The Washington Post

Americans are tilting more libertarian on foreign policy. Why it matters for GOP politics.

Should the United States mind its own business when it comes to international relations? Most Americans think so, according to a new survey released this week that holds deep implications for Republican politics.

12-3-2013-2

In the poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations, more than half of Americans (52 percent) agree that the United States should let other countries get along on their own. Just 38 percent say they disagree with the idea. It's the largest gap in favor of the former line of thinking in the half-century history of the question, signaling perhaps the most widespread isolationist sentiment in decades.

The findings are good news for the wing of the GOP led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that is espousing a libertarian view of foreign policy marked by extra skepticism about getting involved in foreign conflicts and other matters abroad. And it's the latest sign that the debate over foreign policy that erupted in the party earlier this year is far from settled.

For years, the orthodox foreign policy view in the GOP was a hawkish one. But times have changed. Witness the recent debate over military intervention in Syria in which many congressional Republicans opposed intervention, something that would have seemed very surprising a decade ago.

One of the most striking intra-party spats of the year erupted over the emerging power of libertarian thinking in the GOP. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) called "this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now" a "very dangerous thought" in July remarks about government surveillance, setting off a back-and-forth with Paul that was never really settled.

But it might just be settled in the run-up to 2016, since both Paul and Christie are widely viewed as likely presidential contenders.

The fact that the debate exists at the highest level of the party in the first place is a testament to a shift in the way Republicans, and more broadly Americans, think about national security and foreign policy. The Pew poll shows just how much opinions have changed in recent decades.

It's worth emphasizing that while Americans are increasingly skeptical of U.S. involvement in relations between other countries, they are eager for the United States to engage in the global economy. About two in three Americans say it is a good thing in the survey.

Politicians in both parties will have to come to grips with the diminishing appetite for foreign intervention. But the question carries extra weight for the GOP, which is searching for its identity after two straight national electoral defeats. The battle over foreign policy has already begun in a very high-profile way. And it doesn't look like it will fade away anytime soon.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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