Friday, August 20, 2004

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Just how Wilsonian are Americans?

Patrick Belton links to the joint Pew/Council on Foreign Relations public opinion survey and comments as follows:

[C]oming into the elections, a rather strong plurality of respondents (41 percent) believe foreign policy issues are the most important facing the nation, compared with economic issues (26 percent) and other domestic issues (also 26 percent). Interestingly, it also shows the American public is solidly Wilsonian, with 72 percent believing the top priority for American foreign policy is to follow moral principles. Roughly two-thirds then say the top priority should be 'cautious' (66) or 'decisive' (62), with Republicans tending to say 'decisive' and Democrats 'cautious'. (emphasis added)

The Council on Foreign Relations seems to agree with Belton's interpretation, asserting, "Realpolitik does not play well with the American public."

The data that Patrick reports is correct but incomplete. Belton's numbers come from the "Beliefs" section. However, when you look at the "Foreign Policy Priorities" section, you get some different looking results. Here's the numbers on what should be a "top priority" of foreign policy (this is from p. 18 of the report). I've bolded the causes that could be clearly labeled as Wilsonian and italicized those that smack of a realist outlook on world affairs:

Percent considering each a “top priority” (July 2004)
Protect against terrorist attacks -- 88
Protect jobs of American workers -- 84
Reduce spread of AIDS & other diseases -- 72
Stop spread of weapons of mass destruction -- 71
Insure adequate energy supplies -- 70
Reduce dependence on foreign oil -- 63
Combat international drug trafficking -- 63
Distribute costs of maintaining world order -- 58
Improve relationships with allies -- 54
Deal with problem of world hunger -- 50
Strengthen the United Nations -- 48
Protect groups threatened with genocide -- 47
Deal with global warming -- 36
Reduce U.S. military commitments -- 35
Promote U.S. business interests abroad -- 35
Promote human rights abroad -- 33
Solve Israeli/ Palestinian conflict -- 28
Promote democracy abroad -- 24
Improve living standards in poor nations -- 23

That's not a Wilsonian ordering of priorities. With the exception of the AIDS response, this is quite the realpolitik preference ordering -- including the (dispiritingly) robust popularity of protectionism.

These results bolster a thesis that I've been cogitating on for the past few months: despite claims by international relations theorists -- including most realists -- that the overwhelming majority of Americans hold liberal policy preferences, it just ain't so. Even if those beliefs are extolled in the abstract, when asked to prioritize among different foreign policy tasks, the realist position wins.

This observation about the shift in attitudes since October 2001 is also interesting (p. 19):

The shift in public priorities since the fall of 2001 is largely a consequence of growing divisions along partisan lines. While Republicans and Democrats had similar lists of foreign policy priorities in October 2001, they are increasingly focused on different issues today.

Protecting the U.S. against terrorism is by far the leading priority among Republicans, with more than nine-in-ten (93%) rating that goal a top priority. By comparison, about as many Democrats cite protecting U.S. jobs as a major priority as mention terrorism (89% vs. 86%). And while Republicans are more focused on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and reducing America’s dependence on imported oil, Democrats are more concerned about reducing the spread of AIDS and combating international drug trafficking.

posted by Dan on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM


The task, then, for Wilsonians is to tie idealistic objectives to the realistic ones. Just don't use WMDs as the excuse. For example, my guess is that "fighting AIDS around the world" has a subtext of "so Americans won't keep catching it" in the subconscious of Americans.

It does strike me that this list of priorities will keep us engaged in the Middle East (until, at least, the oil runs out) and disengaged in Africa. There isn't a lot here to encourage politicians to care much what Europe thinks -- something the French (and John Kerry) may wish to note.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I imagine we all experience this disconnect in our daily lives. People are big on talk, but disappear when the time comes for the heavy lifting.

They will come by later, however, to critique your effort!

posted by: Fred Arnold on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

The USA will be situated even if more firmly in the realist camp if there is another substantial terrorist attack in the coming years. Most likely there will be and a lot of the pet causes of the Left will fail to reasonate with the vast majority of Americans.

posted by: Patrick on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I think most Americans are conflicted because they don't really understand much about how the international system works. They do not, to paraphrase the words of John Adams, want to seek monsters to slay overseas unless it directly affects the US. They want a foreign policy that will advance American interests. The conundrum, of course, is that people also want to follow moral principles. The problem is that advancing American interests and following moral principals are sometimes contradictory goals. For example, I think few Americans actually want an "empire" but, to the extent that the U.S. is a hedgemon in the international system and can use the system to our benefit, I doubt many people would want to give that up.

posted by: MWS on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

AM -

Can I infer, in the current political environment - using your example of fighting AIDS, that I can rephrase the statement:

"The task, then, for Wilsonians is to tie idealistic objectives to the realistic ones."

this way:

"The task, then, for Wilsonians is to tie idealistic moral principles to realistic protectionist ones."

Fair or not?

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

This is why I come here every day. Thanks Dan!

posted by: Jim Dandy on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

It is incredible, and dismaying, to realize how many Americans either have not read or do not understand our constitution. Government enforces its policy at the point of a gun; not just overseas, but upon its citizens here at home as well. Yet we see so many items of charity on that list. Nations have interests. People have feelings. Combining the two is the reason that this empire, just as all previous empires, will decline and fall

posted by: Michael Gersh on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]


It may be fair to phrase it that way, but that's not what I had in mind. Actually, what I had in mind was something like W's assertion that for us to be safe in the world, the Middle East had to be more free.

If Wilsonians want the average man/woman to support their agenda, they have to answer the average American's question: "What's in it for me?"

As an aside, I don't think "What's in it for me" type of voting is inherently evil. When a voter decides to vote against "what's good for me" or "what I like" to vote instead for "what I think is good for the world" or "what I think other people might like", one moves from what one is likely to know to what one frequently has no clue about.

Remember, both W and Kerry are products of electorates who didn't vote their hearts -- but instead what they thought might be put over on the other side. And aren't we all happy with the results...

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Shouldn't the last paragraph about the foreign policy preferences of Republicans vs Democrats shift Dan's probablility of voting for Bush?

posted by: rcriii on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I wonder what our priorities would be if the survey asked the respondent to assume that these were all attainable goals. I think we need to distinguish between desirable goals (which tell us about our intrinsic values) and attainable goals (which tell us about how we access the available policy options). In other words, do we, as Americans, care more about AIDS in third-world countries, than poverty, human rights abuses, hunger or political tyrany or do we believe that with a small investment of money for medicine and education, we can make a bigger difference on this issue?

On the other end of the spectrum, would we place a higher priority on democracy promotion if one of the presidential candidates offered concrete proposals? Had Edwards won the nomination and campaigned for the creation of a multinational body to promote democracy, would our priorities change?

posted by: PD Shaw on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Surveys like this one strike me as worse than useless. They actually perpetuate wrongheaded ideas about what people "really want" because they are far too abstract to reflect reality in any way. There is no hint, for instance, in this survey that choices must be made on a daily basis by policy makers, and that often to further option one on our dream list we slight or even set back option four (I'm speaking without reference to the actual list here, so please don't tell me I'm wrong on particulars).

Something like a virtual reality exercise would be infinitely more helpful in getting at what Americans really prize foreign policy wise. It would also be educational for every person who participated. You have a budget (remember those?) and a set of imaginary options in flow chart format. You make your initial decisions in the spirit of the original survey (i.e. you are king of the world and can do whatever you like), then plug the variables into a software program that tabulates likely outcomes. You get to see that, perhaps by promoting the power of the UN you have weakened the US's ability to strike at terrorists overseas, thus making attacks on the mainland more frequent. Or, by trying to end hunger you inadvertantly strengthened the hand of non-democratic strongmen in the 3rd World. Ooops!

I'd love to see something like this for school/college students, so we could all get beyond the "gee, why can't America solve all the world's problems tomorrow" version of idealistic nonsense. Then, perhaps, we can prioritize and set about tackling the world's many problems in a realistic but proactive spirit. Anyone know of such a program?

posted by: Kelli on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Would our priorities change if offered more substance? I don't think so, and I'll back AM's assertion that "What's in it for me" dominates voter's decision-making. No, not evil, but certainly selfish. Isn't that just human nature?

I'll back that up by predicting that the latest CBO report about the shift in the tax burden towards the middle will be the #1 issue in the back of voter's minds this fall - even acknowledging all the collective security fears.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Americans, in the last century, were consistently ready to stand up and help fight oppression in other countries. You have WWI and WWII, Korea, and even Viet Nam. I see that those on the Center-Right are the most idealistic in their outlook.

Surveys like this ARE NOT useless. They may be inconvenient for some (on the Left?).

There is also a ready patriotism in the right and center-right. They recognize that we have been gifted, by our predecessors, with a wonderful gift that everyone else in the world wants(not the elites, but ordinary people).

The Right and Center-Right are also determined to protect us from harm. The Left and some of the Center-Left think that we are evil and brought Sept 11 upon us by our support for Israel and our "Hubris" (Meaning that we are ready to oppose tyranny and are for freedom).

I admit that my perspective is influenced by my service as a Viet Nam-era vet and as a naval and military historian, but all I can say is "Give me a break". Come back when you (on the left) are ready to have a serious discussion about issues that ordinary Americans care about (security and strength). They have had enough of Jane Fonda types and their buddies, the Anarchists, and anti-Americanism.


Jim Bender

posted by: Jim Bender on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I would say that halting the spread of AIDS isn't so easily pigeon-holed as Wilsonian.

Quite a lot of people worry about some kind of Stephen King scenario wherein a disease wipes out much of the planet. AIDS seems like the most likely candidate, so it's possible that a lot of people aren't motivated by idealism here.

posted by: praktike on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I don't dispute the importance of self-interest in formulating values. I'm sure a number of people that favor promoting democracy and reducing third-world poverty believe that these actions benefit American security and its economy. I just believe that any of these priorities would rank higher if Americans knew what steps could be taken and were comfortable with their potential costs.

With respect to reducing the spread of AIDS, there is certainly some mixture of altruism and self-interest, but I imagine that what also distinguishes AIDS from hunger is the belief that there are some practical, no-cost steps that can be taken to reduce one, but not the other.

Setting priorities does not merely expose our values (whether altruistic or selfish), but also our perceived likelihood of success.

posted by: PD Shaw on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

There are those on the left (and possibly even center-left) who are also eager to help protect their country from harm, who do not believe we are evil, nor believe that we brought 9/11 on ourselves.

However, they further do not feel that they void their patriotism by questioning the actions of this president.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

My thoughts upon reading the poll and this post in brief are:

1) I don't think a realist/idealist (Wilsonian) dichotomy is a particularly useful way of looking at American public opinion on foreign policy

2) to the extent I had to side with either Patrick Belton or Dan, I would agree with Dan's more pessimistic perspective; &

3) I would argue that a more accurate way to classify the American public's support for Wilsonian policies is broad, but soft. To the extent promoting Democracy or stopping genocide appears to be relatively costless it is highly popular, but to the degree it becomes costly, the public will generally sour on overly ambitious projects.

I have a more detailed post on this subject up on my site.

posted by: Michael Pine on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Protecting the U.S. vs terrorism is by far the leading priority among Republicans, with 93% rating that goal a top priority. By comparison, about as many Democrats cite protecting U.S. jobs as a major priority as mention terrorism (89% vs. 86%)..

Clearly Americans in 2004 are anything but Wilsonian. The common thread between these two overwhelming concerns is not to "make the world safe for democracy" but to make US democracy safe from the big bad world. Protectionism is the common theme, on which 90% of Americans agree.

No wonder the supposed speech of the year by the Democrats' rising star had next to nothing to say about any substantive foreign policy matter. Couldn't even bring himself to ID those "enemies" he mentioned; not one word about Iran NK China NATO WMD AIDS Kyoto. Even when the policial phenom of our age turned his attention to Iraq, he immediately shifted the subject back to health insurance for reservists!

Obviously, the public is battle-weary and susceptible to talk of "peace" at best and isolationism and foreigner bashing at worst. (Note how Obama began his speech by trashing Mexican competition.)

I predict that whoever can figure out how to appeal effectively to Americans' increasing preference for isolationism-- either with a Fortress America theme or a Come Home, America theme-- will win this election.

That's not good news for free trade or an intelligent discussion of outsourcing, Dan.

posted by: lex on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Unless we start to see some intelligent and courageous leadership from the two parties, the pressure to

a) cut and run from Iraq and

b) increase trade barriers

will become intense. Protection of the homeland and protectionism are a winning formula in 2004.

posted by: lex on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

On the other end of the spectrum, would we place a higher priority on democracy promotion if one of the presidential candidates offered concrete proposals? Had Edwards won the nomination and campaigned for the creation of a multinational body to promote democracy, would our priorities change?

Dream on. When was the last time you heard about "democracy promotion"? Or nation-building? Or pre-emption? Or some version of the Marshall Plan for the arab world? Or solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

It's 1919 in America. Right now, the vast majority of Americans-- who do not post on political chatboards and who could not distinguish if asked between Sadr from Sade or Sadie Hawkins-- are thoroughly sick of Iraq, sick of muslims, sick of job losses, sick of the French, sick of high gas prices, and sick of the big bad outside world generally.

Liberal interventionism is on life support now.

Very shrewd move by Bush to announce the troop redeploymnents back to the US. When we get close to November, I expect him and Kerry to compete to see who can put forth the most attractive "Come Home, America" plan regarding Iraq.

Don't kid yourself that Rove and Shrum have not figured this out already.

posted by: lex on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Lex is onto something.

Scene: a middle-aged couple watching the news, on which a Kerry supporter laments that we are pulling out on our friends, like the Germans (guffaw!). A German spokesman wonders what all his fellow countrymen who make a living servicing GIs will do in future. Wife turns to husband: "Who gives a sh**. No one cared five years ago when the closed OUR base, did they?" Damn straight.

posted by: Kelli on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Dear Kelli,

As sensible as usual.

Dear all,

America should be cautious in defining her interests abroad and in determining where we can make a difference. America should be decisive about pursuing her interests and making a difference abroad.

On one hand we have the picture of GWB, a man decisive in pursuing interests and attempting to make a difference and utterly without caution in determining those interests or what difference we will in fact make. On the other hand we have Kerry, scrupulously cautious in defining interests and investigating impact studies of actions but nebuluously indecisive when it comes to making public political stands.

Could we take the left brain of Kerry and the right brain of Bush and make out of them a real man to run the country? I don't know, but I hope it's a question medical science has an answer to because the rest of us sure the heck don't.

posted by: oldman on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

I wonder about surveys like this. They certainly give ammunition to people who believe that American voters will rally around the foreign policy of any President provided it does not lead to immediately obvious disasters. Since I am one of those people my perspective in not unbiased.

On the other hand, look at public expressions of support for reducing American dependence on foreign oil or fighting international drug trafficking. These to me seem akin to public expressions of support for good weather or an exciting Super Bowl -- fine things that the people who are for them have no idea of how to accomplish. American foreign policy (and, obviously, not just foreign policy) has done anything but make us less dependent of foreign oil over the last quarter century; most Americans have not a clue what the government is doing to fight drug trafficking, or how much success it is having, or what its future prospects are. And if that is so, just how much does public support for these objectives mean?

Though I don't have a ready answer for this question I would suggest the idea that partisan differences in foreign policy priorities may represent a return to the differences that existed during the last half of the Cold War, with terrorism substituting for Communism as the external enemy Republicans are keen to fight and Democrats are, well, less so. The similar priorities identified by surveys during the 1990s may not have reflected so much a convergence of views as a common disinterest in foreign policy.

posted by: Zathras on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]


Have you considered Henry Kissinger's view, explained in his book Diplomacy, that American's are of two minds when it comes to international politics and America's role in the world.

First, he argues(if I recall correctly) that on the one hand we historically have believed how different we are from Europe and the rest of the world. This ties into our views on motives, on how people should see those motives, and why the spread of American democracy and capitalism is for the good of those receiving it.

Second, Kissinger argues that despite the above, Americans have consistently acted on the world stage in a manner that resembles other great powers. This would seem along the same lines of realist or neorealist states that say democracy/culture/domestic politics dont determine foreign policy - threats and opportunities do.

Personally, I have found both of these strands in academic research in regards to the US and Asia, the US and the late 19th century in terms of foreign policy, and in Central and South America. The one area that it does not seem to really fit is in how closely American economic opportunity abroad was served by gunboat diplomacy.

I would be interested in your and anyone else's thoughts on this.

posted by: Dundare on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

Americans may be "of two minds" (Wilsonian and realpolitik/nationalist/isolationist), but at any given point in time, one of these two views has the upper hand. Which one prevails right now?

Is there any popular support for US-led intervention in Sudan? I think not.

Is there strong support for pre-emptive action vs Iran? I doubt it. If there were, you can bet that Rove and the Bushies' focus groups would have sniffed out such support and would now be talking up Iran. Instead, near-complete silence on Iran altogether, let alone pre-emption there.

Is there strong support for an increased UN role in Iraq? "um, er, what was that question again? UN and Iraq? could you explain, please..."

Is there strong support for politicians and platforms dedicated to health care, preserving US jobs, taking care of the troops' family needs at home, health care, expanding reservists' access to health care--oh, did I mention health care?

If Wilsonianism's not on life support, it's at best in remission. Simply not in issue this year or next or the year after. Battle fatigue and lack of rapid progress in Iraq will ensure it remains so.

Whichever party can grasp the "protect the home front" trend and spin a coherent message geared to it will win this election and probably the midterm elections as well.

posted by: lex on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

For a scenario like Stephen King's 'The Stand' where a plague wipes out 99% of humanity, AIDS is an extremely poor candidate. Compared to small pox and others that are vastly easier to transmit to others, AIDS doen's even make the top ten list of all-time worst plagues. Without late 20th Century transportation systems it would likely have so few victims outside of a small section of Africa as to remain an unknown.

AIDS falls into the category of things easily avoided by simple choices, most of which are well in line with the moral tenets of most cultures. Remember the old joke,

"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

"Then don't do that."

Few people in developed nations should fear AIDS more than numerous other disease that are much more likely to strike their lives. The blood supplies are tested and well protected, the vectors are well understood, and it takes quite overt behavior to become infected.

AIDS has been heavily politicised far beyond what it deserves. It is a terrible disease but not one threatening the vast majority of Americans.

posted by: Eric Pobirs on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

It's an interesting subject. Imperial Britain set great store by its empire; it was seen as a positive good rather than a regrettable necessity, and careers in the empire were often paths to prestige and even wealth at home. To a lesser extent this was true in France in its imperial period as well.

American imperialism was not like that. With a vast continent to populate and exploit Americans had few people to spare for "civilizing missions" despite the enthusiasm for these in the early 20th century. There are reasons to think it would have served the national interest for the federal government to have shown greater interest in the parts of Latin America under American influence between the two Roosevelt Presidencies, but it didn't happen.

The attenuated American effort in Latin America came to have mostly to do with protecting the property rights of American companies there and preventing destructive revolutions. In a narrow sense this may have served American interests in the short term, but it generated considerable ill-will in the long term and left a region more backward and prone to instability than it need have been. One may speculate how differently policy toward Latin America may have developed if Theodore Roosevelt -- the closest thing to a real imperialist we have ever had in the White House -- had been able to oversee it past 1909. In the event, policy followed the path of least resistance as the nation's political leaders, and indeed the nation itself, dwelt on other things.

posted by: Zathras on 08.20.04 at 10:45 AM [permalink]

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