Democrats share that sentiment. There’s also a sharp partisan split for support for the United Nations and the European Union (80 percent and 64 percent, respectively, among Democrats, compared with only 43 percent backing for each international institution among Republicans).
As for Trump’s likely opponent, Hillary Clinton’s self-identified supporters often differ not only from Trump, but from Bernie Sanders, whose durable insurgency continues to test Clinton.
But both front-runners seem to be sprinting to November. Trump told the Wall Street Journal this week that Clinton is “grossly incompetent” and “knows nothing about national security.” On CNN last week, Clinton called Trump’s views “irresponsible, reckless, dangerous.”
The attacks will ramp up, and so too may military policy as a campaign issue.
It won’t be the first election with a partisan gap, if not a gulf, on national security. But most previous splits were oriented around consistent issues such as Cold War worries, Vietnam and Iraq. This year’s split isn’t just about solutions, but identifying problems.
Yet regardless of the debate, and November’s vote, America’s men and women in uniform will stand ready to serve, which is just one of the reasons they’re so widely and rightly admired.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.