The Politics of American Foreign Policy

Why do the American people have the foreign policy views they do? What do their views appear to suggest for future policy? These were both issues tackled during the Charles Koch Institute’s event on Tuesday, September 22 on Capitol Hill. The discussion panel, entitled “The Politics of American Foreign Policy” featured Michael Desch, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; Trevor Thrall, senior fellow at the Cato Institute; and the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president for research, William Ruger. The discussion was moderated by Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative.

The event began with presentations by each panelist on his views on American foreign policy and predictions for the future. Ruger first spoke on the history of American foreign policy, arguing that the Cold War created a general interventionist public attitude which had not existed previously. He concluded by asking, “Are there alternatives to the status quo that would better secure our interests and, especially, our values?”

Desch then spoke on the need for an alternative to the current attitude of foreign policy “primacy,” explaining that there is an appetite within the public for a new type of approach. He argued that while “people tend to be skeptical of government activism abroad,” interventionist foreign policy “has deep partisan roots” and would be difficult to change.

Thrall presented his analysis of millennials’ views on foreign policy. He referenced data that shows millennials oppose the use of force abroad more than older generations do. Instead, they support international cooperation and a more humanitarian based foreign policy. He said, “Millennials are the only generation that views China as a partner, not as a rival.” He also argued that millennials are more likely to be skeptical of involvement in foreign conflicts due to the effect of the Iraq War on their generation.

Following the presentations, McCarthy moderated discussion between the panelists. An interesting moment centered on a difference in how Desch and Thrall had analyzed the same study. Thrall had concluded that the public was supportive of a policy of primacy, as the majority of respondents supported some aggressive military action in a given situation. Desch, on the other hand, highlighted other parts of the report, such as the lack of enthusiasm for foreign conflicts among independent voters, to show that the public was less interventionist. This difference in interpretation demonstrates how discussions of American foreign policy—and its future—are far from settled.

The Charles Koch Institute is committed to finding foreign policy solutions that best advance a free society and improve societal well-being. Read more about the issues we’re working on. If you are interested in researching foreign policy issues and want to make an impact on the national conversation, consider applying for funding through the Charles Koch Foundation.

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