In the Trump era, American foreign policy has become more unabashedly nationalist, but no less interventionist. The U.S. has ceased to play the role of the world’s policeman, and begun acting as its warlord. Trump’s America puts little effort into justifying acts of unilateral aggression with reference to international law or human rights, but it still loves to unilaterally aggress. Uncle Sam has stopped being polite and started demanding tribute. Spreading democracy is out; giant Pentagon budgets, great-powers competition, dropping bombs in the Middle East, starving Iran, and bullying Europe are all very much in.
To the governments of many foreign countries, the distinctions between the foreign policy Trump inherited and the one he has pursued likely seem more cosmetic than substantive. But in Brussels, Tehran, and other capitals, America’s turn to “me first” imperialism has had profound policy consequences. Now foreign diplomats are debating whether Trumpism will prove to be an aberration (a phenomenon driven primarily by the personality defects of a single president) or a new normal (one driven primarily by the increasingly nationalistic mood of a declining great power’s electorate).
In other words: Is an “America first” foreign policy what U.S. voters want?
A new report on our electorate’s foreign-policy views suggests the answer is “yes and no.” Through a series of focus groups and a national survey, the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) has pieced together a portrait of what a majoritarian foreign policy would look like in the United States. And that picture doesn’t look much like Trump’s governing agenda, or CAP’s own liberal internationalism. But it does bear a passing resemblance to the foreign policy Trump campaigned on.
For starters, voters appear (understandably) to think that America’s foreign-policy Establishment is “nothing more than [a] failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.” They had a difficult time discerning an overriding logic to the country’s foreign policy in recent decades, and when they did, they largely distrusted it:
The qualitative research revealed important gaps in voters’ basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy objectives and widespread confusion about what the nation is trying to achieve in the world. Voters in focus groups did not see an overarching principle, rationale, or clear set of goals in U.S. foreign policy. Questions emerged along the lines of: Why are we in the Middle East and not dealing with Russia and China? What exactly did we gain from years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why can’t we balance our economic dealings with other countries to better benefit U.S. workers and businesses? Several participants wondered why the United States does not have a plan for economic and political success in the world like they perceive China and other competitors do.
Likewise, traditional language from foreign policy experts about “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship,” “promoting democracy,” or “working with allies and the international community” uniformly fell flat with voters in our groups. Some participants questioned the idea that an international community actually exists. Democracy promotion reminded others of the 2003 Iraq War and the failures of the George W. Bush administration. When asked what the phrase “maintaining the liberal international order” indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases and ideas meant or implied.
These attitudes appear largely representative of the broader electorate’s. In the report’s nationally representative survey, just 9 percent of voters named “promoting democracy and democratic values around the world” as a top-three priority for U.S. foreign policy in the next five years, while only 43 percent “strongly agreed” with the statement “As the world’s longest-standing democracy, the United States has a special role to play in defending and promoting democratic values and institutions around the world.” There was only slightly more enthusiasm for prioritizing “fighting global poverty and promoting human rights.”
By contrast, a majority of voters strongly agreed with the somewhat Trumpian notions that “other countries should pay more for their own security and stop expecting the United States to be the world’s policeman” and “we should focus more on helping people here at home instead of getting involved in trying to help people in other parts of the world.” A majority of respondents also felt that “American values like democracy are not universal, and apply to only certain parts of the world” and that “what happens to regular people in other countries” impacts them either “a little” or “not at all.”
The majorities on these points are all fairly narrow. And there are significant partisan and generational gaps in enthusiasm for promoting human rights both in America and abroad. But when you put together the most commonly voiced views in the survey, you get a distinctly “America first” consensus: The typical voter seems to want a foreign policy that prioritizes the prevention of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the protection of our democracy from foreign interference, and the promotion of good jobs and high wages for U.S. workers. This voter isn’t necessarily opposed to the more high-minded objectives of reducing global poverty and the persecution of vulnerable minorities overseas; when CAP did not impose a limit on how many goals respondents could describe as “very important priorities,” these objectives attracted majority approval. But the typical voter wants America’s domestic well-being to take precedence.
In fact, the single most popular proposition in CAP’s survey was this: “In order to remain competitive in the world, the United States must invest more to improve our own infrastructure, education, and health care, not just increase military and defense spending.” Some 68 percent of respondents “strongly agreed” with this sentiment, while just 33 percent strongly agreed with the inverse proposition, “The United States must prioritize spending for the military and defense, even if it means making cuts in other areas.” In other words, the typical voter wants, above all, a foreign policy that does not require cuts to domestic spending or social services.
That last position is in tension with Trump’s governing agenda; the president has pushed through massive increases in Pentagon spending while proposing sharp cuts in funding for health care and education. But on the campaign trail, he did repeatedly lament that America had “wasted” trillions of dollars in the Middle East instead of spending that money “right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!”
So far, then, our majoritarian agenda is looking rather Trumpy. And yet, if the typical voter in CAP’s study favors a self-interested foreign policy, she does not support a belligerent or unilateralist one.
Most strikingly, a large plurality (47 percent) of Americans want their government to adopt “a more cautious approach in dealing with China and try to find ways to defuse political tensions and increase economic cooperation,” rather than to “employ all available measures short of military confrontation to compete with China globally and stop unfair trade practices that hurt workers and our economy.” A miniscule 13 percent, meanwhile, say the U.S. should put “all options on the table, including military action, to stop Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and to defend U.S. allies.” And views on America’s conflicts with Russia are broadly similar: cooperation and defusing tension being the most popular stance while putting military action on the table in defense of Eastern Europe is the least popular. Meanwhile, majorities of respondents strongly agreed that America must cooperate with foreign governments and international organizations to combat the threats of climate change, contagious disease, cyberattacks, and other novel security challenges.
Given these views, it’s not terribly surprising that only 40 percent of those polled approve of Donald Trump’s handling of foreign policy.
CAP’s survey was massive; the think tank asked many different variations on the same basic questions, deploying a range of methodologies. By picking and choosing from various popular responses, one could construct a plurality of contradictory narratives about what the American people want. What’s more, the public’s preferences on many policy questions are often contradictory, loosely held, and easily inflected by changes in partisan signaling or media framing. And this malleability is even more common on issues far removed from voters’ daily experience, as matters of foreign policy tend to be.
Nevertheless, judging by CAP’s report, it seems fair to say that a foreign policy that’s less ambitious, belligerent, and unilateralist than Trump’s – but more narrowly focused on ordinary Americans’ physical safety and economic well-being than the geopolitical agendas of his predecessors – would have popular appeal in the United States.
For progressives, the ostensibly widespread interest in a “butter not guns” argument — prioritizing domestic investment over the maintenance of globe-spanning military commitments — is encouraging; the limited solidarity that Americans feel for regular people abroad and the majoritarian belief that ISIS poses a bigger threat to the U.S. than climate change, less so. Still, voters appear less allergic to international solidarity than to the utopian slogans that neoconservatives spouted while selling our forever wars. Ordinary voters may be fine with the global climate’s coming second — so long as they get to come first.