Public Opinion and an 'Active Role' for the U.S. in the World
When constant activism overseas is paired with persistent neglect of domestic needs, there is bound to be a reaction against an “active role.”
The Chicago Council of Global Affairs released its annual survey of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy this week. While most of the public remains wary of committing U.S. forces to fight in Ukraine and to defend Taiwan, Americans are even more supportive of U.S. commitments in Europe than they were in the recent past. At the same time, there is also a curious drop in support for an active U.S. role in the world to one of its lowest levels since the Council started conducting its surveys.
One would expect rising levels of public support for NATO and NATO expansion to be matched by a similar rise in support for an “active role,” but only 60% of the public endorses this as the better option. The survey asks, “Do you think it will be best for the country if we take an active role in world affairs or if we stay out.” Given that there are only two options and the alternative is described as “staying out,” it is remarkable that the number is as low as it is. It is hard to square declining support for an active role with rising support for the extremely active role that the U.S. is taking in Europe.
Some of the follow-up answers from respondents help clarify why some of them chose the “stay out” option. As the report states, “Among many Americans in the “stay out” camp, the argument was not that the country needs to focus its resources and attention only on itself but that this needs to be the higher priority.” When constant activism overseas is paired with persistent neglect of domestic needs, there is bound to be a reaction against an “active role” that comes at the expense of taking care of our own concerns at home.
According to the survey, there is less support for the U.S. taking an active role in the world than there has been since 2014. The only other times when support was this low were during the post-Vietnam years reaching a nadir in 1982. When the public has soured on an active role, it has usually come in the years following long, failed U.S. wars. The decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s followed Vietnam, and support dropped again until 2014 in the wake of the Iraq war. It may be that the latest slump is coming partly in response to the end of the war in Afghanistan, but the decline in support started even before the withdrawal began.
Support for an active role is lowest among Republicans and independents at 55% for each group, and even among Democrats support has dropped ten points since it hit a peak in 2020. The surge in Democratic support for an “active role” seems to have been at least partly a partisan reaction against the Trump administration, and that has started to wear off under Biden. Republican support has slumped to its lowest level in the survey’s history, and we can see that a sharp drop in Republican support began around three years ago. Republicans and independents are also less likely to say that the benefits of the U.S. role are worth the costs: just 52% and 51% respectively take that position. Both groups are much more likely to see the costs as exceeding the benefits.
On Taiwan, there is still a fair amount of support for sending U.S. troops to defend against a Chinese attack (40%), but this represents a drop from last year’s survey. Last year an outright majority supported this option. One of the more disturbing findings is that almost two-thirds of the public endorse using the Navy to prevent a Chinese blockade, which would very likely involve direct conflict with Chinese forces. It is unclear if the respondents understand what “using the Navy” in this way might entail.
In some depressing findings regarding burden-sharing, there is broad support for U.S. bases and troops in Europe. Support for long-term bases in Germany is as high now as it was in 2002 (68%). There is now also majority support for bases in Poland, which was absolutely not the case just a few years earlier. There is a similar amount of support for U.S. bases in the Baltic states. When the U.S. should be doing all it can to reduce its military presence in Europe and shift responsibility for European security to allies, this enthusiasm for more American bases in Europe is deeply misguided. Support for adding even more members to NATO is similarly high, and irrationally so. Even Georgian membership gets 67% support.
One of the more notable findings is the extent to which half of the public now views Europe as the most important region for the military security of the United States. Two years ago, this stood at 15% and it has shot up to 50% this year. In 2020, it was the Middle East that was rated as the most important region by a wide margin with 61% identifying it as such. That misperception was so strong because of potential for conflict with Iran at the start of that year. This year, the Middle East has dropped back to third place at just 19%. The odd thing is that Asia would seem to be obviously more important for U.S. security than Europe or the Middle East, but it is rarely perceived as such by more than a fifth of the population. As the government and media coverage have paid significantly more attention to the war in Ukraine than they have to other parts of the world, it is understandable that more Americans would see this increased attention as evidence of Europe’s greater importance to U.S. security, but that just shows how quickly public opinion on this question can change with changes in coverage.