Editor’s note: On NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Robert Kagan discussed – with Neil Conan and Woodrow Wilson Center President Jane Harman – Americans’ attitudes towards politics and international affairs since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
NEAL COHAN, HOST: Robert Kagan, the same question: How have your views changed since 9/11?
KAGAN: Well, I’m kind of a dinosaur, so my views don’t – didn’t change that much. I mean, obviously, we’ve had two unsuccessful military conflicts. The question that I have about American public opinion is: Are we in a fundamentally changed public opinion environment, or are we just going through what, really, if you look historically, is a consistent cycle?
There have been numerous periods throughout American history when we’ve gone from a period of global activism with a lot of public enthusiasm, World War I, for instance, which was immediately followed by tremendous disillusionment and a turning away from the world.
And if you look at the long history of polls since the Second World War, there have been ups and downs. There was a time – 1982, I’m looking at this poll – Americans were even less enthusiastic about having an active role then than they are today. But then it went up 10 points.
So, obviously, at this moment, in this recession, with, you know, Afghanistan not looking successful, Iraq a mixed picture, Americans are more pessimistic. If we get out of the recession, when we get out of the recession, I hope, when we face new crises, I think you could see American opinion changing again.
And one of the things that I note, interestingly, is that there is a majority of support for enforcing no-fly zones over Syria, which is a military action, which could have all kinds of consequences. So I take a more – I take a longer view of this, and I’ve seen – you know, you’ve seen, historically, Americans go up and down on this question. And I consider 61 percent supporting an active role in the world quite high and, in a way, you know, to be welcomed.
CONAN: But big majorities opposed to acting if, for example, China invades Taiwan, if North Korea attacks South Korea, split on Israel.
KAGAN: Yeah. But I’m not sure – I’d like to know compared to when. Was there a time when Americans were enthusiastic about going to war with China over Taiwan? It’s possible. I haven’t seen older polling about that.
And then, of course, there is the interesting phenomenon that we’ve seen over and over again, Americans saying, a majority of Americans saying they don’t want to get into a certain conflict. The president, you know, often with the approval of Congress, not always, nevertheless taking Americans into that conflict and then seeing Americans rally to support that action.
Woodrow Wilson, in 1916, won his election saying he was the man who kept us out of war. Five months later, he led Americans into war with enormous public support. So I just – I’m wary of looking at these public opinion polls and thinking that somehow this is an attitude written in stone. These things are very changeable over time.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.