Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Mind the Gap: The Foreign Policy Disconnect between Washington and America

During the Cold War, Washington’s foreign policy establishment operated comfortable in the knowledge that sizeable majorities supported vigorous American global leadership in the struggle with the Soviet Union. More recently, however, many observers have started worrying about the growing disconnect between the Washington’s elites and the public. The scholar Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece that the most important question in world politics today is “Will U.S. public opinion continue to support an active and strategically focused foreign policy? 

The answer is a qualified yes. Americans on balance remain committed to international engagement but advocates of the status quo are right to worry because Americans increasingly disagree with Washington about how to engage the world.

Americans are not isolationists. As the 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed, 70% of Americans want the United States to take an “active part” in world affairs. But the more important question is what does an “active part” really mean? A recent study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, for example, found that 47% of elites subscribe to the “indispensable nation” vision for foreign policy, which calls on the United States to maintain overwhelming military superiority and continue intensive efforts to manage world order, while just 9% supported a more restrained vision of foreign policy. The same study, however, found public preferences to be the reverse of elites: 44% supported a more restrained approach to foreign policy and just 10% supported the indispensable nation approach.

Looking deeper, despite all the nostalgia for the Cold War consensus, there have always been important differences between the public and elites when it comes to foreign affairs. Academic analysis of decades of survey data has identified a stable set of attitude gaps between the public and their leaders. Moreover, while many of the gaps are quite large – often in the range of 30 percentage points or more – the gaps between Republican and Democratic leaders on the key issues are quite small – typically just a few percentage points.

Elites are far more likely to view globalization and international trade positively, for example, while the public is are more likely to express support for focusing on domestic affairs over foreign affairs. A 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs study found that 90% of Republican leaders and 94% of Democratic leaders believe globalization and trade are “mostly good” for the United States, while the figures hover around 60% for the public.

The same study shows that the public, on the other hand, is more sensitive than elites to perceived threats to the economy and to the homeland. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans and 74% of Democrats think protecting American jobs should be a “very important” foreign policy goal, compared to just 25% of Republican leaders and 37% of Democratic leaders. Meanwhile 27% of Democrats, 40% of Independents, and 67% of Republicans view “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S.” as a critical threat in the next 10 years, compared to just 5% of Democratic leaders and 19% of Republican leaders.

Finally, though it depends on the scenario, the public has always been more hesitant about the use of military force abroad than elites. In the Eurasia Group Foundation study, for example, 95% of foreign policy experts would support using military force if Russia invaded Estonia, a NATO ally, compared to just 54.2% of the public. The 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey similarly found that 64% of Democratic leaders and 71% of Republican leaders think that defending allies’ security should be a very important foreign policy goal for the United States compared to 36% of Republicans and 37% of Democrats generally.

But despite the size and stability of the gaps between elites and the public, Washington has not budged. Defenders of the status quo tend to view the public as too inattentive and too ignorant to form meaningful opinions about foreign policy. From this view, public support might be important from a political perspective, but the content of people’s actual opinions is not. The task for Washington today, according to this camp, is to reframe existing foreign policy in a manner that shores up public support for the elite consensus.

This obstinance might be defensible were the United States not a democracy or if the American track record on foreign policy were more glorious. As it happens, the track record of American foreign policy is far from glorious and recent surveys thus reveal entirely sensible reactions to our failures. Instead of wringing its collective hands about the fragility of public support, Washington needs to wake up and start taking public opinion seriously. No one will confuse the average American with a foreign policy expert, but given America’s history and current situation, public preferences are stable, clear, and prudent. The American public wants a less ambitious and less aggressive foreign policy than the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War, and especially over the past 18 years. The task for Washington today is to embrace these attitudes and create a new foreign policy worthy of public support.

Trump’s Crazy Military Budget

The White House unveiled its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020 and, to the apparent surprise of some military planners, the White House is calling for a top line national defense budget of $750 billion. Pentagon officials had reportedly anticipated a budget of $733 billion, which would have been a 2.4 percent increase over last year’s. They got a 4.7 percent increase instead. According to the supporting documentation, the request is intended to provide the Department of Defense with the resources to “remain the preeminent military power in the world, ensure balances of power in key regions remain in America’s favor, and advance an international order that is the most conducive to U.S. security and prosperity.”

The United States spends more than twice as much on its military as China and Russia combined, and is clearly the world’s “preeminent military power,” but it isn’t obvious that we’re getting the biggest bang for our bucks, nor that this additional spending will be critical to sustaining our edge. More to the point, even with all this “preeminence,” the U.S. military has struggled to bring current conflicts to a satisfactory end. As noted in 2016 by Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “We’re 0 for a lot.” Military historian Andrew Bacevich similarly concludes “having been ‘at war’ for virtually the entire twenty-first century, the United States military is still looking for its first win.” (h/t Steve Walt)

Perhaps it’s not the military’s fault? And perhaps it’s not due to a shortage of funds? I think that the real culprit is that U.S. officials continue to expect the military to solve a host of problems that could be better addressed by other means, or left to be dealt with by other countries.

President Donald Trump has at times shown his frustration, but the reality of his budgets speaks louder than his words. This latest increase comes after he had gone back and forth on what he wanted to spend, initially telling all departments to prepare for a 5 percent cut, then back-tracking and saying the defense budget would not only be exempt from such reductions, but would actually increase. On another occasion, he blurted out on Twitter that it was “crazy” to spend $716 billion on the military, but then reversed himself a week later.

While $750 billion already represents a large increase in the budget, the most notable growth comes from within that request. The White House has asked that $165 billion come from Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Last year, OCO received $69 billion. While originally intended as a way to fund the supposedly unexpected costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, OCO has become a sort of “slush fund” for the Pentagon to avoid the budget caps put in place by the Budget Control Act (BCA). As my former Cato colleague Caroline Dorminey points out, $750 billion is an “astronomical increase” and well above the BCA cap of $576 billion. Taxpayers for Common Sense observes that OCO’s funding level would make it the second largest government agency, in terms of discretionary spending – behind the Pentagon, of course.

For a person who was elected to the presidency by railing against the foreign policy establishment, proclaiming America’s overly militarized foreign policy a “complete and total disaster,” and, most recently, declaring in his State of the Union address that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” President Trump has once again funded a military geared toward perpetuating the status quo, and remaining embroiled in the endless wars that he’s promised to quit.

I expect that House Democrats, beginning with House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA), will cast a skeptical eye toward the administration’s request. I also hope, however, that all Americans will dare ask how all this spending actually makes us safer, and ponder why the many other instruments of American power and influence – including diplomacy (Trump’s budget calls for cutting the State Department by 23 percent), trade, and voluntary cultural exchange – continue to get short shrift from this administration. 

(Thanks to James Knupp for his help with this post)

What Are the Costs of U.S. Troops Stationed Abroad?

In private discussions with his aides, President Trump has devised an eye-popping formula to address one of his long-standing complaints: that allies hosting U.S. forces don’t pay Washington enough money.

Under the formula, countries would pay the full cost of stationing American troops on their territory, plus 50 percent more, said U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the idea, which could have allies contributing five times what they provide.

This perspective seems backwards.

If stationing U.S. troops in, say, the Middle East prevents 9/11’s or other terrorist attacks against the U.S., then the direct expenditures is a small price to pay.

But if U.S. troops, bases, invasions, and occupations increase resentment of the U.S. and make attacks more likely, then any reduction in expenditure that keeps our troops abroad is penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Plus, a forward-deployed military posture has other costs, as detailed by Cato’s John Glaser here.

Determining the impact of our foreign interventions on terrorism is admittedly a difficult task.

But that is the crucial question; not whether we, or they, pay for the expenditure.

Introducing America’s Nuclear Crossroads: A Forward-Looking Anthology

As the United States adjusts to a changing global balance of power, nuclear deterrence is poised to return to a level of importance in U.S. national security not seen since the end of the Cold War. However, U.S. nuclear strategy will have to contend with emerging issues like arms control in a multipolar world, the evolution of strategic technology, and the new contours of great power competition.

America’s Nuclear Crossroads, a forthcoming anthology from the Cato Institute, is a useful reference tool for policymakers as they navigate an increasingly complex nuclear security environment. We are pleased to present three advance chapters from the anthology examining the U.S. nuclear modernization plan, missile defense’s impact on nuclear stability, and the challenges posed by Iran and North Korea. 

The full anthology will be released later this spring. To view a digital copy of the three preview chapters and fill out a form to receive email updates about the project, including notification of the full publication and information about anthology-related speaking events, please visit

Will Congress Act to End the War in Afghanistan?

This week, Senators Rand Paul and Tom Udall introduced a joint resolution to end the war in Afghanistan. This legislation gives the Department of Defense 45 days to formulate a plan for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops within one year. This new plan would accelerate the Trump administration’s current timetable to withdraw after 5 years. President Trump campaigned on leaving Afghanistan and has reiterated this interest since taking office. This bill will give him the opportunity to make good on his campaign promise during his first term.

My colleague Christopher Preble argues in The National Interest:

The case for this resolution is simple and straightforward. The U.S. military has achieved its core objectives spelled out after 9/11. Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda is crippled. The Department of Defense reported last June: “The Al Qaeda threat to the United States and its allies and partners has decreased and the few remaining al Qaeda core members are focused on their own survival.”

…The Paul-Udall resolution is consistent with the wishes of the American people, 61 percent of whom support withdrawal, whereas advocates for war-without-end openly defy public sentiment. The latter should explain why the American people’s views are irrelevant.

Many in Washington don’t want to leave until America “wins” the war, though it’s not clear at this point what victory would look like. They fear a complete U.S. withdrawal and a return to Taliban rule will make Afghanistan a sanctuary for terrorists to launch transnational attacks against America and its allies. But as I argue in the New York Daily News, the fear of a safe haven is misplaced:

Al-Qaeda’s presence Afghanistan in the lead up to 9/11 did not have real operational utility in perpetrating the attacks on New York and Washington. The attacks were also planned from Germany and Malaysia, and even the United States itself. In an age of instant global communications, a territorial haven in remote, land-locked Afghanistan isn’t much help to terrorist groups plotting to attack the west.

In any case, terrorism is not some kind of existential peril warranting perpetual war. It is a relatively minor and manageable threat. One estimate, employing standard risk analysis, found that in order to even begin to justify the $75 billion in annual anti-terrorism homeland security expenditures, there would have to have been about three 9/11 attacks every four years.

Afghanistan has cost about $2 trillion on top of that. Most people who attempt to commit terrorist attacks here in the United States are home-grown and there is no evidence – none – that battling insurgents there has deterred terrorist attacks here. Clearly, the resources we spend on the war exceed any plausible benefit to national security.

In any case, in negotiations with Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan, the Taliban have agreed in principle to deny al Qaeda a presence in the country going forward. We should take that as a fair compromise and begin the business of getting out.

Critics are right to warn that things may get nasty following U.S. withdrawal, but, as with Iraq, that will be true no matter when we decide to leave. Another five years won’t erase that problem.

As I conclude in my op-ed: “Watching democracy roll back in Afghanistan will be difficult, but it should serve as a reminder that the nation-building mission we elected to adopt after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 was a lost bet from the beginning…Policymakers must learn the limits of U.S. power and refrain from adopting ambitious missions for peripheral interests. Refusing to fight unwinnable and unnecessary wars is the first step to not losing them.”

If adopted, this resolution could have implications beyond Afghanistan, as it calls for a repeal of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which the executive branch continues to dubiously rely on as the legal permission to engage in hostilities in numerous countries around the world. As my other colleague Gene Healy and I argued in the New York Times last year, repealing (and not replacing) the AUMF is long overdue. 

Trump and Congressional Democrats both Engage in Petty Partisanship about the Hanoi Summit

The recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi has become the latest domestic partisan battlefield. President Trump now implies that congressional Democrats were at least partly responsible for the failure of negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. His allegations are exaggerated, but they are not entirely erroneous.

The summit ended abruptly without an agreement on any issue or even the publication of a joint communique. That outcome was a surprise to many experts. Widespread expectations existed that the two leaders would issue a declaration officially ending the Korean War, and that they would establish liaison offices as the first step toward full diplomatic relations. Optimists also hoped for an agreement on initial measures toward North Korea’s denuclearization in exchange for the lifting of some U.S. and international economic sanctions.

For days following the summit, the president insisted that the meeting had not been a failure, merely one step in a very long, difficult process. He also contended that it became necessary to walk away from the negotiations in Hanoi because Kim insisted on the lifting of all sanctions merely for closing the Yongbyon reactor complex—just one of North Korea’s known or suspected nuclear facilities. The North Korean government denied Trump’s version of events, insisting that their negotiators had sought only a partial lifting of sanctions for that concession.

In a March 3 tweet, though, Trump seemed to change his argument, attacking the Democrat-controlled House Oversight Committee for holding hearings featuring the president’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Trump stated that the hearings were a nasty distraction that may have “contributed to the ‘walk.’” His revised explanation is unconvincing. As late as the weekend television talk shows, National Security Adviser John Bolton was still arguing that the cause of the summit breakdown was Kim’s excessive demand for sanctions relief. Yet when Trump issued his tweet on the afternoon of March 3, it somehow became the Democrats’ fault.

The administration’s handling of the summit warrants criticism. Preparations for those delicate, complex negotiations seemed inadequate, even slipshod. The apparent confusion about the nature and extent of North Korea’s position on sanctions especially suggests a lack of professionalism or even basic competence.

But congressional Democrats don’t deserve high marks for their behavior either. Some accusations in Trump’s March 3 tweet were justified. “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics… . Never done when a president is overseas. Shame!”

That is a valid point. The House Oversight Committee could have postponed those hearings until after the summit—indeed, it could have scheduled them for any other time. Choosing to hold inflammatory sessions on the same days when the president was conducting extremely sensitive negotiations with a difficult foreign power, involving matters of war and peace on the tense Korean Peninsula, was inexcusable. The timing raised understandable suspicions that Democrats were trying to undermine their political opponent—and the nation’s foreign policy—for partisan reasons. Their conduct was petty at best, and dangerously irresponsible at worst.

Moreover, that was not the extent of questionable behavior on the part of Democratic leaders in Congress. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other senior Democrats spent the weeks before the summit making sneering comments that Trump might well “give away the store” to Kim in exchange for empty promises. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, collaborated with hawkish Republican Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to oppose ongoing U.S.-South Korean efforts to create better relations with Pyongyang. Such unhelpful behavior caused even some on the left who seek to reduce the danger of war in Korea to accuse Democrats of sabotaging prospects for progress at the summit.

The partisan posturing before and after the Hanoi summit does little to alleviate the mounting public disenchantment with both major political parties. Neither Trump nor his opponents deserve even mediocre marks for their behavior. Especially on a matter that involved the challenge of preventing a possible war with nuclear implications, the American people deserved better.

The Founders’ Foreign Policy

Although we typically observe the date of its signing on September 17, 1787, as Constitution Day, it was on this day 230 years ago, March 4, 1789, when the U.S. Congress formed by the Constitution held its first session.

Bad weather postponed a counting of the Electoral College ballots until April 6th (George Washington received all 69 votes cast), and his formal inauguration ceremonies in New York City took place on April 30, 1789. Washington delivered remarks following his swearing in as the nation’s first chief executive before a joint session of Congress.

However, it was Washington’s farewell address, delivered not as a spoken speech but rather as a lengthy missive published in Philadelphia’s Daily American Advertiser on September 19, 1796, that has had a more lasting impact. The public reading of Washington’s Farewell every year has become one of the Senate’s most cherished traditions.

Several passages speak to Washington’s skepticism of standing armies. The Revolutionary War hero, for example, advised his countrymen to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

Washington’s contemporaries shared these concerns. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison warned “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” He went on,

The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

The government established 230 years ago today reflected these sentiments. For example, the Constitution grants Congress the authority to maintain a navy, but to only raise armies as necessary. It further limited the power to wage open-ended wars by prohibiting appropriations of more than two years to support such armies.

Colorado College’s David Hendrickson notes that this did not prohibit a standing army, per se. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 24, for example, pointed to the need “for keeping small garrisons on our Western frontier” and explained that these would be staffed not by militiamen, but rather by a small professional army.