President Donald Trump campaigned, and has governed, on an "America First" platform: The United States should stop underwriting the security and prosperity of other countries at its own expense, and it should renegotiate or withdraw from international agreements that don't serve America’s national interests.
How do the American people think we have fared under this new approach? That is the question the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked in its annual survey of American public attitudes on foreign policy. And we now have the answer. Americans generally don’t like the new direction—if anything they are more supportive of internationalism than ever before.
For more the forty years, the Council has asked whether Americans prefer that the United States take an active role in world affairs or stay out of world affairs. This year, seven in 10 Americans say they want the United States to take an active role—an increase over the past two years and the highest level ever recorded (save for a one-year bump after 9/11).
Now, taking an active role in world affairs doesn’t tell you how Americans think the United States should engage the world—alone, as has been President Trump’s preference, or with others. In the survey, a whopping 91 percent said the US should work with allies and other countries to achieve its goals. In fact, by a two to one ratio, Americans believe the United States should sometimes go along with the decisions of its allies, or support decisions made in the United Nations, even if these policies are not its first choice. This, again, is at the highest level of support since this question was first asked in 2004.
To be clear, this isn't just a theoretical disagreement between the public and the president. Americans are worried about the practical effect of declining US influence as a result the president's strategy. Majorities worry that relations with other countries are worsening (56 percent) and that the United States is losing allies (57 percent). And while the president believes that instilling fear in other countries is effective for getting one’s way, three-quarters of all Americans think admiration of the United States is more than fear for achieving US foreign policy goals.
There is also a growing divergence between the public and the president on the value of security alliances. While Trump has harshly criticized NATO, 75 percent of Americans want to maintain or increase the US commitment to NATO. Indeed, this year saw the highest percentage of respondents wanting to increase the US commitment to NATO ever recorded. Similarly, more Americans now favor using US troops to defense South Korea and Japan from a North Korean attack or Baltic NATO allies from a Russian attack than ever before. And while the president has often suggested that he wanted to withdraw US troops from allied counties, large majorities support maintaining long-term military bases in South Korea (74 percent) and Japan (65 percent). Again, both of these measures are at historic highs.
When it comes to trade, the divergent trend is even more pronounced. While the White House wages trade battles on multiple fronts, more Americans than ever before think that trade is good for consumers like them (85 percent), the US economy (82 percent), and even creating jobs in the United States (67 percent). Before the new US-Canada-Mexico deal was announced, the survey registered a record high level of support for NAFTA, with 63 percent saying it was good for the US economy (a 10 percent positive jump from 53 percent in 2017).
The White House has sought to walk away from the core principals of US foreign policy—free trade, security alliances, and international cooperation. The American people are making clear that they don’t think that is the right direction to go. Instead, they have rallied around an internationalist foreign policy that contrasts starkly with Trump’s preferred "America First" approach. Instead, Trump is succeeding in making internationalism great again.
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Robert Kagan / POLITICO Magazine
The liberal world order American leaders established in the wake of World War II was not based on naïve optimism about human existence, as many of its critics argue today, but, “…on pessimism born of hard experience, earned on the battlefields of Europe and the beaches of the Pacific islands,” Kagan writes. Others questioned the legitimacy of an order that claimed to be rules-based but was often shaped by the American hegemon’s perception of its own interests. However, the order held together because, “…other members regarded American hegemony, by any realistic standards, as relatively benign, and superior to the alternatives.” Thus, President Trump’s UN speech was an invitation to global anarchy, Kagan argues, a struggle of all against all. “His boasting about American power put the world on notice that the United States was turning from a supporter of a liberal order to rogue superpower.” See Robert Kagan speak more about America’s retreat from global leadership on October 9 at the Council.
Edward Wong / The New York Times
According to Wong, President Trump and his senior administration officials detailed specific policy positions and gave a clearer view into how the US is grappling with difficult global issues at the UN General Assembly. Among the takeaways are that the US military could shift its focus in Syria to confront Iran; the US is in no rush for North Korea to denuclearize; trade disputes with China and Canada aren’t going well; Trump favors a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and “all options are on the table” when it comes to the US’ policy toward Venezuela.
Dan Glickman / The Hill
Former US secretary of agriculture and congressman Dan Glickman writes President Trump shows little regard or understanding for the tools in the American foreign policy toolbox, particularly foreign assistance. “Foreign assistance is one of the most important ways we can protect our interests, promote democratic governance, grow our economy, and show the world that we are still its most indispensable country,” says Glickman, who is also a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council. President Trump has made repeated calls to end foreign assistance to countries that he deems have disrespected the United States. “America stands for more than quid pro quo loyalty,” Glickman asserts. “We stand for freedom and democratic values. Foreign aid is part of who we are and how we try to make the world a better place.”
Josh Rogin / The Washington Post
The war of words that kicked off between US and Iranian leaders at the UN General Assembly last week was an augur of more dire events to come, according to Rogin. Over the next four weeks, the Trump administration will finalize and deploy a series of measures to exclude Iran from international financial markets–a move intended to force Iran back to the nuclear negotiating table. “By Nov. 5, all countries and international companies will have to choose between doing business with Iran or the United States,” Rogin writes. “The Iranian threat is real, but Trump’s approach is risky. If it fails, the consequences will be no laughing matter,” he concludes.
Thomas L. Friedman / The New York Times
According to Friedman, the Chinese are catching up to the US in many ways, and President Trump grasps only part of the reason. One trend worth noting is artificial intelligence. “China’s plan is to catch up to America in A.I. and surpass it as soon as possible, and it’s well on its way,” Friedman writes. But the US has three huge assets that China doesn’t have–immigration, allies, and values–and we should be doubling down on those strengths, Freidman argues. “In short, a strategic president wouldn’t squander our strengths but would reinforce them by creating a stronger global network of people and countries that share our values.”
Henry Kissinger / The Wilson Center
In this transcript from the Wilson Center’s gala event with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the elder statesman remarks that, “…the peace and prosperity of the world depend on whether China and the United States can find a method to work together, not always in agreement, but to handle our disagreements.” His main message is that China has a conceptual approach to policy, whereas America is more pragmatic. So, when Chinese and American negotiators meet, “The Americans have a list of things that they want to fix in the immediate future; the Chinese have an objective towards which they want to work.” The middle road is to find solutions to some of the problems that concern us both, Kissinger argues.
Tunku Varadarajan / The Wall Street Journal
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s 93-year-old prime minister, counts among his new political partners a man he once jailed during his original term as the country’s leader. That man, Anwar Ibrahim, is the head of Malaysia’s majority party in Parliament, and his coalition campaigned for Mahathir on the understanding that after two years in power, he would cede the office to Anwar. Varadarajan writes that the prime minister remains cryptic on whether that promise of a transition of power will be upheld. Another contentious facet of modern Malaysia, Varadarajan writes, is its entrenched system of racial preference for ethnic Malays over citizens of Chinese or Indian origin in jobs and educational opportunities. Mahathir asserts that there is no Malay dominance, but rather a type of “affirmative action” taking place to balance “the rich” Malaysian Chinese and Indians with the poorer Malays.
Neil Irwin / The New York Times
In 2015 and 2016, the US experienced a sharp slowdown in business investment, a drop in the price of oil and other commodities, and a run-up in the value of the dollar. Irwin labels this “the mini-recession that many missed,” and argues that it helps to not only explain the economic growth spurt of the last two years, but also some of the economic discontent evident in manufacturing-heavy areas during the 2016 elections. “It offers warnings for where the next downturn might come from, and shows how important it is for policymakers to remain watchful and flexible about unpredictable shifts in the global economy,” Irwin writes.