The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts agrees with that statement, but not in the way that you think.
As an advisory board member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I have argued repeatedly in this space that based on the council’s survey data, “it turns out that what the American people want in foreign policy looks an awful lot like what the Blob wants.” Of course, the Trump administration is not a big fan of things like expanding international trade, reaffirming alliance commitments and working through multilateral institutions. So yeah, I’d suggest that the popular will is not reflected in the views of the Trump administration.
That is not the argument that Independent America makes. Rather, it offers up very different descriptions of both the Trump administration’s foreign policy and the state of American public opinion. On the latter, it found “a recurring and bipartisan preference for a foreign policy which is less interventionist and militaristic than the one that’s been conducted throughout the Trump and Obama administrations.”
(It should be noted at this point that Independent America “is generously funded by The Charles Koch Foundation,” which tends to fund foreign policy initiatives that are anti-interventionist. According to EGF senior fellow Mark Hannah, “these surveys are conceived, designed, distributed, analyzed independently of any funder direction, influence [or] oversight,” and I have no reason to doubt him.)
So what is going on? The report offers survey responses that buttress its thesis, but it’s a bit too easy to see the exertion employed to preserve its framing. For example, the first bullet point from the executive summary says, “More than twice as many want to decrease as increase the defense budget.” That seems clear-cut, until one looks further into the report. At that point, the reader discovers that “maintaining current levels of military spending is the most popular answer among all respondents” and that the percentage of respondents who gave this modal answer increased from 45 percent in 2018 to roughly 50 percent in 2019. So yeah, more of the public favors cutting defense spending than increasing it, but that’s not exactly the top-line result. Furthermore, this distribution of public views is slightly more hawkish than the most recent elite survey I could access on the topic.
I could go on, but the point of this column is not to vivisect Independent America’s findings. Rather, it is to find areas of common ground. And the thing that rang out from its 2019 survey was the marked decline in beliefs in American exceptionalism among younger generations. According to the report, “the rise in anti-exceptionalism was most pronounced among younger Americans. It was the top answer choice for respondents under 45 years old. Fully 55 percent of those between 18 and 29 believe the United States is not an exceptional country.”
The thing that is truly perturbing is how the young people are correct — at least for their adult lifetimes. I am older than 45 years, which means I have some memory of foreign policies that were widely viewed as successes: the Cold War policy of containment, the peaceful end of the Cold War, the ending of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, a panoply of beneficial trade agreements, and the expansion of U.S.-created international institutions to the rest of the world.
An American who came of age after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would be hard-pressed to identify similarly successful policies in this century. They do exist, but things like PEPFAR are drowned out by, you know, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, China and the 2008 financial crisis. All the bad stuff that leads to negativity bias.
The simple fact is that an entire generation of Americans is skeptical about the conduct of foreign policy, and they damn well should be. If they cannot remember a headline foreign policy that worked, they will not and should not have faith in foreign policy elites to do the right thing. And the situation is unlikely to improve over the next year or so.