The two likely rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 both openly oppose interventionist policies in Ukraine, like providing the country with further assistance in its war against Russia. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made waves last week when he said defending Ukraine from Russian aggression was not “vital” to American interests. In doing so, he aligned himself with former President Donald Trump. Their shared position on U.S. involvement could be taken as evidence of an isolationist realignment on the American right, especially as polling suggests Republicans are less likely than Democrats to support aiding Ukraine.
What a difference 20 years can make. Back in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq under the leadership of Republican President George W. Bush, it was the right that favored global intervention. From the war’s start to its conclusion in 2011, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to say that the U.S. made the “right decision” in putting American boots on the ground in Iraq.
Yet while partisan attitudes toward American involvement in these recent foreign conflicts have seemingly flipped, it’s unclear how the American public as a whole now feels about our country’s place in the world. Several factors make it hard to tell how much American opinion has shifted toward isolationism. Foreign policy is not only about the use of military force, after all, and public opinion remains more supportive than not of the U.S. playing a major role in global affairs. Meanwhile, the influence of political leaders and partisanship on Americans’ attitudes complicate a common narrative among political and media circles that the country wants to become less involved internationally.
Fact is, Americans have long preferred engagement in global issues. Since the 1970s, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has asked Americans if they think it would be best for the U.S. to take an “active role” in world affairs or best to “stay out.” In 2022, 60 percent preferred an active role, while 39 percent wanted to stay out. This marked a decline in support for a more involved U.S., which had hit a recent high of 70 percent in 2018. But in the long run, the 2022 result fell right into a half-century trend.
“I’m really boggled by that,” said Dina Smeltz, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council who studies foreign policy and public opinion. “Think about all of the changes since the ’70s — the internet, the way we do business, the way we bank, drones, the end of the Cold War, 9/11.” This trend is also striking because whatever conflict or international issue was top of mind at the time of polling likely influenced what respondents thought of when it came to the country being active in or staying out of world affairs. That means these results reflect a steady level of support even as the meaning of “active” is in the eye of the beholder and could vary from direct military involvement in conflicts like Iraq, military aid in places like Ukraine or assertive diplomacy on issues like arms control or climate change.
Yet some things have been shifting underneath that larger story of stability. “I think there are certain pockets that are less supportive of some aspects of U.S. foreign-policy activity,” said Smeltz. This shows up most clearly when it comes to how attitudes break down by party identification. Before and during the Iraq War, Republicans expressed more support than Democrats did for an active U.S. But that dynamic had clearly reversed by the time Trump sat in the White House.
In 2022, just 55 percent of Republicans said they wanted the U.S. to play an active role in world affairs — the lowest share of GOP support in Chicago Council’s nearly 50 years of polling. In contrast, 68 percent of Democrats preferred an active U.S. that same year. And the Chicago Council’s polling is far from alone in finding a partisan reshuffling on America’s role in the world. Similar polling from Gallup found that Democrats became more likely than Republicans to want the U.S. to take a leading or major role in world affairs during Barack Obama’s presidency, whereas Republicans were far more likely to answer that way during Bush’s time in the White House.
Other polls have asked whether Americans are more outward- or inward-facing about political challenges, but there’s little evidence the public wants the U.S. to be much less involved in international affairs. For years, the Pew Research Center has asked whether Americans want the U.S. to pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home, or if they think it’s best for the future of the U.S. to be active in world affairs. Between 2004 and 2014, Americans increasingly thought the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas — a period that covers most of the Iraq War era. But since 2017, Pew’s polling has found close to a 50-50 split on this question. This upward trend for global engagement suggests Americans have become less isolationist in recent years. This could partly be due to the passing of time since the height of the Iraq War, as well as less concern about the economy — often viewed as the top “problem at home,” to connect to Pew’s question’s wording — shortly after the most difficult years of the Great Recession.
But like the Chicago Council’s polling, Pew’s data also shows a clear partisan reversal over roughly the past two decades. In 2004, a year after the U.S. invaded Iraq, 53 percent of Republicans wanted the U.S. to be active in world affairs, compared with 37 percent of Democrats. In 2021 and 2022, however, 60 percent or more of Democrats preferred an active U.S. in world affairs, compared with about a third of Republicans.
Partisanship plays a large role in influencing foreign-policy views — just as it does for domestic issues. In general, Americans aren’t that familiar with international affairs, so political leaders and media can heavily sway attitudes among the broader public. This is not to say Americans are sheep. In fact, studies suggest that differences between the foreign-policy opinions of experts aren’t that different from those of the general public. Still, what leaders and media say can sharply impact public opinion on the same side of the aisle.
Trump exemplifies this phenomenon. His backing for more limited U.S. involvement in foreign affairs — including threats of reducing our commitment to NATO — and protectionist outlook on trade have more broadly pushed Republicans toward the less interventionist worldview we see in recent polls. “He talked about how we shouldn’t be giving all this money abroad. And for a while, we saw a drop in support for NATO among Republicans,” Smeltz explained. “He turned a lot of things upside down.” Conversely, Trump also may have encouraged Democrats to become more supportive of an increasingly engaged U.S. in world affairs — motivated in part by their opposition to Trump’s politics.
Turning the clock back to 2003, Republicans were more supportive than Democrats of the invasion of Iraq, which made sense given a GOP administration led the country into the conflict. At the war’s start, around 9 in 10 Republicans backed sending troops, compared with around half of Democrats in Pew’s polling. Even as support for the war fell, that partisan divide still grew slightly by the end of Bush’s presidency in 2008.
Iraq was the “ultimate expression of partisan divisions” regarding war, said Adam Berinsky, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies public opinion and military conflicts from World War II to Iraq. “[Americans] would either follow their leaders, in the case of Republicans, or [as with Democrats,] their feelings about Bush would be so strong that they would use that as a negative cue, saying that ‘if Bush supports this, there’s no way that I’m going to support that.’” In other words, public opinion regarding military conflicts tends to be similar to how it works on issues closer to home. “It has the same sort of cleavages that we should see on the domestic stage, rather than politics stopping ‘at the water’s edge,’” Berinsky told me.
The degree of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Ukraine is night and day, but partisanship still works the same 20 years later. With a Democrat in the White House promoting aid for Ukraine, it wasn’t hard to anticipate months ago that we’d start to see partisan division over U.S. assistance, Berinsky said. And lo, Pew found in January that support for U.S. aid to Ukraine had slipped far more among Republicans than Democrats.
Americans as a whole aren’t necessarily more isolationist today, but that doesn’t mean they’re open to putting troops in Ukraine. Only 1 in 5 backed deploying our military directly to Ukraine to fight Russia, according to a May 2022 survey by the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And it would not be surprising if the Iraq War (and Afghanistan War) have made political leaders wary about using large-scale military force. After all, 63 percent of Americans told a 2021 AP/NORC survey that the Iraq War had not been worth fighting, including majorities of Democrats and Republicans, although Republicans felt less negative about the conflict. A similar 62 percent of Americans overall also said the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been worth fighting, either.
But that doesn’t mean Americans aren’t supportive of an active U.S. foreign policy. “Just because somebody doesn’t think the United States should intervene militarily around the world doesn’t mean they don’t support all the other aspects of American foreign policy, including diplomacy, trade, even bases overseas,” Smeltz said. She stressed that the media and some political leaders habitually conflate America’s international engagement with the use of military force. In fact, studies have shown that members of the media, in particular, believe Americans are much more isolationist than they actually are.
Even on the subject of military force, though, Americans appear willing to support the use of U.S. troops under certain circumstances. For instance, the Chicago Council’s 2022 poll found majority support for using the U.S. Navy to prevent China from blockading Taiwan, and the May 2022 poll from AP/NORC found majority backing for deploying U.S. troops to defend a NATO ally if Russia attacked it, unlike for Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.
As the war in Ukraine continues, public opinion on the United States’s role in the world may shift in response to what party leaders say about the conflict and how it develops. However, while the parties’ views have diverged, there isn’t much evidence that Americans overall have become notably more isolationist. That could change, though, given what we’re hearing from Trump and DeSantis. Since the Iraq War began 20 years ago, it’s become even clearer that partisanship can greatly influence public opinion on international issues, just as it can for domestic ones. Looking ahead, it’s possible we could see a larger partisan split on America’s role in the world.
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