As election season approaches, American voters’ beliefs about foreign policy issues are increasingly clear. According to a recent Pew “Public Priorities” survey, voters’ concerns about the economy trump all other concerns, with 86 percent of Americans classifying the economy as “a ‘top priority’ for the president and Congress this year” as opposed to 68 percent in 2007. It is consequently unsurprising that 81 percent of Americans believe that the president should concentrate on domestic policy over foreign policy while just nine percent of Americans believe the reverse. However, it is striking that these numbers were 39 percent and 40 percent respectively in 2007 (see chart below).
In terms of American intervention overseas, another Pew survey reports that just 25 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. has a “responsibility to do something about fighting in Syria” as compared to 51 percent who favored U.S. action against the Darfur genocide in 2005. This discrepancy makes sense given voters’ economic concerns and awareness of the human and financial costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under different circumstances – a stronger economy and an absence of recent large-scale interventions overseas – more Americans might view the situation in Syria as an opportunity to halt a humanitarian catastrophe and to facilitate democratic transition. Moreover, events like the Egyptian government’s crackdown on American NGOs, coupled with the reality that the Arab Spring is not producing the kinds of straightforward liberal democratic outcomes that many Americans anticipated, may also contribute to American reluctance to become involved elsewhere in the region. (Al-Jazeera has an excellent “Inside Story Americas” feature on the debate over a prospective U.S. military presence in Syria).
However, even in light of dampened American enthusiasm for direct intervention, Americans remain generally supportive of extending humanitarian aid to foreign countries. As Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a January op-ed:
In a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs, 74 percent of U.S. citizens polled favored providing ‘food and medical assistance’ to other countries, and 62 percent favored delivering ‘aid to help needy countries to develop their economies.’ To be sure, the recession had dragged down these numbers slightly from 2004 (when the equivalent figures were 82 percent and 74 percent), but both propositions retained clear majority support.”
Patrick also reports that when a representative sample of Americans took part in a simulation budget cutting exercise in 2011, “participants actually increased funding for humanitarian aid by 18 percent and nicked global health by just 2 percent, while cutting development assistance by a more significant 14 percent.” The gap between American support for humanitarian aid and for theoretically more sustainable development aid is interesting and deserves further consideration. My hypothesis is that the moral rationale for humanitarian assistance resonates with many Americans, whereas the term “development assistance” may conjure up images of threatened American jobs in a zero-sum global economy, however inaccurately.
In the coming months, I will analyze how the Obama and Romney campaigns interpret and address American beliefs about foreign policy issues. I’ll also continue to provide updates on American attitudes toward intervention, democracy support, and humanitarian relief overseas. Historically, American enthusiasm for overseas commitments has waxed and waned, ranging from events like the proposed Ludlow amendment in 1938, which called for a national referendum before the United States could declare war, to the 88 percent of Americans who favored war in Afghanistan in 2001. At present, Americans prefer a compromise between these two poles — a foreign policy that scales back on overseas commitments without completely giving these commitments up.