Research: Publications

Something in the Air: “Isolationism,” Defense Spending, and the U.S. Public Mood

October 14, 2014 | Report

By Carl Conetta

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The official exit of U.S. combat troops from Iraq was barely complete before some political leaders and commentators began decrying a “neo-isolationist” turn in US public opinion. The evidence was citizens’ reluctance to deeply involve the United States in new conflicts abroad – Libya, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq (again). Now, strong public support for striking at “Islamic State” fighters in Iraq and Syria seems to indicate another twist in public opinion.

Has America’s “isolationist” moment ended before even getting much of a start? Has public opinion warmed to a new round of interventionism? A careful and critical review of public opinion data shows that isolationism was never at the heart of citizens’ qualms about new foreign military adventures. Nor does current support for military action, which is limited in scope and conditional, mean that the public is ready to repeat the wars of the past decade.

The clamor about “isolationism” misconstrued a real and significant trend in public opinion – one that reaches further back than the past few years. The U.S. majority continues to support an active U.S. role in world affairs, but it prefers cooperative, non-military approaches. Recent dissent from official policy has focused on undue military activism as well as the notion that America should assume a uniquely assertive global role.

The U.S. public will support wars for a variety reasons, but it tends to view war in defensive terms and as an instrument of last resort.  Sustaining support requires that the perceived costs of war match the perceived security benefit.  The experience of the past decade, involving both war and economic recession, has left the public acutely sensitive to the cost-benefit balance as well as deeply skeptical about it. One effect has been continuing support for cuts in defense spending, despite Pentagon claims that this imperils America’s half-trillion dollar military.

Opinion polls show a significant gap between policy leaders and the general public regarding both war and America’s global leadership role. Public opinion is malleable, however. Political actors seeking more defense spending or a more confrontational stance abroad can bias debate in several ways. One is to frame discussion of the Pentagon budget in terms of averting a "hollow military." Another is to use Second World War metaphors – references to Hitler, Munich, and isolationism – to describe current security challenges and choices. Both of these maneuvers are now fully in play.

Partisan political dynamics also influence opinion trends. During polarized election campaigns, security policy debate becomes more hawkish, carrying public sentiment with it. Historical precedent suggests that both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees will argue for significant Pentagon budget increases. This represents a missed opportunity. Economic and strategic realities both argue for a reset of U.S. security policy. Polls suggest that Americans are ready to consider one. And true policy alternatives are available for consideration. What is lacking is positive leadership.

For an executive summary [PDF] of the report, please click here. HTML is available here.

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