Eroding Exceptionalism: America In Decline

Indispensable No More? – How the American Public Sees U.S. Foreign Policy

American exceptionalism is the belief that the foreign policy of the United States should be unconstrained by the parochial interests or international rules which govern other countries.

Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, Jake Sullivan defines American exceptionalism as the understanding that, “despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.”

Not only is the United States uniquely equipped to divine a larger common interest, but it has the singular opportunity to pursue and protect it.

Last year we discovered most Americans think the United States is exceptional because of the example it sets than for the active role it takes in world affairs. Americans were more than twice as likely to believe “America is exceptional because of what it represents” than believe “America is exceptional because of what it has done for the world.”

Although this remains true this year, the number of people who believe America is an exceptional country because of what it represents declined by 7 percent since last year. Those who believe America is not an exceptional country increased by roughly that amount.

The rise in anti-exceptionalism was most pronounced among younger Americans. It was the top answer choice for respondents under 45 years old. Fully 55 percent of those between 18 and 29 believe the United States is not an exceptional country, as do a plurality of Democrats, Independents, and unaffiliated voters.

This sharp increase in the number of people disavowing American exceptionalism and decrease in people thinking America is exceptional for what it represents takes place amid a backdrop of escalating attacks on democratic institutions by the Trump administration, and an impeachment inquiry which highlights deep partisan divisions within Congress.

Threat Perception

Split Along Partisan Lines

Americans continue to be split along party lines when asked about the greatest threat facing the U.S. in the 21st century. A plurality of Democrats and Independents are concerned with “a rise in populist and authoritarian governments.”

Republicans, on the other hand, fear America is “losing its national identity due to high levels of immigration.” Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all ranked as the second most urgent threat: “Americans becoming distrustful of democratic institutions and less committed to participating in civic life.”

The potential threat posed by immigration and a loss of national identity was ranked last among Democrats and ranked first among Republicans. These results continue to reflect a stark contrast in how people with different partisan identities view different threats.

Authoritarianism and immigration aren’t the only issues that stoke anxiety among Americans. The trade war between the U.S. and China has Americans worried as well. A 2019 New York Times poll shows that Americans anticipate negative economic consequences.3

The perceived threat of economic damage caused by trade wars in the survey results increased between 2018 and 2019 among both Democrats and Republicans. It is likely the Trump administration’s ongoing tariff disputes with China have people across the political spectrum feeling pessimistic and frustrated.

Peace Promotion

Bringing Democracy Home

Democratic candidates running in the 2020 presidential election argue the strength of America’s foreign policy is linked to the strength of American democracy. Indeed it is awkward to promote certain democratic values abroad as America struggles to live up to them at home.

In his prominent typology of foreign policy worldviews, Walter Russell Mead distinguishes between Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian types.4 Voters in the survey prioritize the domestic needs and the health of American democracy as a precondition to the pursuit of international peace – what is essentially a Jeffersonian worldview.

Although it’s not an orientation typically taken by foreign policy professionals, Richard Haass, arguably the dean of America’s foreign policy leadership, tapped into this sentiment in the title of a recent book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

And this sentiment becomes more widespread as politicians begin to understand the necessity of linking the U.S. governments’ foreign pursuits to the well-being of everyday Americans.

As with last year, this Jeffersonian outlook was the top choice among Republicans and Independents.

Democrats are more likely to embrace a Hamiltonian view – that economic integration and trade best promote peace. One notable exception to this is the finding that Elizabeth Warren supporters align more with Republicans and Independents in their support for the Jeffersonian view.

Somewhat surprisingly, supporters of Bernie Sanders, who has vigorously opposed free trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP, chose economic integration and free trade (a kind of Hamiltonian view) as the best way for promoting peace.

The Wilsonian view which grants primary importance to the global promotion and defense of democracy is the least popular among Republicans and second least popular among Democrats. The least popular among Democrats is the Jacksonian view, which sees the threat of overwhelming military force as the best path to peace.

This view was the second most popular, however, among Republicans (and among Trump voters).

Humanitarian Intervention

Americans Still Favor Restraint

We asked respondents how the U.S. should respond to humanitarian abuses overseas. Like last year, a plurality of Americans – nearly half – favor abstaining from military intervention when Americans are not directly threatened. 5

In 2018, 45 percent of Americans chose restraint as their first choice. In 2019, that has increased to 47 percent. Only 19 percent opt for a U.S.-led military response and 34 percent favor a multilateral, UN-led approach to stop humanitarian abuses overseas.

In the past year, Democrats have become more reluctant to respond to humanitarian abuses with force. Last year, 26 percent of them favored a U.S.-led military approach. This year, that dropped to 19 percent. That 7 percent drifted primarily toward favoring nonintervention and secondarily toward favoring multilateral intervention.

These findings suggest Democrats are less supportive of U.S. unilateral military action, even in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. Democrats are apparently less committed to the notion that the U.S. is obligated to defend vulnerable populations, and that doing so improves global stability.

Perhaps Democrats better appreciate how unilateral military action in the name of human rights can backfire, for example, in Libya or Afghanistan.

Or perhaps their distrust of the Trump administration has eroded their support for liberal interventionism. In any case, restraint and multilateralism are more attractive policy options among Democrats today.

Nonintervention is even more attractive to Republicans, a majority of whom registered support for it. For Republicans, a preference to abstain from intervention in response to human rights violations increased from 51 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2019.

Republicans in this camp favor restraint because they either believe the U.S. has its own domestic or human rights problems which America should focus on, or the U.S. should only put American troops at risk if there is a threat to American national security.

Defense Spending

Maintain Or Reduce The Budget

The U.S. defense budget is set to reach historic heights, with the Trump administration proposing a budget of $750 billion for 2020.

“The United States is expected to spend more on its military in 2020 than at any point since World War II, except for a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War,” according to a defense budget expert6.

Candidates in the 2020 democratic primary like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg advocate increasing America’s defense budget while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders advocate decreasing and reevaluating America’s military expenditure.7

Like the pool of candidates running for president, Americans are also varied in their views about America’s heightened defense budget.

About half of the respondents in this year’s survey thought lawmakers should maintain the current level of military spending, a slight increase from the 45 percent of respondents in 2018. Like last year, twice as many of the remaining respondents preferred decreasing rather than increasing the defense budget.

Consistent with last year’s findings, we found more Democrats than Republicans wanted to decrease military spending, and more Republicans than Democrats wanted to increase spending.

However, the majority of Republicans favor maintaining current levels of military spending over increasing the budget. And the most popular answer choice for Democrats was to spend less on defense.

Maintaining current levels of military spending is the most popular answer among all respondents. It is also the most popular answer among supporters for Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

The majority of Elizabeth Warren supporters and nearly half of Bernie Sanders supporters favor decreasing military spending. This represents not only a divide between the right and the left on ideas about military spending but also a divide between supporters of Sanders and Warren and those of Biden.

Democratic candidates and their supporters may be split on the issue of military spending as they work to build a unified platform on foreign policy. The majority of respondents who favor increasing the military budget also said they would support Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

We asked our survey participants why they thought the U.S. should increase or decrease the defense budget. The respondents chose between three possible rationales, and the results were weighted.

In 2018, the most popular rationale for increasing military spending related to perceptions of a weakened military under President Obama and a wish for it to be restored to its full strength.

In 2019, the most popular rationale had to do with increased fear of ascendent powers like China and Russia. In contrast, those who favor decreasing the budget, both in 2018 and 2019, believe there are greater needs at home where America should devote its resources.

Download Full White Paper (as PDF)View last year’s report (archived)

 

By Mark Hannah

This article was originally published by “EGF” 

 

The 21st Century

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