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Survey: Americans want to scale back military entanglements

But Morning Consult should be taken to task for calling this impulse a 'preference for isolationism' versus 'engagement.'

Analysis | Washington Politics

According to a new poll, perhaps not surprisingly, many Americans across party lines would like the U.S. to have a less interventionist and meddlesome foreign policy. 

The results of a Morning Consult survey show that there continues to be substantial public support for scaling back U.S. military entanglements. Large blocs of Republicans and Democrats are in favor of less involvement in the affairs of other countries in general, and a plurality of Americans supports decreasing overseas deployments and reducing involvement in foreign conflicts. 

While there were slight fluctuations over the course of the three-month survey, there were more voters that said they wanted a decreased military presence and a reduced role in foreign wars than chose the status quo or a larger role. The disconnect between what this plurality of voters wants and what the government is doing in different parts of the world is as big as it has ever been.

Unfortunately, the survey report frames these results in the crudest terms of “isolationism” vs. engagement. Morning Consult’s pejorative framing of this sentiment as support for “greater isolationism” seems likely to reinforce policymakers’ habits of dismissing public skepticism of U.S. entanglements out of hand. Calling something “isolationism” is never merely descriptive, and it is almost always inaccurate, so whenever it is deployed it is a sign of sloppiness or hostility, or both.

When they were asked about U.S. involvement in the affairs of other countries, 48 percent of Republicans said that the U.S. should decrease it, and about a third of Democrats agreed. It was a generic question, but the results suggest that there may be a sizable voting bloc that would be open to less intrusive policies and a move away from using broad sanctions to punish other countries. These voters could be receptive to a foreign policy message that emphasizes noninterference and respect for other states’ independence and sovereignty. 

The survey also found that 41 percent of Republicans “would prefer that U.S. foreign policy involve more limited deployment of U.S. troops, and [they] would like to reduce American participation in military conflicts beyond the country’s borders.” Nearly a third of Democrats hold the same view. Overall, Republican voters were more likely to support retrenchment than Democrats, but support for retrenchment is considerable in both parties. If there is to be a trans-partisan coalition for greater restraint and peace in the coming years, these are the voters that seem most likely to belong to it. 

There were also predictable differences along partisan lines. As one would expect, Democratic voters were much more likely to rate climate change and pandemic prevention as high priorities than Republicans were, and there was a similar gap between the parties on the top Republican issues of immigration and combating drug trafficking. Sharp divisions between partisans on a range of foreign policy-related issues remain, but on broader questions of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts and the affairs of other countries there is significant common ground.

Describing the desire for reduced military deployments and reduced involvement in other states’ affairs as “isolationism” is potentially misleading in a few ways. For one thing, support for some retrenchment does not necessarily imply support for withdrawing from every overseas commitment. Even proponents of significant military retrenchment across the board do not support disengagement from the world in other ways. 

In fact, most advocates of a reduced military footprint would like to see the government be much more actively engaged with other states using tools of diplomacy and development. Opposition to failed and destructive forms of engagement does not equal opposition to international engagement as such, and framing skepticism of military interventions and deployments simply as the rejection of engagement makes the mistake of conflating militarism and internationalism. What the survey identifies is a potential constituency for reducing militarism in U.S. foreign policy, but the report codes it as something else. 

Except for a question about foreign aid levels and a few questions about multilateralism, the survey does not delve much into the public’s preferences on issues of diplomacy and development. What the survey does find is that a plurality of all voters wants more multilateralism rather than less, which is difficult to square with the survey’s framing of the other results as support for “greater isolationism.” 

What we may be seeing here is a desire for greater diplomatic engagement with other states paired with a preference for reduced military engagement overall. In other words, there is a substantial bloc of Americans that want the U.S. to engage with the rest of the world through international institutions and diplomacy and therefore they also want a less militarized foreign policy than the one we have. 

It would not be surprising if many of the would-be “isolationists” represented in this survey were also supporters of multilateralism, since it would be a natural fit for someone that wants less militarism to prefer more involvement in international institutions. 

The odd thing is that most policymakers are not seriously considering retrenchment as a valid option despite limited resources and the costly wars of the last twenty years. There is a decent case that U.S. retrenchment from at least some parts of the world is in the best interests of both the United States and its allies, and Washington should welcome that debate after decades of overreach and overexpansion. 

These survey results suggest that there may also be an untapped part of the electorate that would respond favorably to efforts to rein in that overreach by bringing U.S. commitments and capabilities back into balance. 

What the survey shows quite clearly is that there is a large segment of the electorate whose views are barely represented in the political and policy debates in Washington. It does those voters no favors by misrepresenting those views with one of the laziest and least accurate labels available. There is still a great deal of work to be done by activists in identifying and organizing these voters to vote for the kinds of policies they say they want, but this survey tells us that there are lots of them out there in need of someone to speak on their behalf in the government.

Families welcome soldiers of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division during the first of several Welcome Home Ceremonies following a nine month deployment, July 11, 2019, at Fort Drum, New York. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Paige Behringer)
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