One of the more challenging aspects of writing a column about the politics of U.S. foreign policy is trying to fully understand the views of average voters on national security and foreign-policy issues. In this regard, Benjamin Valentino, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, has only made life more difficult. Last month he released a fascinating poll examining public attitudes on America's role in the world, the country's current alliance structure, and its foreign-policy preferences -- and it provided a somewhat schizophrenic and at times irreconcilable perspective on how Americans view the world and America's place in it. So rather than try to makes heads or tails of the results, I went to the source and sat down for an email interview with Valentino in which we discussed what he believes the poll tells us about current foreign-policy attitudes.
Foreign Policy: I'll start today with a rather broad question to get the conversation going: When I read through the poll results for the first time, I couldn't help but shake my head because for me the big takeaway is that voters have incoherent and often contradictory views about foreign policy and national security -- and I pity the policymaker who tries to glean from it what voters think about international issues (not to mention the political scientist)! For example, voters are generally supportive of the United States creating new alliances with states like Brazil and India and maintaining old ones -- while at the same time they think the U.S. can no longer afford its overseas commitments. Is there a consistent belief system in these results that I'm missing?
Benjamin Valentino: It's true that the poll results could be read as reflecting some kind of schizophrenia among the public. On the one hand, Americans showed little willingness to reconsider any of our major overseas commitments and even some readiness to establish new ones. On the other hand, although most of the public seems to recognize the increasing difficulty we face in paying for these commitments (more than 60 percent agreed that America "can no longer afford to maintain its commitments to defend all of its current allies around the world"), there was relatively little support for increasing taxes to help pay for them. Unfortunately, we get this kind of result all the time in public opinion polling. Americans want to have their cake and eat it too. I suspect that Republican respondents, who were the most supportive of expansive overseas commitments, would argue that we should pay for these policies through cuts in other government programs (just not Medicare or Social Security). Whether that is realistic or not, of course, is another question.
Still, my main takeaway from the survey is that the American public remains broadly supportive of the alliances and informal security commitments that America has today, even though many of them were forged over 60 years ago in a very different international environment. I saw very little evidence that the public would support a major retrenchment or Ron Paul-style foreign policy.
FP: This is one of the more interesting results from the poll: Republicans are broadly supportive of deficit reduction and yet strongly opposed to pretty much every possible solution for actually reducing the deficit -- military spending, cuts in Social Security or Medicare, and certainly not higher taxes. Along these lines, some of the results suggest a rather stark partisan divide. This shouldn't necessarily be that surprising -- one can imagine in a rather polarized political environment that Republicans would be more critical of current foreign policy and Dems more supportive. But on the big foreign-policy issues, do you detect a broad consensus of views? We hear a lot of talk about a bipartisan consensus in U.S. foreign policy; is there a bipartisan consensus among voters beyond the support for global commitments and alliances that you note above?
BV: Yes, given the strong anti-tax, anti-government spending mood in the Republican Party, I don't think we should be surprised at those answers. On that score, the results of this poll are broadly consistent with other recent polls on deficit reduction. Republicans want to decrease taxes and reduce the size of government, but it is difficult to get them to point to specific programs that they would agree to cut that could make a meaningful contribution to reducing the deficit. One of the few areas you can get Americans to agree on cutting back is, of course, is foreign aid, which accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. If Americans knew that a large portion of our foreign aid goes to Israel, which our poll shows gets a lot of support from Americans, I'm not sure they would even favor that.