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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Primed against Primacy: The Restraint Constituency and U.S. Foreign Policy


Primed against Primacy: The Restraint Constituency and U.S. Foreign Policy

In 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” Albright’s view was anything but unique to her or to the Clinton administration. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of frequent American military intervention has reigned in Washington. Even President Obama, who came into office calling for greater restraint than his predecessor, expanded the “war on terror,” engaged in regime change in Libya, and extended the mission in Afghanistan — America’s longest war. Facing vocal critics who seek to increase American intervention not just in the Middle East but also in conflicts throughout the world, Obama was unable to implement many of the more restrained policies he advocated.
The American public, however, is far less supportive of an interventionist foreign policy agenda than political elites. Given this, a critical task for the next president will be to navigate between the interventionist tendencies of the right and the left, while embracing the “restraint constituency.” An analysis of polling data from both CNN/ORC and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reveals that this constituency, which cuts across party lines and represents roughly 37 percent of the public — exhibits a reliable disposition toward foreign policy restraint, opposing the use of military force in all but a few cases. That contrasts with an “interventionist constituency” that represents about a quarter of the public and supports much more aggressive efforts to promote American interests abroad. Since neither constituency’s core followers represent a majority, the deciding voice between intervention and restraint in foreign policy debates belongs to the 40 percent of the public that falls somewhere between the two camps.
Though the restraint constituency enjoys an advantage on many important foreign policy issues, public fears about terrorism and other global conflicts will continue to be a significant challenge for restraint-minded policymakers. Framing world events as “other people’s business,” reminding the public of the costs of major war, and pursuing an active noninterventionist counterterrorism strategy can help policymakers encourage public support for a more restrained foreign policy.

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