Will Budget Cuts = Isolationism?
By Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center
Special to CNN
The forced budget cuts, known in Washington as sequestration, are now in force in the United States and $85 billion in spending cuts are in the process of being implemented, with about half of them coming out of Washington’s spending on international engagement. The impact on America’s capacity for global leadership will not be felt overnight. But these reductions in defense spending, anti-terrorism activities, foreign aid and the budget for the State Department will shrink the U.S. footprint around the world, with consequences for the projection of both U.S. hard and soft power.
In the wake of the sequester, the questions now heard outside the United States include “what does this say about Americans’ willingness to pay for future global commitments?” “How much of this austerity is driven by Tea Party sentiments and influence?” And, most broadly, “are American fiscal rectitude and isolationism converging?”
The answers are not clear cut – in part because it’s possible that the Obama administration and Congress will rejigger the terms of the spending cuts in the months ahead.
Another source of uncertainty is the conflicted views of the public itself, especially adherents of the Tea Party. Americans tend to support belt tightening in principle and oppose it when it comes to specifics, including some cuts relating to international engagement. Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are more likely than all other Americans to support reductions in foreign aid and the budget of the U.S. State Department. But they are less likely to back trimming military spending and anti-terrorism efforts. This may be because Tea Party sympathizers are generally more hawkish than their fellow countrymen.
So, from a foreign affairs perspective, the budget reductions unfolding in Washington in part reflect a desire for less American soft power, but not necessarily less U.S. hard power. Still, given the indiscriminate nature of the sequester, which operates more like a meat cleaver than a scalpel, what the world may experience is both.
About three-quarters of Americans believe that Washington should reduce the government’s budget deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, with the greater share coming from belt tightening, according to a mid-February Pew Research Center survey. But 57 percent of Tea Party leaning Republicans think all deficit reduction should come from spending cuts.
In particular, Tea Party sympathizers would like to see a cut back in aspects of American soft power. More than eight-in-ten would decrease aid to the world’s needy, compared with 43 percent of all other Americans who support such economizing. And 41 percent of Tea Party adherents would reduce the State Department’s budget.
But U.S. hard power continues to receive Tea Partyers’ backing. Only 15 percent want to cut the Pentagon’s budget (compared with 27 percent of all other Americans who favor such action) and just 13 percent support reducing spending on anti-terrorism defenses.
This continued support for hard power by Tea Party adherents reflects their hawkish views. Fully 86 percent want the U.S. government to take a firm stand against Iran’s ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons, compared with half of other Americans who hold such sentiments. Moreover, more than 80 percent sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians in their disputes. But Tea Party sympathizers draw the line on Syria. Only 29 percent favor arming anti-government groups in Syria, a position not that different from the position taken by other Americans.
The United States accounts for 41 percent of all global defense spending, according to 2011 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and 23 percent of all foreign aid. So current American cut backs will, over time, impact both global security and development. But it is clear such austerity does not necessarily reflect growing American isolationism. Even Tea Party sympathizers, who are clearly hawks on budget cutting, remain hawks on defense.
The question now, in the United States and overseas, is where exactly the cuts will fall.