Trump Should know that Americans Want Restraint

By Daniel DePetris

As President-Elect Donald Trump prepares to recite the oath of office on January 20 and take the reigns of government as America's next Commander-in-Chief, he is receiving no shortage of advice about which issues should be his top priorities, which nations his administration should keep an eye on, and what kinds of policies he should enact in order to promote U.S. interests around the world.  The president-elect would be wise to listen to the American people when he forms those policies, 52 percent of whom believe that U.S. foreign policy over the past 15 years has made them less safe.

A new national survey from the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest, conducted this month, reveals a belief that is as widespread among the electorate as it is prudent foreign policy advice: the United States should ask a lot of questions first before deploying the awesome power of its military or spending billions of taxpayer dollars on problem areas around the world.  When more than half of Americans polled agree with the notion that American foreign policy has made the international community less safe (51 percent) as opposed to more safe (11 percent), it doesn't take a foreign service officer with three-decades of globe-trotting experience to understand that the American people desire a more restrained, realist, dare I say pragmatic approach.

The KCI/CNI poll is full of examples that illustrate just how unsatisfactory Americans view the foreign policy and national security elites that have converted Washington into their permanent home base.  

The American people are smart; they recognize that the United States, however powerful it is and will continue to be, wouldn't be able to perform a lot of functions around the world without treaty allies, friends, and partners.  But they also realize that, because the United States is so strong economically, militarily, and diplomatically relative to other nations, even allies and friends have a natural tendency to piggyback on America's shoulders when a Russian bear pops out of the woods or a dictator starts arresting his political opponents.  This is likely why a 36 percent plurality in the KCI/CNI survey want the incoming administration to "encourage European allies in NATO to increase their spending on national defense" - a change in approach that U.S. policymakers have pushed for but European nations have been slow to do.  While this statistic has been used repeatedly over the years, it bears repeating again: only four of NATO's twenty-seven states (excluding the U.S.) meet the 2 percent GDP requirement on defense spending.  To say it undiplomatically, Americans are tired of the Europeans not pulling their NATO commitments.

The next Commander-in-Chief will undoubtably confront crises both big and small, some of which will impact America's core national security interests and others that will be so unrelated to U.S. national security that it would be rash and foolish to plunge America's military into the problem.  But if the survey is indeed representative of the entire population at large, then the American people are crystal clear about what they want from their new government: more diplomacy rather than military force, with policymakers relying less on military solutions to disputes that are political at its core.

Despite a near universal concern in Washington that Russian President Vladimir Putin is an increasingly belligerent despot who is a stone's throw away from invading the Baltics, Americans aren't necessarily convinced that the threat is looming or that the U.S. military should be responsible for taking the lead in defending the European continent.  Only 12 percent of Americans surveyed argued for an increase in U.S. troops in Europe and more than a quarter (28 percent) actually want U.S. troop numbers in Europe to decrease.  And on the question of whether the U.S. should consider Russia an adversary or an ally, a plurality of 38 percent choose both titles at the same time - a finding that could plausibly be interpreted as Americans wanting the next administration to see shades of gray rather than embracing a black-and-white paradigm.  Washington should instead work with Moscow when they can, but push back against the Russians when they must.

There are plenty of interesting findings from the CKI/CNI poll; the entire survey is 60 pages long.  But the bottom-line can't be clearer: for the Americans who aren't part of the foreign policy establishment but nevertheless pay for the country's defense budget, foreign assistance programs, and State Department accounts, foreign policy is best served with a heavy portion of cold, hard realism.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on December 31, 2016. Read more HERE