The professional diplomats who testified before the House impeachment inquiry this month were poles apart from President Trump. They were poised and prudent. They were driven by high purpose and equipped with high minds. They stepped into the spotlight reluctantly and didn’t preen. And yet, the decades-old bipartisan foreign policy consensus they represent is unloved by most Americans.
However tempting it might be for those leading the impeachment hearings to drive a wedge between the national security establishment and the current president, it is a mistake to lean too heavily on the diplomats’ expressions of America’s national interests. Confusing Donald Trump’s potentially impeachable offenses with legitimate questions about the country’s foreign policy is a gambit which could backfire. After all, most voters are similarly dissatisfied with the status quo.
This is a conclusion of a study we just released entitled, “Indispensable No More? How the American Public Sees US Foreign Policy.” The hearings have warned of Russian aggression, revanchism, and malign influence, but most Americans are less anxious. If Russia were to be so brazen as to invade a Baltic NATO ally of the United States, only half of our survey respondents from across the country would opt for a military response.
Americans would treat their country’s national security challenges very differently than those who testified this month. Fewer than one in five Americans believe peace is best achieved by “maintaining overwhelming strength” or by “promoting and defending democracy around the world.” Significantly more would pursue peace by focusing on “the health of American democracy” and “avoiding unnecessary intervention” or by pursuing “economic integration” and free trade. This flies in the face of the longstanding interventionist consensus in Washington, comprised of Republicans with their mantra of peace through strength and Democrats with their dogma of armed democracy promotion.
Since last year alone, about 7% fewer Americans believe the US is exceptional for what it represents, and just as many more believe the United States is not, in fact, an exceptional country.
When Kurt Volker said there were “major, complicated questions swirling in public debate” about America’s policy toward Ukraine, he revealed how many national security sages regard public debate – but earnest think tank panels and policy papers hardly address, let alone engage, the collective preferences of ordinary citizens. Volker contended that a more expansive US policy toward Ukraine “enjoyed support across the administration, bipartisan support in Congress, and support among our allies and Ukraine.” He conspicuously omitted the American public.
The truth is it’s long past time to question the wisdom of America’s foreign policy goals, and the challenge for those leading the inquiry is that the American people know it.
This isn’t the first time the president has been separated from the national security herd. After last month’s abrupt announcement that American troops would abandon their Kurdish partners in Syria, hawks in both parties saw an opportunity to portray the president as weak. To be sure, the president’s policy was hastily planned and sloppily executed. But in attacking the president’s rash decision, his critics were themselves being rash. They could have condemned the sudden betrayal of our Kurdish partners without betraying their own stated goal of ending chaotic and unnecessary military entanglements throughout the Middle East.
This puts the progressive wing of the Democratic party in a tricky spot, decrying Trump for his recklessness, while essentially agreeing with his objective of ending endless wars. But the American people aren’t so torn. They’re not particularly keen on policing the world and wish to withdraw from these unwinnable conflicts. When asked how the US should handle the ongoing war in Afghanistan, a plurality opted to draw down American troops within the next year regardless of outcome.
Washington lawmakers continue to paint America as the indispensable nation on which global stability depends. The notion of American exceptionalism argues our legitimacy and authority supersede that of other countries. The public confidence in that belief, however, has eroded. Since last year alone, about 7% fewer Americans believe the US is exceptional for what it represents, and just as many more believe the United States is not, in fact, an exceptional country.
Americans are eager to rethink US foreign policy but the permanent bureaucracies of Washington seem either desperate to avoid this conversation or oblivious to any possible alternative. Of the many troubling revelations of these hearings, the least reported is the outmoded, Cold War-era mindset shared by members of both parties. Democrats portray a zero-sum game where American losses are Russian gains. Republicans display their toughness by touting the Javelin missiles and other lethal aid supplied to Ukraine by the Trump administration. Our survey shows their voters simply don’t share these preoccupations.
Given the attention it is attracting, the impeachment inquiry provides an opportunity for citizens and their elected representatives to reconsider America’s posture toward Russia in particular and toward foreign policy in general. If we fail to seize that opportunity, the country’s foreign policy leadership will continue to energetically promote democracy in Ukraine while perversely ignoring the popular will here at home.
Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of the “None Of The Above” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorHannah and @EGFound.