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America’s Frustrated Internationalist Voters

Tags: United States , Foreign Policy , Public Opinion , Politics , International Affairs

Saunders, Paul J.

August 10, 2012

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In listening to America’s presidential campaign, observers might think that the public is uninterested in international issues. This would be a mistake. In fact, many Americans are following the world closely and consider international affairs to be at least as important as domestic policy in the election campaign. They are also widely dissatisfied with their country’s current foreign policy but divided and uncertain about what could be better. After the election, the dissatisfaction and uncertainty could give the next president considerable flexibility to redefine America’s international goals.

A YouGov poll developed by Dartmouth University Professor Benjamin Valentino and conducted in late April and early May 2012 demonstrates this. For example, 49.4% of those surveyed said that candidates’ positions on foreign policy are equal in weight to domestic policy positions in their voting decisions, with 6.2% saying that foreign policy was either somewhat or much more important. Domestic policy was considered somewhat more important by 26.2%, and 18.3% said that it was much more important. Thus, while a significant number of Americans are focused narrowly on domestic matters, a majority say that they are also focused on foreign policy.

Notably, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to give priority to international affairs, notwithstanding the rise of the Tea Party, which some mistakenly consider isolationist. On the contrary, three-quarters of Republicans in the survey said that they strongly or somewhat support the Tea Party. Given Republicans’ expressed interest in candidates’ foreign policy views, these Tea Party supporters cannot be isolationist at all. What they are is frustrated; four out of five Republicans answered that America’s current foreign policy reflects their preferred policy only “a little” or “not at all”. Strikingly, however, over 60% of Democrats and over 80% of independents feel the same way. Overall, 75% of Americans don’t like their own foreign policy—though Republicans, Democrats, and independents seem to dislike it for different reasons.

These differences are especially clear in views toward the war in Afghanistan. Over 40% of Republicans say that they have always supported the war, while only 26% of independents and about 10% of Democrats say this. Conversely, 47% of Democrats state they have always opposed the war, a viewed shared by 31% of independents and just 16% of Republicans. Roughly 30% of Republicans and independents used to support the war but now oppose it (along with 22% of Democrats); this shift is at the heart of President Barack Obama’s withdrawal decision and—before that—was an important element of his victory in 2008.

The poll also raises provocative questions about America’s relationships with key allies and major global powers, including China. For example, 55.3% of all respondents and 64.7% of Republicans believe that the United States has a formal defense treaty with Israel—which is of course untrue. Conversely, only 36.6% believe that America has such a treaty with Germany, one of the largest members of the NATO alliance, and very small fraction know of the US commitment to Romania (7.5%) and Latvia (4.8%), both newer NATO members. The US-Japan alliance was known to 42.4%; among the 13 nations on the list, only South Korea (46.7%) was recognized more frequently.

Perhaps most striking is the degree to which economic concerns appear to color attitudes toward US allies and wider foreign policy concerns. For example, 52.9% somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that Japan spends less on defense than it should because of its alliance with the United States; even more, 59.3%, had the same view of US allies in Europe. Over three-quarters said they somewhat or strongly agreed that most US allies get more help from America than America gets from them—with over 60% of Republicans strongly agreeing; 61.6% somewhat or strongly agreed that the United States can no longer afford its commitments to defend all of its current allies.

This appears to reflect widespread anxiety about America’s economic future and China’s rapid economic growth. When asked what makes a country most influential in the world, 45% said the size of its economy, while only 25.9% selected military strength; 76.6% said that it is somewhat or very important for the United States to remain the world’s most influential country, including a remarkable 91.2% of Republicans. But Americans are so worried about China’s economic expansion that a majority of those in the survey would accept very slow growth in the United States if China’s economy also grew slowly and remained smaller than the US economy. Only one in five preferred high growth in both nations that made China’s economy bigger than America’s.

Responses to the survey also include some apparent contradictions. While 73.6% considered it somewhat or very important for the US to remain the world’s strongest military power (including 93.1% of Republicans), 49.9% (and 52.2% of Republicans) said that they would not pay higher taxes to ensure that the United States continues to have the number one military force. A majority likewise opposes raising taxes to pay for wars. Despite this, however, 64% somewhat or strongly agree that the US navy must keep its current forces in Asia and the Pacific to protect US-Asia trade.

The YouGov poll is interesting in what it reveals about Americans’ attitudes and concerns, but it is no less interesting in demonstrating what they readily admit they do not know. More than one in five respondents regularly said “I don’t know,” rather than providing a definitive response, particularly when asked to evaluate different alternatives. In one case, nearly 40% said they did not know whether they would support using force to defend Taiwan if Taiwan declared independence and was subsequently attacked by China. Likewise, when asked to agree or disagree, between 30% and 40% frequently said that they neither agree nor disagree, which is another way of saying “I don’t know” when faced with a complex and difficult choice. In most cases, large groups said that they “somewhat agree”—meaning that they have views, but could change their minds.

This uncertainty can have two consequences. One is to make some Americans even more anxious; it can be especially worrying to face problems that you know are important without seeing an obvious path forward. This can, in turn, increase frustration with others, whether US allies who don’t seem to be helping America sufficiently or US leaders who spend more time and energy battling one another than developing solutions.

The second consequence—which could be very significant after the November presidential election—is that an articulate and persuasive president with a clear and optimistic vision can change public opinion and truly lead the country. This does not mean eliminating divisions, because many Americans do have differing and strongly held views. But a leader like this could build a sustainable and effective political coalition to address key foreign policy (and domestic) challenges. Many Americans thought that they elected such a leader in 2008, though a substantial majority of those in this survey now indicate dissatisfaction with US foreign policy. Whoever wins in 2012 will have both a mandate and an opportunity to redefine US international leadership.

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