Is it the End of American Adventurism?

Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the use of military force for matters beyond defending the American homeland, writes Trita Parsi.

American troops marching in Vladivostok during Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, August 1918. (Public Domain/Wikipedia)

By Trita Parsi
International Politics and Society

One year into the Joe Biden administration and most of the world has accepted two realities. First, America is not back, and Biden’s slogans notwithstanding, there simply is no going back to the pre-Trump era. Secondly, whether America keeps troops in various parts of the world or brings them home, America’s will to fight is by and large no longer there. Its implications for the trans-Atlantic relationship will be profound. Europe would be wise to pro-actively adjust its defense policies accordingly.

American decision-makers have long warned allies and partners that the United States must reduce its security obligations, lighten its military footprints in certain regions and that greater burden-sharing is inescapable. But U.S. allies have largely ignored these warnings and pleas. Perhaps because the United States itself has sent mixed messages: When Europe begins to talk about strategic autonomy, Washington has a meltdown. When Europe continues to rely on the U.S.’s security umbrella, American leaders rebuke Europe for free-riding.

Until Donald Trump became president, there was an equilibrium between American complaints about insufficient European defense spending and European rhetoric about strategic autonomy. The Trump presidency upended the balance. Trump lambasted America’s wars in the Middle East, asserting that the deserts of Syria were not worth fighting – or dying for. ‘They’ve got a lot of sand over there,’ he said in 2019. ‘So there’s a lot of sand there that they can play with.’

When Saudi oil refineries were attacked by drones (most likely by Iran), Trump chose not to retaliate on behalf of the Saudi Kingdom. ‘I’m somebody that would like not to have war,’ Trump said, prompting many in the Washington establishment to accuse him of abandoning the Carter doctrine. Europe didn’t fare much better, with Trump openly questioning the utility of NATO and leaving its European allies uncertain as to whether he would honor America’s Article V obligations.

Americans Want a New Foreign Policy

Understandably, many U.S. allies wished that Trump simply was an aberration. A statistical freak nightmare that soon would be over. What many allies failed to grasp was that decades of unjustified, unsuccessful, and endless wars had turned the American electorate against the idea of the United States playing the role of world policeman. Trump neither started this trend, nor did he necessarily enhance it. He did, however, channel the electorate’s frustration with the direction of American foreign policy and the lack of accountability for those who had dragged the U.S. into these wars.

“Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the use of military force for matters beyond defending the American homeland.”

Numerous polls show that the American public has significantly turned against America’s adventurist foreign policy and in favor of giving precedence to its many problems at home first. According to the Eurasia Foundation Group (EGF), which has polled the American public’s views on these matters annually since 2018, a plurality of Democrats and Republicans believe peace is best achieved and sustained by ‘keeping a focus on the domestic needs and the health of American democracy, while avoiding unnecessary intervention beyond the borders of the United States.’ Moreover, twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget than increase it. This view is particularly strong among younger Americans.

Tellingly, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the use of military force for matters beyond defending the American homeland. In the 2020 EGF poll, only roughly 20 percent of the American public supported the U.S. acting unilaterally and militarily to stop human rights abuses overseas. ‘A majority are skeptical of humanitarian intervention and opt instead for military restraint or a reliance on multilateral organizations, or not intervening at all,’ EGF writes.

Consequently, the Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban enjoyed significant support among Americans of all political persuasions, with only 8.2 per cent opposing it in 2020. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of Americans who favored staying in Afghanistan till all enemies were defeated almost halved, from 29.7 to 15.5 per cent. And though most Americans disapproved of how President Biden handled the Afghan withdrawal, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September 2021 showed that a solid majority of 78 per cent supported the decision to withdraw despite – or perhaps because of – the ISIS terrorist attacks at Kabul airport during the withdrawal. Only 17 per cent of Americans opposed Biden’s decision.

The End of American Exceptionalism

As much as Americans have turned against the generous use of military force, they have not turned inward or isolationist. On the contrary, support for international engagement – trade and diplomacy – is growing. It’s just that Americans increasingly do not measure international engagement in terms of war. According to the EGF, 56 per cent of Americans want to increase diplomatic engagement with the world, while only 23 per cent favor a decrease.

“Over the next few years, we are likely to see a lively debate to redefine America’s vital interests globally.”

But unlike before, Americans are increasingly in favor of talking directly to adversaries to try to avoid military confrontation (59.4 per cent), even if they are human rights abusers, dictators, or provide shelter to terrorist organizations. Indeed, when it comes to the international agreements Trump exited, a solid majority of Americans favor returning to them according to the EGF: 70.9 per cent support re-joining the Paris Agreement, 65.6 per cent want to return to the Iran nuclear deal and 71.1 per cent support the U.S. restoring its membership in the World Health Organization (WHO).

All this points to a trend of Americans increasingly desiring to be a normal country: One that engages in trade and diplomacy, limits its use of force to protecting the homeland rather than policing the world, while seeking to inspire other nations not through force or coercion, but rather through the strength of its own example. The desire for normalcy is manifested in the dwindling belief that America is an exceptional country, particularly among its youth. The 2020 EGF poll shows that while three quarters of Americans older than 60 years still regard the United States as an exceptional nation, only 46.4 per cent of Americans aged 18-29 share that sentiment.

Where Does Europe Fit In?

There is little to suggest that these trends will reverse anytime soon. Rather, as the younger generation of Americans mature and reach positions of power and older Americans who still view their country as indispensable retire, America’s foreign policy is likely to further shift away from militarism and global hegemony.

Over the next few years, we are likely to see a lively debate to redefine America’s vital interests globally. America will continue to fight for what matters, but what matters is now up for debate. Inertia and other political factors may slow down the process of lightening America’s military footprint in regions of dwindling strategic importance – such as the Middle East – but the loss of will to fight will prompt regional powers to act as if the U.S. already has left. This phenomenon is already visible in the Middle East today.

Whether and how much Europe matters to America going forward remains to be seen. But the fact that America’s active military backing no longer can be taken for granted – Trump or no Trump – should suffice for Europe to start taking the writing on the wall seriously.

Trita Parsi is co-founder and Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder and former President of the National Iranian American Council. He is an expert on foreign policy, U.S.-Iranian relations and Middle East geopolitics.

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27 comments for “Is it the End of American Adventurism?

  1. Cliff Sommers
    January 10, 2022 at 10:14

    Nothing will change as long as the ruling oligarchy retains it’s slipping grip on illicit power. What the polls most strongly indicate is that US foreign policy, militarism and bloated war spending are in direct conflict with the desires of the captive abd subjugated US population.

  2. Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
    January 9, 2022 at 12:52

    A revealing piece of writing I should say but I am afraid principally based more on wishful thinking rather than based on ground realities across American society. Neither can structural evidence and pulpable American security and strategic proclivities abroad lend this alleged retreat from adventurism much credence. By the way, the author managed to successfully garner very good disenting comments from many well informed commentators who can’t all be seperately complimented !

  3. Oregoncharles
    January 9, 2022 at 01:21

    Having finished the article:
    Well, we can hope. However, there is little connection between what the people want and what the American government does – and even less abroad.

  4. Oregoncharles
    January 9, 2022 at 00:44

    “Trump said, prompting many in the Washington establishment to accuse him of abandoning the Carter doctrine”

    Why should he? Carter was a DEMOCRAT – and the beginning of that party’s sharp turn to the right.

    • Orisha19
      January 9, 2022 at 12:00

      The rightward turn did commence under Carter with the appointment of NSA adviser Breshinski, who was a notorious neoliberal/neoconservative and absolute Russophobe.

      This rightward turn was cemented 12 years later with the election of the Democrat Bill Clinton as President. The neoliberal/neoconservative tilt had come full circle at this point within the Democratic party.

  5. GB
    January 8, 2022 at 17:54

    It might hurt some pride, but if Americans are serious about being fed up with wars, there HAS to come a change in attitude at home. This means giving up on their obsession with heroes. They MUST realize, that their troops are not the defenders of American freedom, when they fight and kill in criminal wars around the world.
    It will be tough to swallow, to accept, that every officer and every soldier, who commands and obeys in your imperialistic wars,is nothing more than a paid killer.
    There’s been no war in history, where the USA was defending the homeland, only attacking others.

  6. Rob
    January 8, 2022 at 16:19

    If recent history serves, it matters little what the public, the 99 percent believe, when our corporate rulers have the ruling class in their pocket.

    Policies come from the 1 percent and they are not showing any signs of change to their selfishness and greed. After all, they have made it completely legal. They have completely captured the operators in Washington to serve themselves.

    Meanwhile, the oldsters who let this happen will not change either, but are dying off.

    New generations will have to development a means of activism not seen in recent years to shake the oligarchs’ death grip. The rule changes in the U.S. Government legalizing bribery, limiting the right to vote, enabling corporate control of the media will have to change.

    Best of luck!

  7. evelync
    January 8, 2022 at 16:13

    “Over the next few years, we are likely to see a lively debate to redefine America’s vital interests globally.”

    How about taking the first step for most people in this country to see a lively debate about DEFINING what America’s so called VITAL INTERESTS have been instead of assuming that everyone knows what that is when someone in the State Dept. the Congress, the White House, even think tanks, or the media refer to “vital interests” of the U.S.A. without defining them. The listener is always left to figure out WHOSE INTEREST they are talking about.

    V.P. Cheney met secretly with the captains of the fossil fuel industry before he, Rumsfeld and Bush dragged this country into a catastrophic war which showered bombs on the people of Iraq and showered Halliburton with $billions. The ministry of oil in Iraq got lots of attention. Antiquities none. Infrastructure repair ignored. Whose interest there?

    We have to face the truth about those National Interests and who they serve.

    We tortured and imprisoned a lot of people. Whose vital interest did that serve?

    We imprison whistleblowers for telling us the truth about crimes committed and the perpetrators go free.
    Has that been part of our vital interests? If not, why does it happen. If yes, who are we?

  8. Jeff Harrison
    January 8, 2022 at 14:22

    Dear god in heaven above, you have no idea how much I wish you were right. But you’re not. Or rather, if the end result is what you suggest, it won’t be for the reasons you suggest. Why do I say this?
    1. The US is no longer a democracy. It is an oligarchy. Our transformation is remarkably similar to what happened to the Most Serene Republic of Venice between its inception around 800 AD and around 1400 AD. Venetian society/government became increasingly sclerotic and it had the most feared secret service in Europe, for example. Sound familiar? To effectuate change, the minimum (but not only) requirement is a functioning democracy.

    2. The American electorate is as dumb as a box of rocks. We’re going to attack Afghanistan because they were responsible for 9/11. And these fools swallowed it! Of course, almost all of the hijackers were Saudi subjects and almost all of the planning and prep work was done in Germany and Somalia but because OBL & Co were physically in Afghanistan for a couple of months before 9/11, we’re going to get Afghanistan. Dumb as a box of rocks – and thus a 20 year reign of terror perpetrated by the US on Afghanistan started which the Afghan people did nothing to deserve.

    Continuing on the box of rocks motif, we attacked Iraq under the rubric of Weapons of Mass Destruction. We got imagery of a nuclear explosion over Washington DC. What nobody mentioned is that Iraq had no blue water navy, no ICBMs, and no bombers capable of reaching the US. And, of course, the other detail – successfully setting off a (one) nuclear bomb was only going to piss the US off, not win anybody’s war. But the electorate bought the Deep State’s BS, lock, stock, and barrel. I could rant on like this for a while – Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Nord Stream II etc etc but we need to move on to

    3. The need for a real live, independent press. CN is a great example of what the press should be but the small independents are drowned out by the massively big stenographers for the Deep State – NYT, WaPo, Reuters, AFP, AP etc etc. Most people just go ahead and swallow whatever they get from the “Press” and when the press lies to them, those nuggets get lodged in their brain and they are almost impossible to dislodge. Just look at Russiagate or Xinjiang.

    4. The real ending to American aggression will come when our profligacy runs us out of money and our weaponizing of the US$ costs the US’s currency its favored position as the lingua franca of the financial world. Of course, we won’t run out of money since we own the printing presses but it’s likely to become very fancy toilet paper.

    • Hujjatullah M.H.B. Sahib
      January 9, 2022 at 06:13

      Simply superb comment, totally true !

    • evelync
      January 9, 2022 at 15:51

      Well said Jeff Harrison!

      Our national security state including its knee-jerk donor controlled followers in the Congress think of their constituents last and lie to us about what they intend to do in our name and with our tax dollars.
      e.g. Afghanistan during the Bush Administration:
      ”At one moment during the negotiations, the U.S. representatives told the Taliban, ‘either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs’,” Brisard said in an interview in Paris.

      There’s also a documentary movie that I haven’t seen yet titled Taliban Oil
      that should shed some light on how foreign policy is adopted behind the scenes and who it serves.
      We were lied to about the why’s of the attack on Afghanistan.
      20 years of destruction of that country and its people and our soldiers traumatized by what they were ordered to do followed.
      Big bucks into the hands of those who make the war profits… that seems to be all our foreign policy is about in the end – the profits.
      Meanwhile the planet’s getting hotter.
      So one must ask – is this how a democracy is supposed to work?

      “vital national interests” is really a black hole for most of us and no one has succeeded in shining a light on it by pushing it to the front of political campaigns. Anyone who tries is called a commie – as Bernie was during the 2016 debates when he dared to show some concern for the Cuban people suffering our sanctions and embargoes. During the 2016 Miami debate Bernie got double teamed as a traitor by Hillary and her accomplice, the moderator….

      Foreign policy is run using scare tactics on us instead of having full disclosure on the purpose and who benefits.

      Dr Parsi co-founder of the Quincy Institute thankfully supports responsible statecraft over a continuation of more sure to fail military aggression.
      But we also need an informed actively participating public in addition to the think tanks that are willing to fight for a foreign policy of cooperation instead of war. Especially if the end policies continue to serve the hubris that we can and should rule the world, dragging the public along with hubris and delusions.
      The cultural frame of mind in the state dept as far as I can remember has been bullying and threats backed by hubris that we’re the best and WE KNOW.
      And using raw military and financial power to push our weight around.
      In the end it always results in a catatsophe for someone, usually millions of someones.

  9. January 8, 2022 at 11:38

    Sadly, what you say about Americans becoming skeptical about our foreign wars only applies to some Americans and I’m sure the majority. But the concerns of the majority of Americans are of no concern to the ruling class. American adventurism is and always has been about protecting American corporate interests abroad and so long as corporations control our government’s foreign and fiscal policies, American adventurism abroad will continue – and, it will likely be the end of our democratic experiment.

  10. NotEuclid
    January 8, 2022 at 10:45

    “Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the use of military force for matters…”

    Since “Americans” don’t matter by design of contexts, except in their beliefs/hopes, why should it matter that they have become increasingly skeptical in matters, since this is predicated on their beliefs/hopes that they matter, which in frustration may lead them to engage in what they believe/hope to be “military matters”, thereby continuing “American Adventurism”?

  11. Guy
    January 8, 2022 at 10:06

    So the war on terror is coming to an end.Finally . Now would be a good time to check back and find out what and who really started it in the first place .We could avoid it but the truth will not be denied.

  12. Dfnslblty
    January 8, 2022 at 09:39


    Wrong message received and given.

    usa plutocrats want others to pay for usa’s imperialism. — NOT “reduce it’s … obligations.”

    One only need look at the inflated military budget at the sacrifice of children and infrastructure.

    Pablum for the masses so we don’t revolt!

  13. mgr
    January 8, 2022 at 07:56

    We can certainly hope that is true and that the trend continues. Speeding up that process would be even better. As noted by others though America embraces a rather curious democracy, one in which the public, studies have shown, has zero influence over the polices of their government. Many would rightly call that a sham democracy. It is certainly one that is of, by and for the “<1%". The fact that this is becoming ever more obvious might explain the reluctance of "allies and partners" to remain on board "ship America" sailing to who knows where and trying to drag everyone else with it. I think the issue is that America does not promote nor export "democracy" so much as a virulent form capitalism which is reaching the end stages of addiction. Sadly, such addiction does not lend itself to rational thinking.

  14. Sam F
    January 8, 2022 at 06:42

    A very good article with good comments so far.

    The US could easily have lifted half the world from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease since WWII, and would now have no enemies. Instead they played with expensive toys, built grand homes as monuments to themselves and their greed, and murdered 20 million innocents abroad to aggrandize themselves. Only greedy scammers rise to power in the US. The world will not miss the US.

    The US spends almost nothing on humanitarian aid, less than one meal a year for the world’s poorest, starving the UN of funds for desperately needed relief programs in conflicts and emergencies, but every year spends ten times the amount on the military than is necessary for defense, by simply inventing foreign monsters to scare the population. A nation that allows bully-boy propagandists to steal its resources and starve humanitarian programs is a failed state. The military adventurists of the US are bully-boys and thieves, of no value at all to US security, who must be called out everywhere as worthless cowardly opportunist warmongers.

  15. Jim Thomas
    January 7, 2022 at 16:31

    I am glad to hear the polling numbers cited in the article. However, I am very skeptical about the ability or willingness of the people in this Country to counter the onslaught of propaganda (lies) always launched by the government and its innumerable propaganda agents, including the MSM, think tanks and shady operatives when it needs to sell support for a new operation of aggression. For example, the most current targets are China and Russia. The government shills are currently producing massive falsehoods about Russia’s threat of “invasion” of Ukraine, a proposition which directly contradicts all known fact. The same type of thing about the proposition that this Country should support Taiwan independence and be prepared to fight for it should China attempt to “retake” Taiwan (a false proposition since Taiwan is recognized by the U.S. as a part of China). In both cases, from which I can discern, the ignorant people are, as usual, falling in line with the establishment narrative. I am therefore skeptical that any substantial change has occurred to the “thinking” (or, more correctly, the lack of thinking) of the people.

    As others have pointed out, it really does not matter what the people think or want, or what is or is not in their best interests. The policy decisions are made by the thieves who run this sick operation (what most refer to as the 1% — I call them the thieves). Democracy? No longer. The corrupt legislative and judicial branches created the legalized bribery system we now have. So we are told that money is speech. How much money do the people have? How much money do the thieves have? No more democracy. Poll all the want. Those poll numbers will not match up with the results we see when the people cast their votes.

    • Eddie S
      January 8, 2022 at 20:02

      JT – I agree with your points, especially the skepticism about meaning of polls saying a majority US voters are tired of US militarism. Much of that is probably what some pollsters refer to as the Bradley effect/social desirability bias, and I suspect a lot of these are lightly-held ‘notions’ that vanish when conservatives start throwing-out their scare-tactic campaign ads. (I recall believing that after we exited Vietnam in the early 1970’s that my ‘boomer’ generation would never support US military interventions abroad, something I was disabused-of shortly after the 1980 POTUS election and the decades following.) I tend to place at least half the blame for our problems in the US on what I’ve come to believe is willful self-ignorance and/or casual naivety of politics on the part of 60 or 70% of our citizens. They treat elections as-if they’re voting for the high-school homecoming king/queen, and virtually demand to be pandered-to, and are not really interested in rational, humanitarian solutions .

  16. rosemerry
    January 7, 2022 at 15:57

    I was just about to write exactly what BobM has written!!! What the US public is intelligent and perceptive enough to realize is ignored by the lobby/military/corporation-led Congress and the media, which cannot possible be considered in any way free and fair.

  17. Ron I Paulson
    January 7, 2022 at 15:21

    Funding and arming “allies”, non-stop propaganda, economic sanctions, threats, assassinations, press censorship, NGO meddling, etc., are also fundamental aspects of U.S. “Foreign Policy”, not just just whether bombs are dropped or not. I wonder how many Americans would agree.

    • Piotr Berman
      January 8, 2022 at 14:03

      The consensus seems to be that all of that, including patent election interference, is for a good cause. But I did not see polls on those issues, only comments by NYT readers.

  18. Cal Lash
    January 7, 2022 at 15:09

    US has been replaced by China and Russia.

    • rosemerry
      January 7, 2022 at 16:02

      Neither Russia nor China, despite the rhetoric of the USA, is trying to replace the USA as a world boss with its “rules based international order”. Both want a multipolar world, sovereignty of nations (NOT “resposibilty to protect” ie interference by the power-driven) and cooperation and even peace!!

  19. BobM
    January 7, 2022 at 12:59

    It doesn’t matter what Americans think. They have little if no influence over foreign policy.

    • casual reader
      January 7, 2022 at 15:31

      “They have little if no influence over foreign policy.”, agreed for the present and the past of the USA under the influence of constant injections of the MSM opium of false ‘democracy’ or ‘American exceptionalism. Someday, when Americans can think clearly and critically about the reality of their society that they have been ‘oppressed’, there would be a chance of tricolor (red-white-blue) uprising and Americans can influence foreign and domestic policies in the future.

    • January 8, 2022 at 01:47

      What Americans should be worried about is a Coup at their doorstep.
      Yanks are not out of the woods yet.
      This could still get ugly unless major reforms in domestic policy begin post-pandemic leading to a conciliatory foreign policy toward peaceful trade with nations.

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