Poll: Americans seek realism, not recklessness, in foreign policy

By Bonnie Kristian

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” as the old chestnut goes—and by that definition, Washington’s bi-partisan foreign policy establishment is a raving madhouse.

Not so the American public, which a new CKI/CNI poll finds to be thoroughly uninterested in repeating the foreign policy missteps of the past decade and a half. To the contrary, this survey depicts a country tired of reckless attempts to police the world and veering hard toward realism, nuance, and restraint. That shift is evident in three broad categories:

First, Americans evince a persistent rejection of recent record of failed foreign policy. The survey found an overwhelming majority do not believe post-9/11 foreign policy has made our country safer. More than half (51 percent) believe we are less safe because of our foreign policy, and another 27 percent say their safety level is unaffected. This rebuff of the national security consensus in Washington is no flash in the pan, either: The numbers remain very consistent with the results of previous polls on this subject in October and December, before the election and inauguration, respectively.

Second, Americans do not share Washington’s outdated view of defense spending as a sacred cow. Just one in ten said the government should devote hypothetical new tax income to military spending, and only one in 100 would like to see it go to foreign aid. Strikingly, though a majority actually underestimated current military spending, just 22 percent said that spending is too low. Were Americans aware of the true scale of this spending, and especially the Pentagon’s unique lack of accountability—it has never undergone a full audit despite a 22-year-old legal mandate to do exactly that—it is difficult to imagine debt-funded military spending hikes would register any support at all. 

And third, Americans prefer a realist, restrained grand strategy that prioritizes vital U.S. national security interests. This theme appears again and again in the CKI/CNI poll. Seven in 10 respondents said U.S. national interests—not the interests of other nations—should drive our foreign policy. In that light, it is no surprise that fewer than a quarter support sending more American troops to Europe or using our military to spread democracy abroad. Poll participants also displayed a more nuanced, realist view of Russia and China than the black-or-white, enemy-or-ally dichotomy Washington tends to present, with majorities indicating they see opportunities for cooperation with each country.

There is a lesson here for Washington in general, and especially for the new Trump administration, still struggling to define its foreign policy course.

Trump has “registered a strong dissent” to the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, argues Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, but the new president has yet to posit a coherent alternative strategy. He rightly decries failed military interventions and the trillions they wasted, but he has not made clear how his own foreign policy will be substantially more prudent or cost-effective.

These poll results—and Trump reportedly loves perusing poll results—are a good place to begin: Learn from the overreach of years past. Demand the Pentagon come into compliance with its audit requirement, so Congress can better assess both value and waste in past spending and more effectively budget for the future. . Think creatively about mutually beneficial partnerships with other world powers instead of reflexively pushing toward conflict. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship” should always be our goal in foreign relations, not war, protectionism, and entangling alliances.

Most of all, don’t use our military as world police, let alone world humanitarian services or nation builders. Instead, revise our reckless grand strategy to what Americans want: realism and restraint.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on February 17, 2017. Read more HERE.