A buzzword in the foreign policy world right now is fatigue. Middle East fatigue, American fatigue, global fatigue. America is tired and in retreat, so the narrative goes. The pro-intervention foreign policy establishment is out of touch with everyday Americans. And the election of Donald Trump represented a rejection of elites in both domestic and foreign policy circles. Popular wisdom holds that not only has the public lost faith in the foreign policy establishment, but they have also grown tired of the liberal international order the establishment largely supports.
Foreign Policy staff writer Colum Lynch noted earlier this month, “The political battle fatigue caused by costly, open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has soured the American public, and the Democratic and Republican political leadership, on foreign entanglements.” This summer, David Brooks wrote an op-ed entitled “Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!” In the article, Brooks references a study where most voters couldn’t describe what maintaining the liberal international order meant to them. He then argues voters are now “actively hostile” to the international system. But this narrative sells short most Americans’ views on foreign policy.
According to the well-respected Chicago Council on Global Affairs Survey, 69 percent of Americans support the US taking an active role in world affairs, one of the highest margins since the Chicago Survey began tracking public opinion on foreign affairs in 1974. As recently as 2014, support was at 58 percent.
The survey also asked people to define what taking an active part in world affairs meant to them. A majority of Americans included all of the following policies as part of their view of an active role in world affairs:
- Promoting democracy and human rights around the world
- Providing humanitarian aid to other countries
- Using US troops to defend allies
- Participating in international organizations
- Providing economic aid to other countries
- Placing sanctions on other countries
- Stationing US troops in allied countries
- Conducting drone strikes against suspected terrorists in other countries
- Increasing spending on national defense
- Intervening militarily in other countries to solve conflicts
While the respondents may not have used the term liberal world order, Americans’ idea of world leadership includes the bulwark of policy that has made up the post-World War II international system. The survey further notes:
Large numbers of Americans continue to favor the foundational elements of traditional, post-World War II US foreign policy. They express continued or increased support for security alliances and military deterrence by maintaining superior military capabilities and US bases abroad. They believe international trade is good for the United States and American companies, and that promoting democracy and human rights around the world makes the United States safer. In fact, support for NATO, military alliances, and trade have never been higher in the history of the Chicago Council Survey.
Despite Americans’ actual foreign policy views, a narrative of fatigue and disengagement persists. The Right decries transnational elites who are skeptical of American exceptionalism and prefer global institutions. In reaction to this supposed globalist, establishment consensus, conservatives argue the American people are tired of being the world’s policeman. From the Left, nearly the entire Democratic presidential field favors a less interventionist, more restrained foreign policy. Representative Tulsi Gabbard coined the phrase “regime-change wars,” decrying “war-mongering” hawks on the Right and establishment figures within her own party. Both camps are critiquing the same foreign policy establishment, and both are concluding the American people are tired of our adventures abroad. Just as there has been a bipartisan foreign policy establishment, there now seems to be a bipartisan anti-establishment.
Part of this narrative is accurate. Americans are dissatisfied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and are consequently skeptical of the establishment. They are skeptical of using military interventions to solve conflict. The foreign policy establishment not only made some idealistic mistakes in recent years (e.g., Libya) but also made a poor case for interventions on the basis of American interests and values. The Center for American Progress survey that Brooks cites revealed that 43 percent of voters are “generally confused by our foreign policy goals and don’t really understand what the United States is trying to accomplish in its dealings with the rest of the world.”
Fatigue thinking goes awry when leaders take dissatisfaction and general confusion as representative of a larger repudiation of post-WWII foreign policy. Foreign policy agendas then shift to include not only ending US engagement in conflicts like Afghanistan but also a broader disengagement from the world stage.
The danger we now face is a bipartisan political movement to mediate American retreat. We risk running from the establishment to the anti-establishment, neither of which meaningfully reflect Americans’ good sense on foreign policy. As the narrative of fatigue takes hold, it actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: America is abdicating leadership because the people are tired, and because the people are tired, there is no political will to change course.
The lack of political will is more reflective of political agendas than it is of the public’s views on foreign policy. There is a strong bipartisan baseline of support for an active American role in the world. That role may look different than it has in the past and involve more burden sharing in an increasingly multipolar globe. But Americans are still far from the disengaged isolationism of the fatigue zeitgeist. Even as pundits debate the decline of NATO, the Chicago Survey puts support for America maintaining or increasing its current commitments to the alliance at 78 percent.
Perhaps if we responded more carefully to the sentiments of the American people, we could set a foreign policy strategy that avoids the idealistic pretensions of the establishment and the reactionary withdrawal of the anti-establishment. As global instability increases, we face new threats to our security and values. America needs a clear vision for its role in the world. It’s the job of statesmen to set that vision, not shrink from it.