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Does American Reluctance to Aid Ukraine Foreshadow a New Isolationism?

If recent polls show Americans are increasingly reluctant to provide military aid to Ukraine, how willing would it be to defend NATO allies from a Russian attack?

Former President Donald Trump speaks at an America First Policy Institute agenda summit in Washington, July 2022. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/Alamy

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While President Biden and many in Congress support continued aid to Ukraine in their fight against Russia, American public opinion on this issue has, like so much else in the United States, become polarized along Democratic/Republican lines. At the moment, Republican opposition in the House of Representatives is holding up American military aid to Ukraine. President Biden has managed to send $300 million in emergency aid to Ukraine funded from cost savings from earlier aid packages. According to Politico, “The Pentagon has been unable to send additional weapons to Kyiv since December, when it ran out of money to replenish its stocks.”

This trend, of course, will directly impact the battle going on in Ukraine. It can also shed light on America’s feelings about NATO and international engagement in general. The question that arises from the polling data is:  if the United States is reluctant to provide military aid to Ukraine how willing would it be to defend NATO allies from Russian attack?

Polling conducted by the AP-NORC in late February of this year, found American public opinion split with 37% saying that the US is providing too much assistance to Ukraine while 33% say the US is spending the right amount and 27% say the US is not providing enough assistance.  Resistance to providing American aid to Ukraine is driven by Republican opposition. Fully 55% of Republicans say that America is spending too much on aid to Ukraine. Only 17% of Democrats say the US is spending too much on aid to Ukraine.

It would be a mistake to see Republican reluctance to support aid to Ukraine as a single issue. Rather, it can be seen to reflect a larger tend towards a GOP reluctance to respond to Russian aggression. The same February 2024 polling from the AP showed that only a modest 52% of Republicans support defending NATO allies as opposed to 67% of Democrats.

Former president and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has commented that he would not support NATO allies if they did not spend enough on their defence budgets. Though many Republicans may not agree with Trump’s harsh tone, current polling data indicates that many in his own party would be reluctant to defend NATO.  Significantly 28% of Republicans in the AP-NORC polling say they would oppose supporting NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack.

Gallup polling also found mixed sentiments on NATO. While a 47% plurality backed American involvement in NATO, 16% argue that the US should decrease its support for NATO while 12% want the US to pull out of NATO entirely. 


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It is tempting to blame American reluctance to defend NATO allies on Trumpism. Certainly, Trump is a major factor here. However, it is also helpful to take a step back and view this moment in American foreign policy in context. Today, America’s role on the international stage is something that many take for granted. It was not always this way to put it mildly.

America was a reluctant partner to the Allied effort in World War I. Indeed, Democratic presidential candidate incumbent President Wilson successfully ran for re-election in 1916 on the slogan of “he kept us out of war.” Following World War I, America retreated from the world’s stage.

Isolationism was a powerful force in American politics in the 1930s and early 1940s, when the slogan that Donald Trump employed in the 2016 presidential campaign “America First” was widely used. Though the phrase first appeared in President Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign, it truly came to national prominence when the name was adopted by the America First Committee, established in 1940, which lobbied to keep America out of any foreign wars. The Committee argued that no foreign power could defeat the United States and furthermore that a Nazi victory over Great Britain would not negatively impact the United States.

Support for the Committee was strong at the grassroots level and in the halls of Congress. At the height of its power, the Committee had 800,000 members and was backed by both Republicans and Democrats. Its most prominent champion was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic and regarded by many as a Nazi sympathiser.

The German victories in the spring of 1940 did not put a dent in American isolationism. Only Franklin Roosevelt’s superb political and communications skills allowed the US to support Britain in 1940 and 1941. It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 to catapult the United States into World War II. 

American support of isolationism this time round is less widespread, being based primarily in one political party. This is good news for those who want America to continue to play a role on the global stage. However, given the nature of the American political system, a committed majority in either house of Congress can effectively check a President’s foreign policy initiatives.

So, while the current polling does not necessarily foreshadow a return to American isolationism, it does, along with a reading of American history, strongly suggest that America’s role on the international stage is not guaranteed.

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