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Do Americans Still Want The US to Be the World’s Security Leader?

The post-Trump awakening of political activism is inspiring, but seems to end at the border. We’re teaming up with CNAS to find out why.

What do Americans want? Since President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, well, Americans seem to want a lot. There’s been an awakening of political activism in this country, on both sides of the aisle, of people speaking up and speaking out. But the issues that appear to be most engaging — race, gender, health care, education, immigration  — are, with the exception of climate change, mostly domestic. When it comes to global security, the nation clearly is less engaged; some want the U.S. out of world affairs entirely. Why?

We need to understand better what Americans know and think about the U.S. leading global security, what they’re doing about it in their own lives, and what’s needed for the future. Defense One is teaming up with the Center for a New American Security, or CNAS, for a yearlong series of articles, commentaries, and events seeking to do just that. We’ll send reporters across the country to look into why Americans think the way they do, and to describe how Americans are working in their own ways on U.S. security challenges, in government, at schools, on factory floors, in boardrooms, in technology labs — even in Hollywood. We’ll feature commentaries from top thinkers at CNAS and beyond. Ultimately, we intend to collect a body of work that shows what Americans really believe, what they want, and what’s needed to deliver it. 

Understanding what Americans want can be complicated. Support for getting out of “forever wars” is high, but so is support for fighting terrorists and keeping a large U.S. military presence abroad. Americans want the United States to stay engaged; applications for the Foreign Service and other national security jobs are down. And the national security influencer set has struggled to influence Trump voters. Despite widespread sympathy and U.S. military support for Syrian Kurds, last month Republicans fell in line with the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops. Public approval for the military has rarely been higher; the proportion of the public who has served in uniform has rarely been lower. Technology giants with long histories of government contracts for military and intelligence work are battling their own employees over whether it’s ethical and good to work toward the national security interests of their own country. 

A Defense One article posted Wednesday is a good example: “Google Wants More Work from the Defense Department” says the headline, but the subhead adds, “A senior vice president ruled out working directly on weapons programs, but said other areas are fair game.” In other words, working with the military is okay, as long as it doesn’t directly help the military do what militaries exist to do. 

Meanwhile, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have mobilized their people to undercut U.S. dominance in unexpected and effective ways. Russia’s election attacks have sown doubt and discord among ourselves. China’s state-run society under the dictator Xi Jinping has used everything from technology to foreign workers abroad to disrupt American culture, the economy, and workforce. Iran has tested America’s appetite for conflict by attacking ships in the Persian Gulf. And why not? If Russia can take Crimea without facing a shot from the West, why can’t Iran claim a piece of the sea, or Turkey a piece of Syria, or China a piece of the NBA? 

It’s as if America’s rivals are racing to win a war that most Americans do not even know they’re in. We know that doing business with China is becoming more controversial than ever, but it is not convincing the NBA or Google to treat Chinese like enemies. Nor should it, perhaps. Americans are opting for commerce and cooperation over conflict, despite warnings from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, efforts to recruit Silicon Valley tech workers to join in a common national security mission are meeting with mixed results

Related: Defense One, CNAS Launch American Readiness Project
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Some Americans are responding to security issues and demanding change. There are artists and corporate leaders organizing to promote democracy and human rights abroad, protesting regimes in China, Iran, Russia, and even Turkey, instead of doing business with them. International relations courses are full at universities, and journalism school enrollment is rising. But many fields fall short. Young people aren’t lining up for government service. If internationalist-minded U.S. leaders actually adopted policies to add diplomats, aid workers, tech workers, or skilled laborers like shipbuilders to meet the demands for the Pentagon’s plans for great power competition, it’s unclear the American workforce could meet the requirement.

It’s no surprise to current and former U.S. security leaders that their warnings aren’t easily understood, appreciated, or even believed. Ash Carter, the former defense secretary, ascribes some of that to the widening civil-military gap.

“Because there is not a draft, the few will defend the many for as far in the future as I can see,” Carter said in an interview. If few Americans experience firsthand what’s required to defend the nation, he explained, then it’s up to those few and their leaders to win society’s support for what it takes. In other words, in part it’s a messaging problem. But winning the public’s trust is easier said than done.

“How do you make the case that the rest of the world matters in the first place?” Carter said. “That is a question that is in play for the — really for the first time in three generations in the United States, since the 1930s. And it deserves an answer, and not just, ‘This is the way we’ve done things in 70 years and the lesson we learned in World War II.’ You need to answer the question for people today.”

That “greatest generation” saw a world afire and went abroad to save it. Those who survived learned that it matters to have good allies, and spent the next few decades building them up. Meanwhile, America took the lead in everything from aviation rules to finance to arms control, setting the rules of the game and profiting by it.

But the past half century has seen the benefits of globalization flow increasingly to the wealthy. Unfulfilled economic promises have led some around the world to challenge the rules they were told to trust, Carter explained, until they voted for world leaders openly promising to break those norms, as did Trump in the U.S., and the Brexit vote in the UK. Rejecting economic globalization became a precursor for some to reject security alliances and engagements abroad as well. 

The current manifestation of that revolt is the debate over ending “forever wars.” It’s an idea preposterous to some, but smart politics to others — and long overdue. Mostly, it’s an easy line to sell. 

“I don’t know that we have had as sophisticated a discussion with the American public about our national security requirements as we ought to. We try to summarize it by saying things like ‘no more forever wars’ but I think that does a disservice to our people,” said Joseph Votel, the recently retired former commander of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. He believes U.S. leaders have to be more upfront with Americans about security commitments to the fights overseas: the U.S. has long-term interests and it needs troops and friends abroad to safeguard them. 

Votel worries the term “forever wars” makes people think it’s a policy the U.S. military chose, rather than was handed by political leaders. He has long said, as many generals do, that there are no military solutions to political problems abroad. A successful strategy for reducing the threat from violent extremist groups would use far fewer troops and far more of the non-military workers who could change the conditions that foster extremism. He is not alone. Yet the United States has not in two decades adopted this strategy, nor tried to recruit and employ the vast numbers of diplomats, aid workers, and other non-military people who could implement it.

“I think the talent is certainly out there.” 

If so, there is no sufficient U.S. policy or resources to recruit and employ them. Not at the level Pentagon and State Department leaders across bipartisan administrations have wanted going back even before the 9/11 attacks. 

Richard Fontaine, president of CNAS and a former staffer to the late Sen. John McCain, says the disconnect between Americans and national security leaders is real and getting worse, under Trump. Democrats and Republicans in Washington generally agree about the world’s top threats: Russia and China, not smallish terror groups, he writes. “There is a striking disconnect, however, between the consensus in Washington and the views of most Americans.” 

“That could pose a problem,” he said. “A generation-long great-power competition demands national-level focus and new economic and military approaches, all of which will be difficult to achieve without popular support.”

Fontaine says the national-security elites need better messaging to convince Americans that the threats are real. “The better course is to continually explain,” he says.


Carter says people today, young people especially, are more aware of what’s going on in the world than older generations were. They just have good reason to be distrustful of foreign policy elites. 

In 2016, Trump was elected, over the warnings of elites on the left and right, on a platform of contradictory promises. He pledged to end — and win —  America’s wars faster than his Oval Office predecessors; to use nuclear weapons but end them; to be hard on dictators but bring them closer to his fold; to support strong alliances and multilateral institutions, yet put “America First.”

It’s had an effect. A majority of the major Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 are calling for a U.S. retreat from its current conflicts and its post-World War II global presence.

One month after Trump announced his intent to pull troops from Syria, a January poll showed that 59 percent of Americans favored keeping some troops there, while 41 percent said that “U.S. troops should be pulled out or should never have been in the country to begin with.” And among 18- to 34-year-olds, 51 percent said the U.S. troops should not even be in Syria. 

By October, after Trump’s sudden decision to pull all U.S. troops from northern Syria, a CNN poll found the country still split, 51 to 43, to stay or withdraw. Nearly 80 percent of Republicans agreed with Trump’s decision to pull out. More than half of Democrats and Independents opposed. 

But Democratic leaders were less unified. 

“I would not have withdrawn the troops,” said Vice President Joe Biden, in October’s primary debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said, “I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don't think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” Pete Buttigieg said he wanted out of Afghanistan but supported small numbers of elite forces in Syria. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, hammered them all for supporting endless wars and “regime change.”

Again, it’s complicated. Most Americans want foreign engagement. But beyond forever wars, there is a long list of issues that the national security community thinks should be a bigger concern for Americans. The American Readiness Project aspires to capture the nation’s attitudes and concerns, reveal how more people than we realize are involved and interested in security-related issues, and present new findings and ideas for the public and policymakers to better understand how to sustain U.S. global security leadership — if that’s what Americans want, at all. 

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