Escaping the foreign policy dilemma

Source: Gallup.com

One of the reasons we have elections is for the sake of better synchronizing political leaders with the wishes of the public. Yet, in the realm of foreign policy it is anything but clear that going to the polls produces a great deal of policy agreement.

This is understandable on low salience, high complexity issues. John Q. Public cannot be expected to have a position on ASEAN or the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement.

Consider, for example, the matter of the United States’ long involvement in Afghanistan. A recent poll of veterans and families of active military service members found 70 percent of those polled would support complete troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

Among the public more generally, Gallup finds the public’s mindset more mixed on Afghanistan. Last year, some 53 percent of respondents think we should have gone to war after the 9–11 attacks and 42 percent think it was a mistake. Respondents were about equally split on whether entering Afghanistan had made the country any safer.

Put together, one might imagine that if a majority of the public are not in favor of continued involvement in Afghanistan — just to continue with this example — then the representatives of the people would act.

Yet, government has done little. Congress has the power to declare war, approve treaties, and direct foreign affairs through statutes and its power of the purse. It should be a salient player. Lamentably, however, the national legislature frequently seems not particularly engaged in these subjects. One will not find legislation moving through both chambers to pull the plug on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. That so much attention given to the failed attempt to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been used as a basis for expanding military operations in the Middle East, underscores how out of the game Congress can seem.

To a degree, government foreign policy responsiveness to public moods on international issues appears in the presidency. On the present issue, President Donald Trump has made gestures toward reducing the military footprint in Afghanistan, but three years after he took office the troops remain there. Foreign policy, then, often appears to be sticky.

This is a problem when it leads to policy and spending being misaligned to the public’s wishes. Yet, the very nature of foreign affairs can make shifting policy complex. Imagine: were the United States to pull out fully from Afghanistan right now, might there be negative consequences? Might this action upset an ally, or open more space for terrorist groups to seize additional control of Afghanistan? Might it create regional stability issues?

Most of us likely would profess that we do not know the answers to those questions. Seldom do pollsters present the public with questions that include tradeoffs. Indeed, this is why Americans can both profess a desire for the U.S. to be a major player in world affairs but also respond positively to proposals to bring the troops back home and cut foreign aid spending.

All of which presents a dilemma: what should the government do? Should it pursue foreign policy based upon the wishes of the public as expressed through polls? Or should it behave in a less responsive manner?

Rather than choose either unattractive choice, one might get out of the dilemma by bridging the preference gaps. For example, more members of Congress could discuss these issues with constituents, which would prove educational to both parties. Surely the myriad 21st century technologies like Facebook Live could facilitate such conversations.

Previously, I encouraged legislators to use the long COVID-caused break from working in Washington to educate their constituents about the CARES Act’s benefits. They also might be wise to spend some time discussing foreign policy issues too.

It is not as if complex foreign affairs issues are ever going to end. Russia will continue to be a perennially troublemaker, and China is clearly expanding its global reach. Nuclear and biological weapons remain a terrifying threat.

And after nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, we are more than overdue for the public and elected officials to get square on next steps.

Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC. My books: Congress Overwhelmed (2020) and… See http://kevinrkosar.com