Do Americans Want a New ‘Grand Strategy’ or Less Overseas Engagement?

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Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
June 16, 2016
Wall Street Journal

Few things make professors happier than thinking that the public has finally begun to agree with them. No surprise, then, that John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard open their article in Foreign Affairs—in which they propose a new “grand strategy” for the United States—by observing that “[f]or the first time in recent memory, a large number of Americans” are saying they want the same thing. The ideas Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt propose—big cuts in defense spending, withdrawals from Europe and the Middle East, a focus on China as our only real rival—deserve the discussion they will surely get. But let’s put the policy merits to one side. Are the professors right to say they’ve now got the people behind them?

The data say no. Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt rely on an April Pew poll that found that 57% of Americans want the U.S. “to deal with its own problems.” But this is what most Americans always say, no matter what “grand strategy” their leaders follow. In 2013, 80% of Pew respondents wanted to “concentrate more on our own national problems.” Twenty years earlier, 78% said the same thing. And 20 years before that, 73%. On this particular question, the number today (it’s dropped to 69% since 2013) is lower than it has been “in recent memory,” but it’s always high.

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