It’s long been conventional wisdom in the media and the chattering classes that average Americans reject realism, the approach to foreign policy that prioritizes the power games nations play to protect their interests in a world without a global government. But according to a paper by Daniel Drezner, Americans are more realist than people think:
Americans do hold some liberal aspirations for their conduct across the globe, and believe that morality should play a role in foreign affairs—in the abstract. However, surveys about foreign policy world views and priorities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies all reveal a strong realist bent among the mass American public. The overwhelming majority of Americans possess a Hobbesian world view of international relations. Americans consistently place realist foreign policy objectives—the securing of energy supplies, homeland security—as top foreign policy priorities. Objectives associated with liberal internationalism—strengthening the United Nations, promoting democracy and human rights—rank near the bottom of the list. On the uses of force, experimental surveys reveal that Americans think like intuitive neorealists; they prefer balancing against aggressive and rising powers while remaining leery about liberal-style interventions. On foreign economic policy, Americans think of trade through a relative gains prism, particularly if the trading partner is viewed as a rising economic power. Surveys and polling do suggest that Americans like multilateral institutions, but they appear to like them for realist reasons—they are viewed as mechanisms for burden-sharing. Liberal internationalist attitudes did not resonate more during the nineties, the period when the anti-realist assumption should have had the greatest support. If anything, during that decade Americans appeared to adopt attitudes consistent with offshore balancing.
Realism, along with Jacksonianism, has always been an important part of the American spirit, just as humanitarianism and idealistic Wilsonianism have been. The co-existence of these different attitudes in the American soul is a good thing; they help to balance each other out and each offers something of value to the country. All of the four big approaches to American foreign policy (Hamiltonianism, Jacksonian, Wilsonian and Jeffersonian) exist both at the elite and the popular level, but in general Jacksonianism is more prevalent among non-elites than among elites. And Jacksonians are, at bottom, realists. Most of them are also very pro-Israel; that, paradoxically, is why elite ‘realists’ lose so many policy battles when the question of Israel comes up.
Drezner is one of the political scientists who helps keep the discipline focused on interesting questions in ways that clarify our understanding of the world. Read him; even when he’s wrong (and all of us are wrong sometimes), he’s interesting.