Do Americans Think We’re on a Mission?

In comments yesterday we had a discussion of Americans’ view of foreign policy. Some held the position that Americans were strongly interventionist. I hold the view that there’s a sharp divide between American public opinion and our foriegn policy positions. What I said in response to the claim that in dealing with the rest of the world Americans believe they’re on a mission was:

That is a strain of American thought but it’s not the only strain. I don’t even think it is the most numerous strain but it’s the view held by a lot of American elites.

Here’s how IR scholar Dan Drezner characterized the situation:

A recurring theme among those who study public opinion has been that there’s a foreign policy disconnect between Washington elites and the rest of the country — the former is far more enthusiastic about liberal internationalism than the latter.

Here’s the Gallup Organization’s most recent findings:

and here are Pew’s

These are not interventionist priorities, whether liberal interventionist or neoconservative. If these views represent the desire of most Americans for some sort of mission, I’m not sure what it would be. The most significant objectives I see there are defense of the country and the pursuit of economic goals. There is, clearly, a strain of American opinion that longs for broader goals. But it’s a string of opinion not the majority of American opinion.

4 comments… add one

  • Zachriel

    The experience of the world wars convinced many that the security of each country is ultimately wrapped up with the security of other countries.

  • michael reynolds

    Apples and oranges, or at least Fujis and Macintoshes.

    You’re the one putting it in interventionist terms. I said we have long had a sense of mission and rely on that mythology. You’re assuming that is necessarily linked to intervention. I think it’s a state of mind, an emotional need to see ourselves as special.

    A better poll would be one that asked whether we are the greatest nation on earth, whether we are the freest nation, whether we are a beacon of democracy that others should emulate, whether the world would be a better place if other countries mimicked our institutions. Ask Americans if God has a special place in His heart for us. Ask whether we are a chosen people.

    Ask questions about emotion, you get more complete answers.

    All the way through the Cold War, what was US strategy? Mutual Assured Destruction. We were ready to initiate the complete destruction of our own country and people rather than let West Germany be taken over by the Red Army. That’s not rational, that’s not self-defense, that’s a country with a messianic self-image.

    After WW2 everyone (especially Stalin) was convinced the Americans would return to isolationism. We didn’t. Why? Was it because we didn’t want to repeat the horrible suffering we’d endured by letting things go? No. We didn’t endure anything. We were untouched. We weren’t traumatized by the war, we alone were giddy with excitement. We got rich off the war.

    So no, our readiness to risk obliteration was not self-defense – how could it be? It was self-image. We had found a new way to feel heroic and special. We were the saviors of freedom. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Osama, it’s all the same story. We keep looking for a new Hitler, but our Hitlers get smaller and smaller as we get bigger and bigger. Characters in search of a plot. Superhero in search of super villain.

  • Michael, you insist on pointing to policy as proof of your position. That merely proves that policymakers don’t hold the same views as the people.

    If you’ve got some evidence that most Americans hold a “sense of mission” that’s turned outward, please provide it. I’ve provided counter-evidence.

    You’re the one putting it in interventionist terms.

    I thought the context was pretty clear:

    Various miniscule countries have a right to exist because of self-determination. They don’t have the ability to protect themselves from their neighbors. Consequently, we (the United States) have an obligation to defend them.

    Note that’s what is meant by NATO these days: the obligation of the United States to protect other countries while the remainder of our NATO allies stand around, ready to hold our coat while we work. Or not as they see fit.

    That’s intervention.

  • Cstanley

    Here ‘s how I see it: the strain of thought and emotion that Michael describes is present at high prevalence in the American people, and is highly exploitable by elites who favor interventionist policies.

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