Missing from the US foreign policy debate: public opinion

Obama’s foreign policy has recently come under harsh criticism. A quieter and more restrained United States on the world stage has led opponents and even many supporters, at home and abroad, to say that Obama has no vision or leadership quality in foreign policy. What I find to often be missing from the debate is the changing attitudes of the American public. With elections every two years, campaign season hardly ever really ends. American politicians that want to ensure their party gaining or maintaining control of any of the branches of government will not turn a blind eye to public opinion. While it is too soon to tell if the new attitudes held by the American public are just a temporary phenomenon, it cannot be ignored in the debate over America’s new subdued position in the world.

Obama was elected at a time of euphoria, essentially based on the fact that he wasn’t Bush. His idea of “change” and slogan of “yes we can/si se puede” worked very well to get him elected, but in the end this resulted in expectations so high that you are bound to disappoint. Obama’s foreign policy at first was a reaction to Bush’s, rather than his own organic strategy. He used his first 100 days to repair relations with the world–especially the Middle East. Speaking to crowds in Europe, delivering his famous speech in Cairo, and telling the Turkish parliament that the US is “not at war with Islam”. All this helped to improve the image of the US in the region and around the globe.

The euphoria has vanished. Opinion, political and public, of the US has fallen again after a sharp rise with Obama’s election, and support for Obama has declined as well. Domestically, support for the president is now hovering just over 40%. After repairing relations with the world, Obama also wanted to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he has done. His reluctance to intervene or to commit the US to conflicts reflects a new reality in America, where public opinion regarding international relations has shifted following a decade of two wars.

Several recent polls illustrate this shift in attitudes. The first of which I’ll highlight is this recent poll by the Pew Research Center, one of the major political polling centers. The poll asked Americans if they think the US should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries handle their own affairs. Despite the question being quite vague, a huge difference over time can be seen in the chart showing the responses. Data from this question stretches back to 1964, when only 20% of respondents agreed with this statement. There has been a gradual shift upwards since then, with the biggest increase coming since 2004. In fact, the highest point reached by those who think the US should mind its own business is in 2013, the last time this survey was taken, when 52% of the respondents said they think the US should let other countries handle their own affairs.

Another question in the survey asked respondents if they agreed with the idea that the US should focus on its own problems instead of international relations. Like the former question, the proportion of the respondents that agreed with this statement reached a new peak in 2013 of 80%.

Taken together, this Pew Research Center poll shows the new reality of domestic public opinion on international relations in the US. War fatigue, the recent recession, and the realization that Bush harmed the US image abroad, have caused more and more Americans to now see the need for the US to focus on itself and to stop sending troops to other countries. As the 9/11 attacks and the rhetoric used by Bush afterwards becomes more distant, the “war on terror” aspect of foreign policy has also fallen in importance to the American public. Another poll, this one done by Gallup, shows that now only 4% of Americans view terrorism as the most important problem that the US faces, compared to nearly half who did in 2002.

Before Ebola became the main news story, it was the Islamic State (IS) that was the center of all media attention. Following the increase in news coverage, and greater political attention regarding this crisis in Iraq and Syria, there will perhaps be another shift in American attitudes. Another poll by the Pew Research Center in 2014 shows an increase in those who think that the US does too little in solving the world’s problems. While a plurality still says it does too much, there is a clear and statistically significant increase in those who say it does too little, going from 17% in November 2013 to 31% in August 2014. And if we look at another Gallup poll testing support for action in Iraq and Syria, nearly 60% of the public actually support US military action. However, this can be misleading, as the discourse coming from the executive regarding this conflict has been quick to distinguish: unlike other Middle East conflicts, the US government has no intention of sending in ground troops.

The recent events in the Middle East may have shifted US public opinion back towards supporting some kind of (lighter) intervention, but the overall shift in attitudes relating to the role of their country cannot be ignored when discussing Obama’s foreign policy strategy. Elections in the US occur every two years when we include the mid-term elections that elect one third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives. Because the two parties are constantly vying for the house, the senate, and the white house, public opinion matters and cannot be dismissed. While Europe and some parts of the world might want the US to act in a crisis, they are not the electorate to which American politicians must answer. The American public’s expectations in regard to foreign policy have changed, and the world must acknowledge this and adapt.


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