Ideas
October 24, 2022 3:33 PM EDT
Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation, and lead author of its annual survey of American public opinion on foreign policy topics; Smeltz is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and lead author of its annual survey of American public opinion on foreign policy topics.

NATO and Russia will soon conduct their annual nuclear exercises. These otherwise routine drills come at a perilous moment. For the first time since the Cold War, an American president is tested by a major power on how he might respond to a nuclear attack. Thus far, President Biden has aided Ukraine (and pressured wealthy European allies to do likewise) while not directly embroiling the U.S. in the war.

But many prominent voices in Washington urge him to do more. After two decades of overly ambitious and unsuccessful military interventions, several serious foreign policy pros yet again call on the U.S. to flex its muscle, to escalate America’s involvement in this conflict. Some urge the U.S. to double down in the face of “nuclear blackmail,” lest dictators be emboldened and the chances for nuclear war and proliferation increase. Others contend the U.S. should swiftly respond to a Russian nuclear attack with conventional strikes or even tactical nuclear use of its own.

The president, however, seems more attentive to the risks of nuclear war. He recently said he doesn’t think Putin is joking, and invoked the prospect of nuclear “Armageddon.” Biden’s more cautious approach has earned him public support and were he to depart from it and bow to the pressure emanating from hawkish enclaves inside the Beltway, he could jeopardize that. This caveat stems from two new national surveys of Americans’ foreign policy views conducted by our organizations, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Eurasia Group Foundation.

Survey results show substantially more Americans think the Biden administration responded well to Russia’s invasion than think it did not. The top reason given is how the U.S. strengthened the Ukrainian resistance through military aid. However, the fact that the U.S. avoided a direct confrontation with Russia or that it encouraged NATO to strengthen Europe’s self-defense capability were, together, cited about as frequently. In other words, many support the president’s response because it’s not doing too much, not because it’s doing enough.

This support for restraint is found in the goals Americans prioritize for the U.S. response to the war. Avoiding a direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia ranked highest among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. Preventing the suffering of the Ukrainian people came next. Even back in March, seven in ten Americans considered the risk of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S. a critical threat.

To be sure, Americans broadly and compassionately support Ukraine and want the Biden administration to help it, even as the threat of nuclear war is a top concern. Bipartisan majorities support increasing sanctions against Russia, accepting Ukrainian refugees, sending arms to the Ukrainian government, and providing it with economic assistance.

Though clearly sympathetic toward Ukraine and opposed to Russia’s aggression, Americans don’t seem to deem the stakes of the conflict worthy of the nuclear saber-rattling coming from some in Washington.

Right before he launched the invasion, Putin alluded to nuclear weapons, and he recently reiterated that threat. Roughly three-quarters of people in one of our surveys expressed concern over their use. After twenty years of fighting terrorism, the most common fear, predictably, is that nuclear weapons get into the hands of terrorists. But more than a quarter of respondents, perhaps influenced by news coverage of the war, worry primarily that tensions between nuclear-armed rivals could lead to their intentional or accidental use. The fear of nuclear war was a top rationale cited for people who thought Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO would not benefit the U.S.

Another recent survey of ours found most Americans unwilling to use nuclear weapons even if Russia attacks a NATO ally and survey takers were informed about America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies. If this is how Americans feel about an ally, there’s a good reason to think they might be disinclined to retaliate on behalf of a country outside its nuclear umbrella.

Despite Biden’s otherwise pragmatic support of Ukraine, his rhetoric has at times been aligned with more maximalist war aims which would entail escalation. The president has framed the war in Ukraine as a critical front in an “ongoing battle in the world between autocracy and democracy.” This theme of a global contest between political systems loomed large in his recently unveiled National Security Strategy.

Survey results show less support for defending Ukraine because it is a democracy or to preserve its sovereignty. Protecting human rights and democracy around the world, in general, ranks low on Americans’ list of priorities, much lower than avoiding a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

Only 15 percent say protecting democratic values and ideals in the world should be the top priority when crafting US foreign policy. A recent German Marshall Fund poll found only 38 percent of Americans want to limit cooperation on global challenges to other democracies—less than in any of the 13 other democracies surveyed. Fewer than half say the decline of democracy around the world poses a critical threat to the U.S. In short, our respondents seem more interested in protecting Ukrainians than Ukrainian democracy.

Americans are generally less perturbed about what this conflict means for the state of global democracy, and wary of escalating into a direct war with the world’s most nuclear armed country. Putin and his sympathizers should not take comfort in these results, however. Our findings clearly show bipartisan majorities of Americans want to continue to generously and energetically support Ukrainians — at least with all measures short of war.

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