North Korea

Where Do Americans Stand on Military Action Against North Korea?

By Elizabeth McElvein
Monday, September 25, 2017, 9:00 AM

In his debut before the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” Analysts are divided over whether the president’s message aids or undermines efforts to resolve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. In domestic politics, however, polling suggests that the president’s hawkishness may be outpacing public sentiment.

Just 33 percent of Americans believe the United States should threaten North Korea with military action to try to settle the current situation, according to a CBS News poll fielded in the days after Trump’s pledge to unleash “fire and fury” against Kim Jong Un’s regime. American attitudes on this question are—perhaps unsurprisingly—strongly colored by partisanship. Ninety percent of Democrats oppose the president’s threats of military action, as do 58 percent of independent voters. Republicans are less monolithic than are Democrats: Nearly two-thirds of Republicans support threats of military action, while 30 percent oppose them.

Americans are also decidedly split on the potential for economic and diplomatic tools to produce a peaceful outcome. A CNN poll released at the end of last week found that just 43 percent of Americans believe the situation in North Korea can be resolved through economic and diplomatic efforts. This figure that includes a thin majority of Democrats (55 percent), and a minority of Independents (43 percent) and Republicans (32 percent). Optimism about prospects for a diplomatic solution appears to have declined in recent weeks, as North Korea continues to launch missiles that may becapable of hitting the United States and its territories. Last month, a Quinnipiac Survey found that 64 percent of Americans believed the U.S. would be able to resolve the situation diplomatically rather than militarily. While the poll questions used slightly different wording, the shift in sentiment is striking. This shift may well be animated by the perception that North Korea poses an “imminent” threat to the United States, a viewpoint held by half of Americans, including a majority of Republicans (61 percent) and a plurality of Democrats (45 percent) and independents (48 percent).

When it comes to commitments to U.S. allies in North Korea’s vicinity, 74 percent of Americans affirm that the United States has a duty to protect its allies, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. This view enjoys cross-party support—from roughly three-quarters each of Republicans, Democrats and independents. The support is strongest among Republicans. Forty percent of Republicans say they “strongly agree” that the United States has an obligation to protects its allies in East Asia—nearly twice the share of Democrats who say same. Republican sentiment appears to keep pace with Trump’s apparent about-face from espousing isolationism during the campaign to affirming “ironclad” diplomatic commitments as president.

In a further departure from isolationism, 58 percent of Americans say they would support military action against North Korea if peaceful efforts fail to achieve the United States’ goals. This figure includes a striking share of Republicans: 82 percent. And 55 percent of independents and 46 percent of Democrats say the same. Americans are significantly more hawkish now than they were in January 2003, shortly after North Korea restarted its nuclear reactors and expelled international inspectors. At that time, a Gallup poll found that only 47 percent of Americans said they would support military action if diplomatic efforts fail. Republicans appear to being driving this shift in sentiment: GOP support for military action increased 23 points, from 59 percent to 82 percent. Democrats’ opposition to the use of military force, by contrast, has intensified since 2003, bumping up from 41 t to 46 percent.

The support for military action detailed above is predicated on the failure of diplomatic efforts, and Americans do not yet believe diplomatic efforts have failed. Three quarters (76 percent) support the imposition of even tougher economic sanctions, while just 39 percent of Americans say they would support bombing North Korean military targets, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this weekend.

Defining the point where economic and diplomatic efforts fail is complex as a matter of policy, and the associated politics will almost certainly be fraught with partisan commitments. Americans’ support for military strikes against North Korea may turn on whether the public comes to believe—as national security adviser H.R. McMaster has suggested in recent days—that the United States faces an imminent threat and a dearth of diplomatic options.