It would be hard to blame the White House for feeling unappreciated. Despite giving Americans the hands-off, “mind-your-own business” approach to the world for which they asked, recent polls indicate they are unhappy with the result. With multiple places around the globe mired in some kind of turmoil – Ukraine, Russia and Crimea; the waters of the Asia-Pacific; Syria; western and central Africa; Venezuela – Americans’ perceptions of the president’s ability to conduct sound foreign policy are, rightly or wrongly, souring.
In a recent Washington Post article, Robert Kagan tried to explain this “paradox.” He claimed that “for many decades Americans thought of their nation as special. ... Now, pundits and prognosticators are telling them those days are over, that it is time for the United States to seek more modest goals commensurate with its declining power.” In some sense, he is correct. But the underlying causes for this disconnect are deeper than Kagan seems to think: Americans want positive foreign policy results without hard foreign policy work.
According to a January Pew poll, Americans have grand ambitions: protecting the United States from terrorist attacks; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; becoming more involved in the global economy; keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; and many others. The message that comes across is that Americans want to steer the world safely home, but they don’t want to be in the driver’s seat.
The best example of this current feeling of “go big and stay home” Americans is the debate regarding in the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis. Currently, 46 percent disapprove of Obama’s policy toward Ukraine, despite 61 percent claiming the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about it. Even if Americans did feel Washington should play a role, countering Putin would require bolder action from NATO, according to Ian Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Those actions would involve sending military equipment, intelligence and surveillance capabilities to Ukraine, as well as conducting military exercises in the country. Anything resembling war is a non-starter for many Americans, especially right after Iraq and Afghanistan and as the domestic Syria debate shows. Around 68 percent of American citizens do not believe the United States should intervene while at the same time about 28 percent think Obama is handling the Syria crisis well. Surely a military response is not the only option for the United States, but it appears the public expects a good result even though it doesn’t want much American involvement.
This gap in desires and results will continue to be a problem for this president and others to come. Today’s world is certainly complex, more so than in years past, and it is only likely to get more turbulent and unruly as power diffuses to individuals, among and from states, and the ability to wield hegemonic power decreases. More conflicts, big and small, will occur in the future, many of them having the potential to send the world spiraling further into chaos. Just as Princip’s bullet led to two World Wars and a massive geopolitical shift, so could a situation similar to Crimea or the custody battle over islets in the South China Sea lead to something greater. Should this occur, the American public may ask the United States to stay out of it but still expect global stability.
There are two things that could change this gap in foreign policy desires and results. The first is a disaster on American soil – another terrorist attack, for example – that would cause a massive “rally ‘round the flag” effect and a thirst among the public for higher defense spending and global engagement. This occurred after September 11, 2001 and, to a lesser extent, this can be seen in Europe today where there is some momentum to reverse defense cuts. The other is a more robust form of presidential engagement with the citizenry. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, recently wrote that “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate.” Presidents must lead in terms of explaining to the nation the foreign policy priorities they set for the nation. Then, once those priorities are clear, it is up to the commander-in-chief to make the right moves to accomplish those goals. Only with greater interaction with the street and the elite may leaders enact the foreign policy they outline, and the public can better judge their leader’s strategy-making and execution of that strategy in relation to their own foreign policy priorities.
The polls show that the public has remained consistent in its foreign policy goals since the 1990s, but lately it is unwilling to match the tactics to the strategy. Some issues will require American military might; some will involve shrewd diplomacy; others will consist of cooperation with allies, partners and regional entities; while another may demand the United States to be relatively hands-off. But overall, the United States needs to be more engaged for the public’s demands to be met, or Americans will have to change their expectations.