Washington and America Think Differently
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Washington and America Think Differently


WASHINGTON, DC – March 20, 2019

We live in an era of change when the old world order is falling apart and the contours of the new order have not yet been clearly defined. Meanwhile, our worldview was formed in the heyday of the “old world,” and for those politicians who make decisions it was formed in the era of the Cold War. Therefore, they think in these categories. They cannot do otherwise. Their language is not adapted to the realities of today, and therefore they persevere in telling the old tale about an inclusive foreign policy — one that centers on human rights, justice, and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, one that brings our troops home and truly makes military action a last resort.

Unfortunately, this is just a fairy tale. The reality is completely different. And people understand and feel this, although many do not want to admit it to themselves, preferring to close their eyes to the truth and live in a beautiful fairy tale. But lately, more and more people are waking up and have started worrying about the growing disconnect between Washington’s elites and the public. The scholar Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece that the most important question in world politics today is “Will U.S. public opinion continue to support an active and strategically focused foreign policy?”

In search of an answer to this question, various research centers carry out analysis and opinion polls, not only in the US but throughout the world. Their results are not very encouraging to politicians as Americans increasingly disagree with Washington about how to engage the world. As it turns out,the world considers America a greater threat than Russia or China.

A Pew Research survey revealed that more of the world is afraid of America with its unpredictable foreign policy. Moreover, it would be fine in countries traditionally dissatisfied with Washington and gravitating towards Russia (for example, in Serbia the results of the polls did not surprise anyone). But unexpectedly, many residents of US allies and even their neighbors showed their fear. For example, 46% of Canadians believe that the United States is a threat to their country (Russia and China are considered to be so 32% and 31%, respectively). And in Mexico, 64% of the population fear their “big neighbor,” but less than a third see Russia and China as a threat. It turns out that Americans are more fearful than Russians in Germany, France, Japan, and South Korea -- that is, in those countries that are traditionally considered to be close allies of the United States.

The correctness of this global survey was confirmed by another study, also prepared for the conference in Munich. The German Friedrich Ebert Foundation carried out an analysis of public opinion in seven European countries, revealing, for example, that in Germany 50% of the population considers the US to be the main threat to the world, while 33% see Russia as such. In France, 24% of the population fear America, 12% - Russia. And what about the US? In the US, the picture is slightly different.

As the 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed, 70% of Americans want the United States to take an “active part” in world affairs. But the more important question is what does an “active part” really mean? A recent study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, for example, found that 47% of elites subscribe to the “indispensable nation” vision for foreign policy, which calls on the United States to maintain overwhelming military superiority and continue intensive efforts to manage world order, while just 9% supported a more restrained vision of foreign policy. The same study, however, found public preferences to be the reverse of elites: 44% supported a more restrained approach to foreign policy and just 10% supported the indispensable nation approach.

Looking deeper, despite all the nostalgia for the Cold War consensus, there have always been important differences between the public and elites when it comes to foreign affairs. Academic analysis of decades of survey data has identified a stable set of attitude gaps between the public and their leaders. Moreover, while many of the gaps are quite large – often in the range of 30 percentage points or more – the gaps between Republican and Democratic leaders on the key issues are quite small – typically just a few percentage points.

Elites are far more likely to view globalization and international trade positively, for example, while the public is more likely to express support for focusing on domestic affairs over foreign affairs. A 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs study found that 90% of Republican leaders and 94% of Democratic leaders believe globalization and trade are “mostly good” for the United States, while the figures hover around 60% for the public.

The same study shows that the public, on the other hand, is more sensitive than elites to perceived threats to the economy and to the homeland. 78% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats think protecting American jobs should be a “very important” foreign policy goal, compared to just 25% of Republican leaders and 37% of Democratic leaders. Meanwhile, 27% of Democrats, 40% of Independents, and 67% of Republicans view “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S.” as a critical threat in the next 10 years, compared to just 5% of Democratic leaders and 19% of Republican leaders.

Finally, though it depends on the scenario, the public has always been more hesitant about the use of military force abroad than elites. In the Eurasia Group Foundation study, for example, 95% of foreign policy experts would support using military force if Russia invaded Estonia, a NATO ally, compared to just 54.2% of the public. The 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey similarly found that 64% of Democratic leaders and 71% of Republican leaders think that defending allies’ security should be a very important foreign policy goal for the United States compared to 36% of Republicans and 37% of Democrats generally.

As we see, the people of most countries are smarter and more insightful than their elites and analysts who serve these elites. The world and the American public wants a less ambitious and less aggressive foreign policy than the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War, and especially over the past 18 years.

But despite the size and stability of the gaps between elites and the public, Washington has not budged.

In reality, unlike a fairy tale, politicians tend to view the public as too inattentive and too ignorant to form meaningful opinions about foreign policy. From this view, public support might be important from a political perspective, but the content of people’s actual opinions is not.

And this will continue until most Americans wake up.

We need to reinsert foreign policy issues back into the public debate with urgency. Peace and respect for human rights are universal values. They are what drove Americans to organize and protest for equal rights and civil rights. They are what motivated nonviolent movements from South Africa to South Asia to the American South. Let us apply these universal values to all nations. Only then will our world achieve peace.

But for this Washington needs to wake up too and start taking public opinion seriously. The task for Washington today is to embrace these attitudes and create a new foreign policy worthy of public support.

Author: USA Really