After a decade and a half of a non-stop war on terrorism that has gradually expanded across seven countries, are the American people beginning to turn away from the world?
According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the answer is an emphatic “no.” The group’s new survey finds that most Americans are still proponents of engagement overseas (64 percent), agree that the country’s alliances have been a boon to national security (89 percent), and want the U.S. to continue devoting military resources to NATO (63 percent).
The foreign policy establishment, however, is missing the broader point. The more accurate question to ask is not whether the United States should be engaged with other nations across the globe (the study doesn’t define the term “engagement”), but how it should engage.
While the American people take great pride in our history and rightly value our position in the world as a superpower, the public has learned to distinguish between engagement at all costs and a foreign policy that is smart, prudent, pragmatic, and diplomatic. Smart engagement includes a willingness to sit down at the negotiating table — even with America’s adversaries — in order to de-escalate conflicts, reduce violence, prevent an armed confrontation from turning into a full-blown war, and to boost America’s strategic position in the world. If there is any silver lining from the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it is that the conflict has provided the American public with a greater appreciation for diplomacy as the primary tool of conflict resolution and increased support for war as the very last resort.
In other words, the last 15 years have produced an American public that is more reticent about plunging into conflicts or crises without asking the hard questions first. Will U.S. military action make the situation worse? Can a crisis be resolved or alleviated through other means other than the use of military force? What are the second- and third-order effects of any U.S. intervention?
Like the recent Chicago Council survey, public opinion polls over the last several years have shown just how resistant Americans have been — and continue to be — about participating in conflicts that don’t affect the security of the United States directly. Although Americans may support engagement, a May 2016 Pew Research Center poll showed that this engagement is conditional depending on the circumstances. Fifty-seven percent of Americans surveyed in the Pew poll, for instance, say that they would prefer that their leaders focus more resources and attention on domestic problems as a first priority — that’s 20 points higher than those who believe that the U.S. should help other countries solve theirs. Pew also found that 41 percent thought that the U.S. does too much in trying to solve problems around the world compared to 28 percent who say that the U.S. does just enough.
Polling on Syria is perhaps the best indicator for how prudent the American public has become over the past decade and a half on war and peace issues. Despite the constant drumbeat from foreign policy elites about the need for a more aggressive military response against the Assad regime, Americans continue to believe that it would be unwise for Washington to expend human and economic resources for another regime-change mission in the Middle East. Just as importantly, Americans recognize that deploying U.S. military force against Assad or establishing a no-fly zone could plausibly cause a standoff with Russian military personnel on the ground and Russian pilots in the air — an element of the debate that has helped convince the Obama administration to choose a more cautious path on the Syria conflict. Possible conflict with the Russians is likely a factor that helps explain why only 34 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. military should get more involved in the civil war.
All of these figures point to a obvious conclusion that U.S. leaders should take into account whenever they are debating military options: Americans want to expend all options, including diplomacy, before military force is even considered.
Ivo Daalder, former ambassador to NATO and an author of the Chicago Council report, is right: Americans like being the world’s strongest and most influential country, and it’s essential we maintain our dominance. We want our military to be fully funded to do the jobs they were intended to do. We want our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to be equipped with the best aircraft, ships, and technology. And Americans will always support military intervention when the homeland is truly threatened.
But the foreign-policy intelligentsia should also remember that 15 years of continuous warfare across two continents have soured Americans on the idea of injecting our military into situations that don’t directly affect our vital national interest. U.S. officials, political leaders, and lawmakers should keep that in mind whenever the war drums in Washington beat louder.