Hard Times and Hard Policies

During the Cold War, public debate over foreign policy focused on the confrontation with the Soviet Union. There was widespread support for the strategy of containment-disagreements were essentially over tactics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the display of overwhelming American military power in the Persian Gulf War, however, all threats to the United States appeared to vanish. Without the challenge of a rival superpower to serve as a focal point, public opinion migrated toward the extremes. On the one hand, conservatives favored an increasingly unilateral (in many cases, even isolationist) approach to foreign policy in which the U.S. would wield its extraordinary clout to get what it wanted regardless of foreign opposition. On the other, liberals pressed to make international health, environmental, and human rights issues the priorities of U.S. foreign policy.

The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations reveals that the “luxury” foreign policies in vogue prior to Sept. 11 are rapidly losing ground, as public opinion slides back to more centrist positions around the new threat to U.S. security, international terrorism. I use the term “luxury” not to belittle these policies, but to reflect the fact that they became popular only with the end of the Cold War, when the United States was seen as having a surfeit of security, and thus the “surplus” could be used to pursue American interests that were often neglected during the Cold War because of the all-consuming priority of the U.S.-Soviet balance.

For the Bush administration, this shift is helpful in two ways. First, it has largely eliminated the sometimes raucous public debate between the disparate liberal and conservative foreign policy proscriptions that had previously entangled the administration. The first ten months of this year saw the Bush administration frequently criticized for taking a more unilateralist approach-toward North Korea initially, toward China at the beginning of the EP-3 incident, toward the Kyoto treaty, and toward national missile defense. These public wrangles were clearly embarrassing for the administration. Second, the shift in public opinion has created a new foreign policy consensus precisely where the administration has taken U.S. foreign policy. The Bush administration’s own approach toward the crisis, and its subsequent restructuring of priorities has produced a foreign policy that appears perfectly in accord with public attitudes as revealed in the Pew/CFR poll.

Immediate Threat Crowds Out Other Issues

Probably the most obvious trend that the Pew/CFR poll has revealed is the (natural) tendency for public opinion to become captured by an immediate threat to the United States, and consequently to relegate other considerations to a secondary status. Prior to Sept.11, the American public had a wide range of foreign policy priorities. Preventing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases was considered a top priority by nearly as many people as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction or defending against terrorist attacks. Likewise, many Americans felt that ending world hunger, global warming, and drug trafficking should rank with more traditional security interests as American foreign policy priorities. Because the United States was seen to be prosperous and unthreatened, many Americans (particularly liberal Americans) felt that we had the opportunity to employ our unmatched resources and geopolitical position to advance other items on our national agenda.

Sept. 11 reversed that trend by demonstrating that a direct security threat existed. As has been the case throughout our history, the manifestation of such a threat caused Americans to once again place national security issues at the forefront of their priorities. As the Pew/CFR data shows, far more Americans now favor increasing the defense budget (even though our armed forces may not be the most important weapon in the “war” against terrorism) and are more interested in homeland security and even national missile defense (even though a ballistic missile defense system could not have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks).

A New Internationalism

If the left has at least deferred its dreams of greater international and transnational aid, the right has had to abandon much of its determination to pursue U.S. foreign policy objectives regardless of how other nations might react. Since Sept. 11, the administration has stressed that the campaign against the al-Qa’eda terrorist network is going to require the cooperation of many U.S. allies. The network itself spans some 50-60 countries, and even the immediate military problem of striking the al-Qa’eda personnel in Afghanistan and persuading the Taliban to surrender Usama bin Ladin and his top lieutenants will require some difficult steps from a variety of different nations-Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, and Saudi Arabia to name only a few.

The public appears to have grasped the necessity of sustaining an international coalition in support of this campaign and recognizes that this will mean taking into account the views of other nations. However, it also appears to signal another important aspect of the popular reaction to the current crisis. It suggests that the U.S. public is willing to make important sacrifices to achieve the paramount goal of eliminating the terrorist threat to the United States. After all, agreeing that the U.S. should “take into account the views of allies” also means that the United States should not try to get our way at all costs. Quite the contrary. It indicates that the American people are willing to be patient to allow diplomacy to take its course, and willing to accommodate the differing goals and interests of our allies. Indeed, it suggests that the administration will have considerable freedom of action with its diplomatic activities and is likely to find the public ready to accept that the U.S. may have to make compromises on other policy issues to attain the support we need in the war on terrorism.

By the same token, it implies that the administration might find itself out of step with popular opinion should it pursue policies that alienate key allies. The greater popular interest in allied participation suggests that the public believes in the necessity of a coalition effort and so may become concerned if the U.S. government begins moving in a direction that causes key allies to break with us. Having convinced the American people that the war against terrorism will require a team effort, the administration may find it hard to go it alone at a later date.

Lingering Questions

Finally, the Pew/CFR poll results raise two interesting questions. First, the data indicate that popular views toward the Middle East had not changed appreciably as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks (and in fact have remained mostly static since the 1970s). A range of possible motives could lie behind this finding. It may be that the American public has simply made up its mind that the Middle East is a dangerous quagmire that breeds fanatical terrorists like a swamp breeds mosquitoes and nothing can be done about it. In short, a fatalistic response to Sept. 11 and the Middle East: the Middle East is the Middle East and there’s nothing we can really do about it. On the other hand, it may be that people have made up their minds-whom they support in the Middle East and whom they do not-and they simply have interpreted the attacks to suit their own pre-existing perspectives. Alternatively, it may be that the populace is simply confused about the Middle East and the most recent attacks only added to the confusion. Additional public opinion sampling might be able to uncover the reason for the stasis in this category.

A crucial question for the U.S. government about these findings is whether the changes they reveal reflect a true sea change in U.S. popular attitudes or merely a short-term reaction to the horrific events of Sept. 11. An administration that will be looking to reelection three years down the road must attempt to gauge whether it will be judged by the same standards then as it is today. Three years from now, will the American public still believe that whatever price we had to pay and whatever sacrifices we had to make to pursue the war on terrorism were worth it? As noted, the American people currently appear quite willing to make important compromises and sacrifices in the name of fighting terrorists, but there can be no guarantee they will still be as willing tomorrow. Although to some extent this is always the case, it is much more so in this instance. Shocking events such as the Sept. 11 attacks frequently distort popular sentiments, but there is no guarantee that the shift will not simply be a momentary “blip.”