Advocates for America’s global political role and forward-deployed military posture often argue that only the United States has sufficient economic power, military power and international prestige to solve international collective action problems and preserve favorable power balances in the key regions of Asia, the Middle East and Asia. Even President Obama – a supposed advocate of retrenchment – has said that global problems don’t get solved without American leadership. It is puzzling that these advocates so rarely account for the American people in their calculation’s of America’s proper role in the world.
One exception to this tendency is President Bill Clinton. George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s communications director, relates a 1993 conversation in which the president remarked that “Americans are basically isolationists…Right now the average American doesn’t see our interest threatened to the point where we should sacrifice one American life.” Clinton was speaking about the immediate situation in Somalia, but the point remains relevant.
Professional polling finds that Americans’ support for American foreign policy is erratic at best. A May 2016 report from the Pew Research Center found that 55% of their sample thought that America does “the right amount” or “too little” in helping to solve global problems. Yet the same report found that 69% thought that America should concentrate more on its own national problems. An October 2016 poll from the Charles Koch Institute, a libertarian think tank, found that a majority of their sample said that the last 15 years of American foreign policy had made Americans less safe. Official Washington often scoffs at polls like these arguing that one can find polling to support virtually any narrative and that Americans’ foreign policy views are too fickle to craft a coherent policy around.
Americans’ foreign policy views are indeed erratic. The trouble is that advocates of what Barry Posen calls liberal hegemony have drawn the wrong conclusion from that fact. Americans are dignified and exceptionally hard working folks, but they are not politically reliable in the sense of being willing to support open-ended foreign policy commitments. This is not a critique, but rather an admission that Americans are normal people who care more about their country than they care about other countries. Americans cannot actually “see further than other countries into the future” as Madeleine Albright once claimed.
This puts the flaw in expansionists’ reasoning into stark relief. By their own admission, the maintenance of the American-led international order requires that American foreign policy be reliable, and constantly reassuring. How sustainable can the American-led international order be if the American people will not support it? Through a combination of political influence and luck, the Washington, D.C. consensus has enjoyed seventy years of presidential administrations committed to their expansive definition of America’s international responsibilities. In 2016 they may have finally struck out. They are horrified and despondent and apocalyptic about the potential foreign policy consequences of the outcome of this election, but they have only themselves to blame. In its search for a new foreign policy paradigm, the incoming administration should keep this lesson firmly in mind. A coherent American grand strategy must flow, ultimately, from the people.