Voters are also not especially favorable to U.S. involvement in conflicts such as the one in Syria when they do think about foreign policy. The Center for American Progress recently released a comprehensive poll detailing voter attitudes about U.S. foreign policy. The results should worry backers of the foreign policy status quo.
The poll shows significant support for arguments the president has used previously to justify his departures from traditional foreign policy goals. Only 45 percent strongly agreed with the statement that the United States has “a duty to engage in world affairs and help our allies maintain safety and security.” A mere 35 percent strongly agreed that “maintaining an active military presence in other countries is necessary to … protect our people”. And 52 percent strongly agreed with the statement that “we should focus more on helping people here at home instead of getting involved in trying to help people in other parts of the world.”
Republican voters in particular were likelier to agree with more Trumpian views toward foreign policy. Sixty-two percent of Republicans strongly agreed with the statement that we should focus more on people at home. A whopping 74 percent of Republicans — joined by 55 percent of independents — strongly agree that “other countries should pay more for their own security needs and stop expecting the United States to be the world’s policeman.” Only 43 percent of Republicans strongly agree that the United States should help its allies maintain their security, and only 36 percent strongly agree that the United States has a responsibility to promote human rights and basic living standards for people no matter where they live.
There was even significant support for the president’s complaints about “endless wars.” Thirty-eight percent of Americans strongly agreed that “the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money, and they did nothing to make us safer at home.” Interestingly, this view is supported more by Democrats and independents, although about one-third of Republicans agreed.
A pretty clear picture emerges when all of this is taken together: Americans are not thinking much about foreign policy, and when they do, they first and foremost care about combating direct threats to American lives. Large numbers of Trump supporters back ideas that are more inward-looking than outward-focused, and supermajorities are suspicious of U.S. military activity that is primarily geared to help other peoples and countries. Humanitarian concerns will also not change their minds; use of military force to enforce those outcomes is primarily backed by Democrats.
Republicans will be concerned if the Islamic State or other terrorist groups grow in strength as a result of Trump’s decision, but that outcome is speculative at the moment. The terrorist group was a danger when it controlled territory from which it could safely plan attacks on the West. While many of its fighters have reportedly been released from Kurdish prisons as their captors retreat, there is as yet no prospect of a return of an Islamic State-controlled caliphate. Until that happens, expect Republicans to remain behind their leader.
None of this means Trump’s decision is right. Britons fearful of a return to war after the ravages of World War I largely backed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany. Americans tired of the Vietnam War shrugged when we shamefully abandoned our South Vietnamese allies in 1975. In both cases, the understandable reluctance toward military confrontation led to policies that hurt the home nation and eventually required a more muscular military response.
Those responses ultimately occurred because leaders such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan kept pushing for them despite public sentiment. That is what backers of traditional U.S. foreign policy lack today; a strong, persuasive, charismatic leader who is willing to argue on behalf of a stronger policy rather than simply rely on tradition and precedent. If and when such leaders arise, public opinion can change. But for now, Trump’s slow but steady withdrawal of America from her post-World War II global role is unlikely to meet vehement voter disapproval.