It’s long been clear to me that Main Street Americans have much better instincts than their country’s bipartisan foreign policy elites about what goals U.S. foreign policy should be seeking. The main reason seems to be that, even though few of the hoi polloi can name the leaders of many countries or even find these lands on maps, unlike the specialists they recognize intuitively that the United States is an fundamentally, even existentially, secure country.
In other words, the mass public isn’t big on the details, but understands the big strategic picture – that their country is separated from the greatest actual or potential military threats by thousands of miles of ocean, is richly endowed with all manner of economic resources, and that these priceless advantages should be fully exploited and maximized, not ignored or squandered.
The elites have the big picture completely wrong. They’ve mastered many details, but mistakenly believe that the United States is a fundamentally weak, insecure country, acutely sensitive to all manner of overseas troubles, and heavily and inevitably dependent on global prosperity for its own well-being.
The gap between the public’s bedrock foreign policy confidence and the elite’s state of constant alarmism was just illustrated once again by a new POLITICO poll of voters in so-called election battleground states. Consistent with a pretty longstanding pattern, solid majorities oppose more U.S. ”involvement” (the form wasn’t specified) in today’s hot spots, and in several cases, pluralities oppose even the current, modest level of involvement. (One key qualification – the poll predated the downing of the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine.)
More surprising, and much more heartening, was respondents’ emphatic rejection of the claim that “As the world’s moral leader, the U.S. has a responsibility to use its military to protect democracy around the globe.” Only 22 percent agreed, versus 67 percent endorsing the view that “U.S. military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security.”
These results are heartening because they signal strong public opposition to a basis for foreign policymaking strongly endorsed by liberal and conservative elites alike, but with almost no potential to produce either a sensible list of national foreign policy objectives and even less potential to foster the national consensus needed to pursue such goals successfully.
Here’s why: In my post of June 5 I argued (pretty cogently, I think!) that basing foreign policy on a concept of national interest (i.e., “selfish” considerations) was vastly superior to basing it on moral considerations. One of my main reasons: However difficult it always is to generate widespread agreement on policies that will make America safer, freer, or wealthier, it’s bound to be easier than generating agreement on policies that reflect the better angels of nature. Concrete policy benefits, costs, and risks, after all, are possible to measure with reasonably objective indicators. Granted, Americans broadly agree on many fundamental moral precepts. (It’s hard to imagine our society cohering at all if we didn’t.) But inherently subjective definitions of morality become even more subjective when applied to policy issues – and, I’d venture, international policy issues.
Basing U.S. foreign policy on a definition of America’s international responsibilities will undoubtedly be even more difficult. To start, such responsibilities can’t logically be identical with a definition of U.S. interests, since responsibilities are obligations individuals or collectives are supposed to assume apart from their interests. If the two were substantially identical, why would anyone bother spelling out responsibilities? So we’ve just reentered the realm of the highly, and maybe impossibly, subjective.
A further complication: Individuals and collectives can surely take responsibilities on themselves, and often do. But definitions of responsibilities can often include the expectations of others. That would seem to add yet another layer of fiendish complexity. Even more vexing, the expectations of other countries, in particular, can be self-serving at best and at worst contrary to U.S. interests.
None of this is to say that ideas regarding America’s international responsibilities – whether originating domestically, abroad, or some combination of the two – should never influence U.S. foreign policy, just as I would never insist that moral considerations be outright banned from foreign policymaking. A sovereign people by definition have every right to make such choices.
But if you agree with me that America is existentially secure and prosperous, you’ll join with me in thanking the nation’s lucky stars that its representative form of government creates a strong check on the misguided, gratuitously interventionist impulses of our supposed foreign policy experts — and therefore on the leaders they unfortunately still influence.