The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans aren’t that tired of war, it seems

"The Afghanistan Papers" author Craig Whitlock explains how presidents misled the public about the war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

If there’s one article of faith on American foreign policy these days, it might be that our electorate has become significantly more isolationist — or at least noninterventionist.

In an Associated Press-NORC poll in August, majorities of both the Republican and Democratic parties said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had not been worth fighting. Our country, polls have shown, was pretty united on withdrawing from Afghanistan (even after the withdrawal itself went poorly).

But a new poll suggests this isn’t necessarily a complete philosophical shift as much as an issue-specific one.

The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor on Monday spotlighted a recent poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that found that, despite what you might think, Americans are actually more in favor of intervention if China invades Taiwan than in the nearly four decades the institution had polled this question.

That caught my attention. Perhaps this might be a symptom of our increasing and unusually bipartisan focus on combating China, I thought. But then I looked a little more closely.

In fact, this increasing desire to use the U.S. military to defend allies from incursion by adversaries spans multiple key regions — every one the Chicago Council surveyed. And it increased even as the country as a whole turned more and more against our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion? It was supported by 28 percent in 2015, before Donald Trump supposedly made noninterventionism a GOP value, too. But today it’s at 52 percent — nearly double.

Defending South Korea from an invasion by North Korea? It went from 47 percent in 2015 to 63 percent today.

Defending Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia if Russia invaded? From 44 percent in 2014 to 59 percent today.

On defending Israel from a neighbor in the Middle East, the uptick is less pronounced, but it, too, has climbed from the mid-to-high-40s to 53 percent.

In each case, a majority of Americans — though not always a big one — say they support using U.S. troops to defend an ally from an invasion, including in three cases by a major or nuclear-armed world power.

The situation carries some parallels to the last time we got out of a quagmire overseas. As the Vietnam War was winding down, Gallup polling showed Americans increasingly wanting a more nationalistic and even isolationist foreign policy, at least in the abstract.

But even then, the same polling showed relatively strong and increasing support for defending U.S. allies abroad. It showed majority support in 1972 for defending European allies from the Soviet Union. Then, support dropped, but it later recovered to 56 percent vs. 27 percent opposition. Defending South Korea from either the Soviets or China had less support, but it was also a plurality position.

In those cases, it seems logical that this owed to concerns about communist influence during the Cold War — even as the effort to combat it hadn’t exactly gone according to plan in Vietnam.

Today, though, the desire to defend allies against such big-name adversaries as China and Russia is even higher — and is growing — despite the misadventures of the past 20 years and despite the lack of such an all-consuming foreign policy initiative (you don’t hear many talking about the “war on terror” today).

Perhaps it’s less that people are tired of war, writ large, and more that they were tired of those wars. But even that doesn’t really account for the increasing appetite to defend allies from the likes of Russia, China and North Korea.

Perhaps people are just a little more willing to accept a war in which the purpose is actually clear.