08.05.23 USA Review

The Issue of Fatigue: In the upcoming presidential race, Republican ‘isolationists’ may exploit American public fatigue over the Russia-Ukraine war

The volume and timing of support for Ukraine is poised to become one of the most important issues in the upcoming US presidential race. The Biden administration's Ukraine policy has come under fire from the Republicans, who, in turn, have been divided into two camps: the ‘isolationists’ and the ‘hawks’. The position of the ‘isolationists’ — who want to limit sending further support to Ukraine — has become increasingly popular among Republican voters. However, the issue runs deeper than that as people’s willingness to continue supporting Ukraine has been declining across all party groups. This means that, according to polls, American society is growing increasingly weary of the deadlocked war. At the same time, experts have suggested that this trend may be reversed if Americans once again believe that Ukraine is capable of winning the war. Otherwise, the ‘isolationist’ argument may become one of the dominant narratives of the American election campaign.

On the eve of the US presidential race, a number of American publications have highlighted the emergence of two groups within the Republican Party: the ‘isolationists’ and the ‘hawks.’ Those aligned with the former, such as Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Matt Gaetz, the US Representative for Florida's 1st congressional district, have argued that the US government should prioritise domestic politics and reduce its involvement in foreign conflicts, including in Ukraine. In February, Gaetz even submitted a resolution to end military and financial assistance to Ukraine. The authors of an article published by Foreign Affairs, titled ‘The War-Weary West’, have called this Republican group the ‘anti-Ukraine faction,’ and have emphasised the fact that their position plays into Russia's hands.

In contrast, the ‘hawks’ have been advocating for increased support to Ukraine and have criticised the Biden administration for being too slow on the matter. This group includes prominent figures such as US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former US ambassador to the UN and presidential candidate Nikki Haley.

However, it appears as though the most likely Republican candidate in the presidential race will be an ‘isolationist’. If Trump decides not to run then, according to current ratings, Ron DeSantis will most likely be the Republican nominee from this ‘isolationist’ group. However, if there is a lack of consensus among Republicans as to their preferred strategy when it comes to Ukraine, the candidate may choose to downplay the issue and avoid making promises about limiting assistance to Kyiv.

The primary issue, however, is that ‘war fatigue’ has not just affected Republicans, but is also on the rise among Democrats. This was highlighted earlier in the year by a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. A recent poll commissioned by the Brookings Institute and conducted by the University of Maryland and Ipsos in late March and early April, indicates that American support for Ukraine, while not in freefall, is nonetheless on the decline.

The poll indicates that 50% of Republicans believe that the current level of American military aid to Ukraine is excessive, while 21% find it sufficient, and 8% deem it insufficient, with a clear minority supporting the hawks' position. Among Democrats, the opposite is true: 13% consider the quantity of aid provided to Ukraine to be excessive, 40% sufficient, and 19% insufficient. Around 46% of Americans believe that the US should only continue to support Ukraine for a further one to two years, with 62% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats holding this opinion. In contrast, 51% of Democrats are willing to support Ukraine for however long it takes, whereas only 25% of Republicans hold this opinion. When it comes to the supply of long-range missiles and fighter jets the gap between the two parties is not so significant, with an average of 30% of Republicans supporting the provision of such supplies, compared to 43% who oppose. Among Democrats, 54% support the supply of such equipment, while only 15% do not. Independent voters appear to be closer to the Democrats' position when it comes to the question of supplying missiles and to the Republicans' position on the supply of fighter jets. This means that, in general, 45% of respondents support the supply of long-range missiles, with 28% against, while 37% of Americans support providing fighter jets, with 32% against.

Sociologists also conducted four waves of polling to help understand the willingness of US citizens to bear the costs associated with the war in Ukraine. These include increased energy prices, rising inflation, and losses among US military personnel. The questions asked revealed that war fatigue is evident across all party groups. The latest round of the poll showed a noticeable decrease in the public’s willingness to bear these costs, ranging from 9 to 15 percentage points for all three measures, and across all three groups. This decline is particularly pronounced among Democrats. Sociologists have attempted to explain this shift in public sentiment and have noted that all versions of the survey since last March have shown a strong correlation between the level of support for Ukraine and public expectations regarding the outcome of the war and the likelihood of a Ukrainian victory. In October last year, 43% of Americans believed that Ukraine would win the war, but in April 2023, this figure had dropped to 26%, leading to a decrease in Americans' willingness to pay a high price to support Ukraine.

Although war fatigue is present across all party groups, a majority of Democrats are still willing to shoulder the costs associated with continued support for Ukraine, including higher energy prices (65%) and rising inflation (60%). In contrast, only about a third of Republicans consider these consequences acceptable. However, the situation has the potential to shift, either in favour of or against Ukraine, depending on what Americans deem the most likely outcome of the war.

Generally speaking, approximately 50% of those surveyed are still willing to tolerate the problems of higher inflation (46%) and increased energy prices (51%), provided that there is a pro-Ukrainian consensus among the American elites. However, during the upcoming presidential campaign, there will be a split among American elites regarding the extent and duration of the support that they are willing to provide. The narratives that politicians choose to promote, including those popular among the ‘isolationists’, will influence public opinion. And, above all, they will influence the positions of independent voters, who, having grown increasingly fatigued by the war and uncertain about its outcome, will be more likely to listen to the arguments of the ‘isolationists’. This, in turn, will push other politicians to adjust their positions accordingly.

How much are you prepared to see the US pay to help Ukraine? % of respondents