The Eurasia Group Foundation's latest survey report, titled “Order and Disorder: U.S. Foreign Policy in a Fragmented World,” covered a range of issues from sanctions and arms sales to drone strikes and the war in Ukraine, and it contains several notable findings about how Americans perceive different aspects of U.S. global engagement.
According to the report, Americans are very open to diplomacy with hostile powers, but they are also supportive of going to war with China to a disturbing degree.
One of the chief findings is that Americans are broadly in favor of direct diplomatic engagement with adversaries and even more support negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. According to the poll, two-thirds of Americans favor negotiations with adversaries even if they are responsible for human rights abuses, authoritarian governments, or home to terrorist organizations, 77% support continued nuclear talks with Iran, and 58% of Americans also want the U.S. to push for a negotiated settlement to end the war in Ukraine.
Support for diplomatic solutions has majority backing of Americans from across the political spectrum, so it is remarkable how little support for those same solutions can be found among our elected representatives and policymakers in Washington.
Some of the report’s findings are unsurprising. There is a partisan divide over Ukraine policy with Democrats tending to be much more supportive of the administration approach than Republicans and Republicans are the most hawkish when it comes to China.
But perhaps one of the most surprising and significant results is the extent to which Americans of all political camps now say that they support direct intervention in a war over Taiwan.
Other surveys in recent years have found that roughly 40% of Americans back direct U.S. intervention in the event of a Chinese attack, but the EGF survey found that overall support for intervention is at 60%. That may be the result of rising tensions between China and Taiwan and the ongoing deterioration of relations between the U.S. and China over the past year since former House Speaker Pelosi’s ill-advised visit to Taipei last summer. It may be caused by the constant drumbeat of anti-China rhetoric from members of both parties. It could be some combination of all three.
Regardless, this represents a significant increase in public support for going to war over Taiwan, and that suggests that the public does not fully grasp how costly and dangerous such a war would be. Support for intervention is relatively soft with most of the supporters saying that they only “somewhat” support sending U.S. forces to help defend Taiwan, but it can’t be denied that this is a major shift in U.S. public opinion in the last ten years. It is a measure of how dominant hawkish groupthink on China policy has become if a majority of the public now says that they support waging a major war with a nuclear-armed adversary.
The public is split almost exactly in half over whether the U.S. should sell arms to other countries. Fifty-three percent believe that the U.S. should stop selling arms. The finding on arms sales is striking because the question refers only to “selling arms globally” without saying anything about the governments that are purchasing them. Most Democratic and independent respondents say that the U.S. should not continue arms sales, and even 48% of Republicans say the same.
While this opposition to arms sales is likely influenced by debates over arming Saudi Arabia and other abusive authoritarian governments, it is important to note that the respondents are rejecting all arms sales no matter where they are going.
While Americans are divided over the desirability of arms sales, most are generally fine with U.S. sanctions and for some reason believe them to be an effective policy tool. Just over 60% of Americans overall said that sanctions were “always” or “often” an effective tool, and only 39% said that they were “rarely” or “never” effective. That is somewhat surprising given the repeated failures of sanctions, especially broad sanctions, to achieve stated policy goals and the extensive humanitarian harm that they cause to target populations.
Where would so many Americans get the impression that sanctions are an effective tool when they clearly are not? It is hard to say, but perhaps one reason for this view is the constant use of sanctions as the default government response in so many different places. It could be that the public assumes that sanctions must be effective or else they wouldn’t be imposed so frequently. When they were prompted by the government’s many different reasons for imposing sanctions, perhaps the respondents concluded that the tool must be useful if it is being used to address so many issues.
The responses to the question on sanctions were among the most disheartening in the entire survey, because they are so divorced from reality and show no awareness of the terrible track record that economic sanctions have. Independent respondents were least likely to say that sanctions are an effective policy tool, but even here the pro-sanctions view narrowly prevailed. The public’s unfounded confidence in the efficacy of sanctions is not a new development, but it is another obstacle to efforts to rein in and possibly end the use of economic warfare.
One of the more encouraging results was the narrow majority support for repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Fifty-four percent say they favor repealing the authorization, with support for repeal being strongest among Democrats (56%) and independents (62%). Two out of five Republicans agree that the authorization should be repealed. It is significant that they did not mention passing a new authorization to replace the old one. Most Americans appear to be done with the “war on terror,” and they want to get rid of the authorization that has been used to fight it.
Two years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the public still has a generally negative assessment of the war. Most Americans understandably conclude that the war was a failure, and 30% believe that the war had a failed mission from the start. Another 32% say that the war should have ended following the death of Osama bin Laden. Only 13% believe that the withdrawal hurt U.S. credibility, and that shows that very few people in the country buy the bogus credibility argument that hawks have been selling all these years.
The findings in the EGF survey point to some promising areas for policy reform. There seems to be fertile ground for pursuing AUMF repeal and a major overhaul of U.S. arms sales. Unfortunately, there are other policies, including sanctions, that will require a lot more work in terms of educating the public and changing how Americans understand these issues.
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