The Council on Foreign Relations Doesn’t Care What You Think

Bruce Stokes has a piece up at Foreign Policy describing the disconnect between public opinion on US foreign policy and elite opinion. The point has been made many times before. Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton wrote a book arguing that there is a disconnect in that the public wants more liberal foreign policies—focusing on multilateral cooperation, protecting weak nations from one another, improving foreigners’ standards of living, and promoting democracy abroad—but elites are more realist, focused on power and dominance. Dan Drezner, on the other hand, argued that there is a disconnect, but in exactly the opposite direction: the public is more realist, focused on power and security, and cool to the liberal views and policies of America’s foreign-policy elite.

Tabling who is right and who is wrong about what the public wants, everyone making this sort of argument is at least implicitly acknowledging that the foreign-policy elite defies public preferences on foreign policy. This is pretty easy to explain. Since the United States is so safe, foreign policy isn’t salient to voters in the way that their proximate interests—getting a tax credit or transfer payment—are. Some scholars have pointed out that public opinion on foreign policy has a lot to do with voters’ identity: right-thinking sorts of people hold these sorts of foreign policy views: “I am a right-thinking person, therefore I will hold these sorts of views.” This is why you hear foreign policy elites bleating endlessly about leadership, American exceptionalism, strength, et cetera. Those concepts zap the public in ways that wonky arguments about how extended deterrence or alliance politics work don’t.

As Ben Friedman and Chris Preble recently wrote in the LA Times, the public is moving closer to the views of Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars. A disastrous decade of foreign policy brought to them by the foreign-policy elite, combined with an economic slowdown and growing concerns about our domestic economy and politics, have created a come home, America sentiment among the public. Academic scholars, as well, have become more Cato-ish. As three academic proponents of the status quo recently admitted with alarm, “According to…most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy,” restraint’s time has come.

But public opinion, and certainly academic opinion, isn’t enough. The insular foreign policy elite, and the politicians who employ them, can regularly defy public opinion because voters generally don’t use the tools they have at their disposal—votes and campaign contributions—to get rid of the pols and policymakers whose foreign policies they don’t like. Foreign policy just doesn’t affect them enough to keep their attention. Moreover, the few interested parties in US foreign policy generally push for a more interventionist policy, not a less interventionist one. As Ben Friedman wrote:

In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Hitler and Stalin destroyed America’s isolationist tradition. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize interest groups against defense spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti-war liberals confronts a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organizational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.

In light of this, it’s remarkable that Americans have grown as sensible as they have. And there are obvious exceptions where politicians pay a price for their reckless policies—President George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and the foreign policy brain trust that dreamed it up did political damage to the individuals most closely associated with the policy—but these exceptions prove the rule.

Chris Layne, a leading opponent of America’s bipartisan interventionist strategy, put it well in his book Peace of Illusions:

Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion, as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy. It probably will take a major domestic political realignment—perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis at home—to bring about a change in American grand strategy.