As President Barack Obama's State of the Union address provokes the standard exchange of press releases and talking points, it's worth remembering that the partisan foreign policy debate is almost always shallow. The real gap is not between Democratic and Republican leaders but between the political class and the broader public. Consider the Pew Research Center poll late last year that demonstrated that the U.S. public is less interested than the U.S. foreign policy elite in trying to manage foreign affairs. This set off a predictable debate about whether the public was becoming isolationist.
But hardly anyone pointed out that the results were nothing new: The American public, at least in recent memory, has always wanted a more restrained foreign policy than the one on offer from Washington. Understanding this gap requires looking beyond the latest election cycle and considering instead the factors that shape the U.S. foreign policy status quo.
The first factor is the public’s apathy toward foreign policy. As many studies have shown, people’s foreign policy preferences rarely determine their decisions when it comes to national elections. So political leaders — those in Congress and those vying for the White House — can generally buck the public on foreign policy without losing votes. It is not that politicians entirely ignore voters’ foreign policy views. But, at least compared with tax and entitlement issues, politicians have considerable rope to pursue their own agendas. Only in rare circumstances, such as very unpopular wars, do voters hold politicians to account on foreign policy.
What accounts, in turn, for the low salience of foreign policy? The short answer is that the American public is rich enough and safe enough that it simply need not worry very much about the rest of the world. No state menaces U.S. borders or regularly checks U.S. military actions abroad, as the Soviet Union once did. Trade accords matter a good deal for certain industries, but most of us barely notice them. For the majority of Americans, even the war in Iraq brought little worse than marginally higher tax rates and unsettling TV images. With bigger things to worry about, such as job security and health care, Americans have little incentive to inform themselves about foreign policies; it is rational for them to remain ignorant.
But the public’s disinterest in foreign policy only explains why U.S. political leaders are able to defy public opinion, not why they do so now. In decades past, the U.S. public’s noninterventionist sentiment was represented among the foreign policy elite. But these days, the foreign policy establishment consists almost entirely of neoconservatives on the right and liberal internationalists on the left. Realists and other reliable skeptics of intervention are essentially confined to the academy, while true isolationism has become virtually extinct in Washington.
In reality, the United States was relatively isolationist for its first century because it had little alternative. The nation was threatened by European powers and too weak to gather an empire. A classically liberal foreign policy ideology — the idea that overseas alliances and war endangered liberty at home — made a virtue of that circumstance.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, as the United States expanded economically and territorially as Europe declined, U.S. global ambitions became possible. This initiated a debate among U.S. policymakers about the benefits of pursuing such ambitions. Those who were enticed by the idea of overseas territories or missions continually overstated their benefits by suggesting that democracy and free trade could not thrive, or even survive, if the United States did not act more assertively elsewhere in the world.
In the late nineteenth century, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the U.S. Navy officer and historian, coined the term “isolationist” to denigrate anti-imperialists. He advocated overseas bases as a means to promote the United States’ values abroad. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson justified U.S. intervention in World War I as a way to make the world safe for democracy. Early cold warriors, such as President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, redefined the effort to secure Western Europe as a global struggle for freedom and capitalism. By the Cold War’s end, realists and other advocates of restraint had been marginalized, despite the fact that their views remained popular among the public; the interventionists, on both the left and right, had successfully established a new elite foreign policy consensus. To this day, anyone seeking prominence as a beltway foreign policy wonk, or a future political appointment, quickly learns that it is necessary to hew to the interventionist conventional wisdom.
The exercise of U.S. power also proved to be self-perpetuating in the sense that it created a relatively small but impassioned constituency with an interest in further military activism (if not necessarily war). The Cold War provided the United States with a permanent set of private military contractors and a vast domestic infrastructure of military bases. Regions that were previously indifferent to foreign events, or even flat-out isolationist, developed a direct economic interest in military manufacturing. Military research funds, which grew massively during the Cold War, also gave a vast group of university researchers and defense analysts an economic interest in defending global activism.
Lately, U.S. policymakers have been migrating toward the broader public’s more restrained views on foreign policy. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have made war more salient for voters, forcing more politicians to embrace nonintervention, as the debate over Syria recently demonstrated. The fiscal outlook is another source of restraint. With Democrats eager to defend entitlements and Republicans opposed to tax hikes, the discretionary part of the budget — more than half of which goes to defense — will likely have to remain flat, at least for a few years. Democrats’ defense of other programs will dampen their enthusiasm for military spending. In the Republican Party, meanwhile, military hawks will continue to lose fights against budget hawks.
But this is likely a temporary respite. Eventually, the memory of Iraq and Afghanistan will fade, as that of Vietnam eventually did. And restored economic growth is already limiting the need for hard fiscal choices. Leaders will likely muddle through with the status quo foreign policy and the ideology of global military dominance that sustains it.
For those of us who favor the restrained foreign policy that public opinion would likely produce, that is unfortunate. But it is worth remembering that our overly aggressive foreign policy is a symptom of national health. More tragic wars and economic hardship would likely produce public demand for better foreign policy. But the wealth and safety that allow the U.S. elite to run amok abroad are worth celebrating.