President Trump in Afghanistan, November 2019. CREDIT: <a href=""> Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Public Domain</a>
President Trump in Afghanistan, November 2019. CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead/Public Domain

Vox Populi, Eurasia Group Foundation, and Narratives

Dec 10, 2019

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF) has released its report on public attitudes towards U.S. foreign policy. Like the project on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council, the EGF is attempting to get at the twin issues of "the chasm which exists between the interests and concerns of foreign policy elites and those of ordinary citizens" and "the reasons why Americans are increasingly disenfranchised from foreign policy decisions being made in Washington."

What is striking is the similarities to the findings reached by CCEIA's own recent report on the "search for a new narrative." I encourage everyone to read the report in full. I also recommend Mark Hannah's companion piece in Politico applying the findings to U.S. support for NATO—and here, we see that U.S. support for an expansive definition of Article V is softer than the U.S. national security community in Washington may wish to face. However, I will take the liberty here of re-posting in full some of the summary conclusions of the EGF "Vox Populi" report:

Americans favor a less aggressive foreign policy. The findings are consistent across a number of foreign policy issues, and across generations and party lines:

  • More than twice as many want to decrease as increase the defense budget;
  • Thirty-five percent more think America should decrease than increase its military presence in East Asia as a response to a rising China;
  • A plurality want to end the war in Afghanistan within the next year regardless of outcome;
  • In a hypothetical invasion of a Baltic NATO ally by Russia, only half believe America should respond militarily.

Support for American exceptionalism and leadership continues to be driven by the power of America's example, but the public confidence in America's example is apparently eroding. Compared with last year, fewer Americans believe the U.S. is exceptional for what it represents, and more believe the U.S. is not an exceptional country. Americans differ about the greatest threat facing the United States. Immigration remains a primary concern of Republicans, while the rise of authoritarianism continues to preoccupy Democrats. Fear of economic damage caused by trade disputes has increased regardless of party identification. A plurality of Republicans and Independents believe America's focus should be on building a healthy democracy at home and avoiding foreign conflicts. Democrats believe peace is best achieved through economic integration and free trade. "Peace through military strength," associated with neoconservative hawks, and the "democracy promotion" approach associated with liberal interventionism received significantly less support. In response to China's increasing international influence, most Americans believe the U.S. should rely on regional allies rather than increasing America's military presence. This preference was most pronounced among Democrats, Independents and unaffiliated voters, while Republicans were roughly split down the middle given this choice. There appears to be some partisan polarization around perceptions of certain Middle East countries. Asked which countries present the biggest threat to peace in the region, Iran was the top choice. However, Republicans were about 13 percent more likely than Democrats to choose Iran and Democrats were approximately 10 percent more likely than Republicans to choose Saudi Arabia. As Iran gets back on track with its nuclear program in the wake of the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the American people want a diplomatic resolution. Reviving nuclear negotiations went from their second most popular choice in 2018 to the most popular choice this year. This replaced economic sanctions, which lost popularity among both Republicans and Democrats (and which are viewed by the Iranians as war by other means). While more Americans this year support a preventive strike compared to last year, this remains the least popular option, less popular than nonintervention because "Iran has the right to defend itself even if it means developing nuclear weapons." Americans differ on the war in Afghanistan. 40 percent want the U.S. to end the war. Roughly 30 percent oppose negotiating with the Taliban and think the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan until all enemies are defeated. Another 30 percent support negotiations and want to stay until a peace deal is reached.

The report breaks down similar findings about generational and sectoral differences, but most critically, it confirms the outlines of the emerging narratives that the CCEIA project ascertained. We can see elements of the "democratic community" approach, the retrenchment, and the reindustrialization and regeneration narratives in the responses. As the EGF report notes, "Democrats are neither pacifists nor liberal interventionists. Republicans are neither militaristic nor isolationist."

There seems to be a desire for new leaders (or existing leaders) to better articulate these themes. How much of this will occur in the context of the 2020 elections remains to be seen, but it seems apparent that, no matter the outcome, there is no resetting to the previous model.

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