America’s birth certificate — our Declaration of Independence — states that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
But when it comes to foreign policy in the real tumultuous world of 2019 does that guidance apply? And should it?
These questions come to mind because of a thought-provoking new study just released by the Eurasia Group Foundation — a private organization that has been conducting some cutting edge research on the way Americans connect with the rest of the world.
Their latest survey — based on interviews with 1000 adults nationwide— is an eye-opener. And unfortunately, in an era of political craziness and constant news out of Washington, it did not get the attention it deserves.
There is serious food for thought here for all of us who are concerned about America’s place in the world — and how those concerns became exacerbated in the age of Trump.
In short, the study found a disconnect between the way Americans across the country view U.S. engagement abroad and the beliefs and convictions of long time foreign policy experts. The public wants to see a more restrained approach to international relations and military interventions. The experts — with their training, experience, and knowledge of history — favor a more expansive role.
The view of the experts should come as no surprise. Think back to the days of World War I, World War II, The Marshall Plan, the founding of the U.N., Korea, Vietnam — well, you get the picture. Since the days of our own Civil War in the 1860’s, the United States has become a dominant super-power — engaged on the world stage, with the understanding that American soldiers and taxpayer money are essential to preserve global security.
But the Eurasia Group study shows many Americans — no matter their political leanings — want fewer entanglements abroad. Be they conservative or liberal, and no matter what their age, they have become skeptical of foreign intervention.
Consider just one answer they submitted to the survey. One.
They were asked how peace is best achieved and sustained by the United States. Just over 34% said we promote peace by focusing on domestic needs and the health of American democracy. Only 18% said the best way to achieve peace is by promoting and defending democracy around the world.
Yes, among the survey participants, foreign engagement was the least favored response. It finished in last place.
You can also look at it this way: the American public believes we should lead by example, and not by intervention.
About half of those surveyed agreed that “America is exceptional because of what it represents.” Less than 18% said “America is exceptional because of what it has done for the world.”
This skepticism is especially strong when it comes to the use of force. Participants were asked how the United States should respond “if Iran gets back on track with its nuclear weapons program.” Eighty percent said the focus should be on diplomacy.
There was a split on military spending levels, with just under half of those surveyed saying current spending levels are sufficient while the rest thought some of the money should go to meet other priorities.
Compare those opinions with a compilation of the writings of 45 randomly chosen foreign policy experts — which is exactly what the research team at the Eurasia Group did. The gap is wide.
Donald Trump saw it. Despite all the chaos inherent in his foreign and military policy-making, there is this one common thread of “America first.” To him, the times call for a new “Declaration of Independence” from foreign entanglements.
We do that at our own peril, according to Ian Brenner the founder and president of the Eurasia Group Foundation.
In an essay on the study findings for TIME magazine, Brenner said those responsible for foreign and military policy need to come to terms in this day and age with the views of the public:
“I would argue that U.S. policymakers have an opportunity here — to re-engage with their constituents, at a time when the American public’s outlook appears better-suited to the fraught geopolitical realities of the current moment.”
He said failure to do so brings great risks. Bremmer wrote it can erode the public trust, and can have an impact overseas:
“When foreign policy is pursued without significant public support, foreign governments perceive the United States as a less dependable and predictable partner; foreign enemies see potential divisions to be exploited,” he said.
And then there is this. Engaging Americans on foreign affairs, reminding them why it is so important to care about events overseas — how the whole world is their neighborhood — opens the door to fresh ideas and thoughtful proposals.
The final report on the “Worlds Apart” survey — written by lead researcher Mark Hannah – notes “a deficit of democracy accrues when governing is unyoked to public opinion.”
That does not mean the views of the public should always rule — one need look no further than the Brexit debacle in the United Kingdom to understand that. But the thoughts of the public must be taken into account. Foreign policy can not just be dictated from on high.
In a representative democracy like ours, elected leaders are not under any obligation to follow the collective view of the public. And in truth, a lot of specific knowledge is needed in order to deal with the challenges of the world. But as the Eurasia Group’s Worlds Apart survey points out, whether attempting to follow or lead public opinion on foreign policy, our officials are duty-bound to engage.
The world will be better for it.
So will we.