Once again, public opinion polls have disappointed isolationists and others who want the United States to have a minimalist foreign policy. Almost overnight, a large swath of America now wants to counter Russia, and elected officials who want to keep their jobs have responded. For example, Senator Josh Hawley signed a letter calling on President Joe Biden to let Poland give Ukraine fighter jets. Afterward, integralist-friendly and post-liberal Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule retweeted a complaint about how National Conservative senators betrayed the orthodox-challenging movement. But sudden swings in public opinion on foreign policy are typical for America. In 1955 Walter Lippmann complained about this dynamic when he wrote that Americans are “too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent.” Realists should recognize this volatility of American democracy and accept that most politicians will not sacrifice their careers by ignoring a public outcry.
Yet for years some foreign policy wonks thought the public would soon support America’s withdrawal from the world. While attending the Summit on Realism and Restraint in November 2015, hosted by The American Conservative and Charles Koch Institute, I listened to Michael Desch argue that the country was ready for a new grand foreign policy. The Notre Dame professor pointed to public opinion polls that showed more Americans were war weary, did not want an activist foreign policy, and did not support maintaining global order. Optimistic, he saw how a coalition of voters could stop overseas adventures.
Speaking on the same panel, Leon Hadar—then a senior analyst with Wikistrat and previously a foreign policy advisor to Ron Paul—disagreed. He criticized the libertarian hope that a more assertive Congress would oppose foreign confrontations or the media could stop wars by properly educating the masses, which would halt presidents’ adventurism. Instead, Hadar said that the public often pushes for an activist foreign policy; in the case of Iraq, voters turned against the war only when the operation failed. Viewing this landscape and wanting a limited foreign policy, Hadar took what he admitted was an elitist position: he questioned whether the public should have a role in deciding foreign policy and said that a restraint faction must penetrate the decision-making establishment.
A year later Donald Trump won the presidential election with an “America First” message, a supposed vindication for those who hoped that the public was ready for a more isolationist or restrained foreign policy. Nevertheless, the Trump administration made moves that were counter to what libertarian isolationists wanted, such as increasing the military budget and supporting campaigns in Iraq and Syria, where in a single battle the military killed hundreds, including Russian mercenaries.
Subsequent events have demonstrated how the public may not reward politicians who pull America out of foreign engagements, as Biden learned after his Afghanistan withdrawal. The subsequent debacle corresponded with a rapid collapse in the president’s approval rating from which he has not recovered. Currently, Biden’s approval is still bouncing around 43 percent, roughly where Trump’s support was at this point in his presidency. A significant number of voters appear to have changed their minds about Biden as Kabul fell, and he has failed to win them back. The president can still recover, but he spent significant political capital on his Afghanistan policy and has little room for further errors.
Russia’s war on Ukraine offers another example of how public opinion can disappoint isolationists. When the public saw horrific images of daily Russian attacks against civilians, Americans quickly became bellicose, as Lippmann might have warned. At the beginning of the invasion and after the West removed some Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system, considered a “financial nuclear option,” a Quinnipiac poll showed that 57 percent of Americans thought the Biden administration was not being tough enough on Russia. For Republicans, 80 percent said the president was not being tough enough—2 percent said he was too tough (presumably this includes the restraint crowd). As the US does more, new polls have different figures—42 percent say US support is not enough; 32 percent say it is enough; 7 percent say it is too much. Yet despite the oil ban and rise in gas prices, Republicans are still more likely to say the US isn’t doing enough. Conservative Republicans are significantly more likely to want a firmer stance on Russia than either moderate Republicans or Democrats. But the overall trend remains: a vast bipartisan majority of Americans want to assist Ukraine. This partially explains why GOP congresspersons support Ukraine and why they distance themselves from those who repeat Russian propaganda or draw a moral equivalence between the sides.
Reuters also released a poll that found 74 percent of Americans supported imposing a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and 80 percent wanted the US to stop buying Russian oil. Based on my anecdotal conversations, this was not surprising. YouGov subsequently found that 45 percent supported enforcing a no-fly zone, but this dropped to 40 percent by March 9; on a similar question, 30 percent said that the US shooting down Russian aircraft over Ukraine was a good idea. Support for a no-fly zone may drop as opponents of the idea make their case. But the desire to counter Russia and help Ukraine remains, and many who oppose a no-fly zone argue for other ways the US can indirectly help Ukraine fight Russia. For example, the Hudson Institute listed a number of arms the West could still give to Ukraine, including “kamikaze” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) .
Ultimately, the American public is uniting against Vladimir Putin and his inhumane war. But the change should not be considered “erratic,” as Hadar might say, because that word implies unpredictability. Based on Walter Russell Mead’s four schools of US foreign policy, sudden public opinion changes are unsurprising. According to his labels, Jeffersonians include isolationists and others who want a minimum or restrained foreign policy; Hamiltonians support foreign policies that help the United States economically; Wilsonians want to promote liberal democratic values. Jacksonians—the group I encountered most before moving to DC—can appear isolationist but suddenly become bellicose when they see threats to American exceptionalism, American honor, or the country itself. They have little patience for condescending, elitist expertise from places like DC or New York, but in my experience they are just as well educated and informed as others. While they do not want to export democracy to a country that they view as unready, they now detest an authoritarian attacking a fledgling democracy and targeting civilians (according to Freedom House, Ukraine’s democracy score increased from 35/100 in 2014 to 61/100 in 2022, slightly higher than Mexico’s score and immensely higher than Russia’s 19/100). For Jacksonians who supported the Reagan Doctrine and consider it a success or a model for today, they are naturally opposed to Russia’s aggression. This group is a sleeping giant who can become filled with terrible resolve. What awakens them may be surprising (maybe it shouldn’t be), but the fact they can or will wake up should not be considered unpredictable. Isolationist Jeffersonians may see public opinion polls and think the Jacksonian faction is with them, but this is at best a temporary alignment.
For now, Russia’s invasion has woken the Jacksonians, who have joined Wilsonians and Hamiltonians in a desire to resist Putin’s aggression, however much they can with a nuclear-armed power. As Hadar’s 2015 comments suggest, the problem for isolationists is not a warmonger president, a complacent Congress, or a hysterical media. Their problem is an angry public that can vote. Instead of softening Biden’s approach to Russia, Congress and the public have forced him to take a firmer stance than he wanted. Also, no one should expect journalists to be able to calm public anger when people can easily find the news they want. As long as readers and viewers consume content about Russia’s invasion, the media must cover the war—and outlets know what their audience wants. Furthermore, suggesting that people should not care about what happens in Ukraine is wrong. As Ian Bremmer explains, the public is right to follow this war more closely than others. But some isolationists still suggest that if only the reporting were different, Americans would be less bellicose or would not care about Ukraine. This line sometimes implies that the people are too stupid to recognize that propaganda duped them. This is both elite smugness and untrue. As Hadar warned, a different media, legislature, or education cannot be the bedrock for a restrained or isolationist foreign policy because smart, well-informed people will sometimes demand foreign confrontations.
But while Hadar was right that public opinion will not offer stable support for a minimalist foreign policy, he was wrong to say that the government could or should ignore voters. The public may not care about foreign policy often, but sometimes voters do intensely enough to matter. A foreign policy proposal that requires elected officials to ignore the public is not a viable proposal that realists should accept, including Christian realists. Leaders may not be able to do exactly what the public wants and may need to come up with other creative solutions that effectively address the underlying impulse, but ignoring the people will backfire. In this case, President Biden already spent political capital on the Afghanistan withdrawal so has less breathing space for another debacle abroad. If Kyiv stands, he and Democrats may reap political rewards. If Ukraine falls and Volodymyr Zelensky dies while the voters think the president could have done more, Biden may struggle to recover.