The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has a storied history of conducting public opinion surveys on U.S. foreign policy. For decades, it has helped establish how Americans’ sensibilities and policy views have changed. Unfortunately, the recently released 2019 version of its report, titled “Rejecting Retreat,” reads too much like an argument with the strawman of isolationism and not enough like an objective assessment of where Americans are on foreign policy today. The council’s effort to convince elites that the public is demanding a return to the status quo ante Trump obscures several important lessons.
The first lesson is that the American public would prefer a more restrained foreign policy than elites have delivered in past decades. The council report suggests otherwise. Speaking of the survey findings, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and report coauthor Ivo Daalder announced that the public believes “the way you make America safe is the traditional way in which the United States has made America safe, which is U.S. military superiority, strong alliances, basing forces overseas, and being willing to defend your allies when they’re attacked.”
Similarly, the report’s introduction argues that:
The American public wants to reinvigorate the time-tested alliances and strategies of US foreign policy that have been in place for the last seven decades . . . [It] broadly supports the kind of measured, active engagement pursued by administrations from both political parties for decades . . . There are no signs of Americans wanting to withdraw from the world; to the contrary, they want America to be engaged, and they reject any idea of retreat.
The American public does not reject any idea of retreat. Although they favor international engagement, in the abstract, the public has exhibited a decided lack of enthusiasm for many areas of recent foreign policy. Moreover, much of that displeasure concerns the most important elements of recent foreign policy: namely the endless and costly post–9/11 wars dotting the globe.
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