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Is This Really Working for Us? Public Views on Foreign Policy

by Jean Johnson

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

“We, as a country, are just spread way too thin to get involved in anything else . . . “

“I understand the need for world order . . . but it just seems like whenever there is a huge international crisis, the United States is always the first one to run out and open [its] mouth . . . “

“I think we really should focus on this country. We are in such trouble ourselves.”


U.S. Marine Corps via Flickr

This is a sampling of comments from focus groups exploring American attitudes on foreign policy and on the crisis in Ukraine in particular, conducted this spring (before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17) by the FDR Group and the Kettering Foundation. National polls over the last few years pick up responses similar to those captured above.

According to the Pew Research Center, for example, 8 in 10 say the U.S. should “concentrate more on our own national problems” and “not think so much in international terms.” More than half of Americans want the country to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own .”

So what does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? The crisis in Ukraine, heartbreaking violence in the Middle East, the unraveling “Arab spring,” disintegrating relations with Russia, gang violence and turmoil in Central America--these are just a few of the tough international challenges we face. Do people really want the U.S. to step back from the world stage? Has the country become more isolationist? What happens when people begin to weigh the implications of U.S. disengagement?

Understanding public thinking on foreign policy is a complex assignment, whether you rely on surveys, focus groups or on community discussions such as National Issues Forums. Events abroad are in constant flux, and there are few policy issues where the public learning curve is steeper.

Americans are in fact quite worried about what happens abroad. They’re just not sure that U.S. assertiveness makes us any safer.

Polls capture people’s reactions about foreign policy questions whether they understand the stakes involved or not. Even in focus groups, it takes prolonged discussion to help participants consider the costs of getting involved in an international crisis versus the costs of staying out. And focus groups contain an important warning for anyone looking at the polls. People routinely assume that “involvement” or “action” means military combat. Most are unfamiliar with other diplomatic and economic tools the country might employ.

Yet despite these caveats, a closer look at recent polls and focus groups reveals some important themes.

Isn’t it time to work on our own problems?

Both surveys and focus groups show an authentic conviction among Americans that the U.S. needs to reduce its footprint abroad and take better care of business at home.

In the FDR/Kettering research, participants repeatedly asked why we were investing money, time, and attention in so many foreign hotspots given our own problems. “We have people living on streets; kids that aren't eating,” a New Jersey woman said when she was asked about U.S. policy on Ukraine. “And we focus all this money and attention on something that is none of our business, none of our business.” A man made a similar point about Afghanistan: “All that money that was spent in Afghanistan. Some of it should have been spent on Sandy, Katrina, Irene and all these other issues.”

Why are we always out front?

According to surveys, only 12 percent of Americans want the U.S. to be the “single world leader” compared to 72 percent who want us to have a “shared leadership role.” More extended focus group discussions underscore this concern. Even when reminded that wars abroad can endanger us here at home, many participants still wanted to know why the U.S. so often seems so eager to step forward.

“Why does it have to be us right away?” was a typical comment. Commenting on the dispute with Russia over Ukraine, a woman said: “Why should we be the first one? Always getting ourselves involved . . . At this point, it's more of like an ego trip. Who's the stronger man? Who's got the better country . . .?”

Surveys suggest the public is considerably more open to foreign policy initiatives when the U.S. works in concert with other countries, an idea that also emerged in the focus groups.

There are also indications that some Americans do reconsider their initial rejection of U.S. engagement abroad when they begin to weigh the consequences of “not acting.”

The FDR Group’s Steve Farkas describes what happened in the focus groups he led as participants wrestled with how the U.S. should address the crisis in Ukraine:

“As the evening wore on, some of those who shrank back from U.S. leadership and activism on a crisis like Crimea-Ukraine-Russia started to worry about the consequences of letting Putin have his way. Others in the room talked about the possibility that not confronting a bully would encourage him to escalate, and you could feel that a few of the isolationists started, just started, having second thoughts. Others held fast, they had thought through their position, saying Putin would not respond to sanctions —‘he'll do what he wants to do.’”

Does U.S. involvement abroad really make us safer?

Current surveys show that three-quarters of Americans now say the war in Iraq was “not worth the cost.”

One key insight from the research is that many Americans see “costs” to military action on top of the heavy human and financial toll. Some worried that the U.S. is now seen as a bully or an aggressor, and that this in itself endangers us.

“Really,” one woman said, “we dictate to other countries what they can do, who can have nuclear weapons, who can't, you know. . . It's just honestly, we're hated for a reason because we think we know the best way and if they don't do what we think is the best, we get mad, we send troops, we spend money, we go on TV.” Another said: “You know, if we minded our own business, we'd take the target off our back.”

Experts sometimes assume that public hesitancy about U.S. involvement abroad stems from indifference or a sense that what happens outside our borders doesn’t matter. But a closer look from the FDR/Kettering research suggests that many Americans are in fact quite worried about what happens abroad. They’re just not sure that U.S. assertiveness makes us any safer.

Who can we trust? Can anything really make any difference?

Perhaps the most troubling observation from the focus groups is the profound sense of weariness, mistrust, and cynicism evidenced by so many Americans.

Participants repeatedly questioned whether leaders and the press are telling the truth and whether U. S. foreign policy could make any difference even in the best of circumstances. For many, deep disappointment with our own country seeped into their thinking about what we can or should do abroad. “I think that we should support democracy when we start to practice it [here]. . . and we don't.” Another participant asked: “We're not even friends in our own country. How are we going to be friends with people from another country?”

Attitudes like these strongly suggest that rebuilding public confidence in this country’s foreign policy will require much more than replacing one set of strategies with different ones.

And yet despite the pervasive discontent in the focus groups, there were also sparks of curiosity and interest beneath the surface. Most participants delved into discussions about Ukraine even though they didn’t think we should get involved. Many listened intently to other people’s views. As the conversations progressed, some acknowledged their own lack of certainty about what the country should do.

Given the supreme difficulty of America’s foreign policy challenges, an open mind, a little humility and a desire to hear what other people think isn’t the worst place to start. Perhaps some of the TV talking heads who so insistently push their own “just do it my way” policy options should take note.




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