It is hard to recall a time when foreign policy issues played so diminished a role in the American public's thinking. Midterm election exit polls found only 8 percent of voters saying that a foreign policy issue was a voting consideration for them, and more generally, national polls show just 11 percent citing a foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the nation. This is the lowest registration of international concerns since immediately before the 9/11 attacks.
While it is not unusual for foreign policy to take a back seat during difficult economic times, the absence of concern at a time when American troops are fighting a war in Afghanistan, and the threat of terrorism remains high is remarkable.
Part of the explanation may have to do with the fractured nature of public opinion with respect to the top foreign policy issues, as well as to the signs of disjuncture between the parties and their leadership on a number of fronts. These include: Afghanistan, trade and the START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty. Another reason may be that some of the biggest international issues confronting the nation are seemingly intractable to the extent that even debate about solutions is difficult. America's place in the world, China’s emergence as a global power and efforts to combat terrorism simultaneously on many fronts fall into this category.
The Counterpartisan Issues
Recent polls provide indications of slipping support for the war in Afghanistan. For the first time in seven surveys this year, the Quinnipiac poll in November found a plurality of voters saying the United States should not be involved in combat in Afghanistan. Even before this latest slippage, public backing for the war effort has been modest, this in no small part because Democrats have not rallied to President Obama's decision to pursue the war. A September Pew survey found just 44 percent of Democrats backing the war, compared with 69 percent of Republicans.
Similarly, a recent Pew Research Center survey found support for free trade agreements now at one of its lowest points in 13 years. Roughly a third (35 percent) say that free trade agreements have been good for the United States, while 44 percent say they have been bad for the U.S. Most of the slippage in approval of free trade has occurred among Republicans, whose party has traditionally been friendly both to business and to trade. This is especially so among those who sympathize with the Tea Party. Fully 54 percent of Republicans think such agreements are bad for the country, and among those of the Tea Party persuasion, that number swells to 63 percent.
The GOP potentially has an even bigger problem with the START Treaty. A November CNN poll showed 73 percent of the public thinking that the Senate should ratify the treaty with Russia. This included almost six-in-ten Republicans, whose leaders are now balking at the prospect.
The Big Intransigent Problems
Terrorism, the most immediate threat to the country, is a big issue now lacking either prominence in the public’s mind or a heated debate among policymakers. Americans have expressed a steady state of concern about terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, but the polling suggests that most have become somewhat inured to the possibility of another attack. For example, there is no indication this year of widespread anxiety in the wake of reports that terrorists attempted to place package bombs on flights destined for North America. Most Americans (59 percent) say they are worried about an imminent terrorist attack in the United States, but the level of concern today is about what it was in July 2007, and has remained relatively steady since 2003.
A plurality of Americans continue to assert that luck is the principal reason we have not been attacked again . . . 43 percent see it that way, while (37 percent) say it is mostly because the government is doing a good job protecting the country, while 13 percent say America is a difficult target for terrorists. This has been a consistent point of view since 2005.
As with terrorism, the public has deep concerns about America's place in the world, but these worries do not evoke a strong policy debate. Yes a growing plurality thinks the U.S. now plays a less important role on the world stage, and majorities recognize China's growing power and worry about it. But for now at least, there is little edge to American attitudes as a consequence. Few regard China as an enemy (17 percent) or a partner (25 percent). As has been the case for more than a decade, China is seen as neither friend not foe by most Americans (52 percent). In fact, more Americans now hold a favorable view of China than did so in 2007 and 2008.
Neither the recent North Korean bombardment of South Korea as it stands, nor foiled terrorist attack in Portland Oregon seems likely to rouse the American public. If history is any judge, it will take a foreign policy crisis of a major order, to awaken public opinion on international affairs. And when Americans stir, it is hard to predict the new direction of their thinking. What is likely however is that a change in direction of public opinion will be relatively short lived. That has certainly been the case so far in post–Cold War America.