Rejecting Retreat

September 6, 2019

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Karl Friedhoff, Fellow, Public Opinion and Asia Policy; Craig Kafura, Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Brendan Helm, Research Assistant

The 2019 Chicago Council Survey demonstrates that retreating from the world, abdicating international leadership, and abandoning alliances and global institutions is not what the American public has in mind.

Executive Summary

The upending of US foreign policy under the Trump administration, the revolt against establishment politicians, and the rise of the progressive wing in US politics has led many foreign policy experts to conclude that Americans want to retreat from the world. Much of Washington and its foreign policy elite believe that “Iraq and other debacles” have left Americans wearied, worried, and inclined toward either America First or retrenchment ideas.1 They believe the American public sees the rules-based international order established after World War II as bankrupt.

But that is not what the American public actually thinks. Americans may be searching for a new way to make sense of the world. But the 2019 Chicago Council Survey demonstrates that retreating from the world, abdicating international leadership, and abandoning alliances and global institutions is not what the American public has in mind.

Whether they identify as Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, large numbers of Americans continue to favor the foundational elements of traditional, post–World War II US foreign policy. They express continued or increased support for security alliances and military deterrence by maintaining superior military capabilities and US bases abroad. They believe international trade is good for the United States and American companies, and that promoting democracy and human rights around the world makes the United States safer. In fact, support for NATO, military alliances, and trade have never been higher in the history of the Chicago Council Survey.

Placed within the context of the 45-year history of the Chicago Council Survey, the most striking conclusion is how consistently Americans support a foreign policy based on shared leadership, strong alliances, free trade, and the selective use of military force to defend the United States and its allies.

To Be or Not to Be Active in World Affairs

Today, seven in 10 Americans (69%) say it would be best for the future of the country to take an active part in world affairs, while three in 10 (30%) say the United States should stay out (Figure A). This level of support for an active role is among the highest recorded in the history of the Chicago Council Survey. As important, there is broad consensus on this role, with solid majorities of self-described Democrats (75%), Independents (64%), and Republicans (69%) supporting an active role in the world, as they have for decades.

Moreover, the three in 10 Americans (30%) who prefer the United States stay out of world affairs do not necessarily oppose all types of international involvement. While those who want to stay out of world affairs tend to oppose military interventions and the US military presence abroad, open-end responses indicate that they prefer the United States to selectively engage through diplomacy and trade rather than not engage at all.

Carry a Big Stick: Support for Alliances and Military Power as Deterrents to Threats

Solid majorities of Americans say that preserving US military alliances with other countries (74%), maintaining US military superiority (69%), and stationing US troops in allied countries (51%) contribute to US safety. (See Appendix Figure 1.) Fewer say the same about military interventions (27%), suggesting that Americans favor using US military clout to deter aggressive actions by other countries rather than to invade or occupy them. In other words, when it comes to the US military, the public seems to adhere to President Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

In addition, even more Americans now than in 2017 say that security alliances in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East benefit both US allies and the United States (Figure B). This holds true across partisan lines. Asked about NATO specifically, all-time high percentages among Democrats (86%), Independents (68%), and Republicans (62%) believe that NATO is still essential to US security. And 78 percent of Americans overall say that the United States should maintain or increase its current commitment to NATO.

While Americans are more likely to say that US military interventions make the United States less safe (46%) rather than more (27%), there are times when they think military action is appropriate. For example, Americans favor using US troops to take action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (70%) and fight violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria (59%). Americans also support the use of US troops to defend allies. Majorities across party lines favor committing US troops to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion (58%) and to defend a NATO ally such as Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia from a Russian invasion (54%). Bipartisan majorities also prefer to maintain or increase current levels of US military forces in South Korea (69%), Japan (57%), and the Persian Gulf (60%). (See Appendix Figure 4.)

Agreement on Trade but Not on Tariffs

More Americans than ever before in Chicago Council polling endorse the benefits of international trade for the US economy (87%) and for American companies (83%), with year-over-year increases across political groupings (Figure C). Compared with 2017, larger majorities also see trade deals as benefiting both the United States and other countries (63%, up from 51%), including majorities of Democrats (74%), Independents (59%), and Republicans (54%). The findings suggest that the recent increases in Republican support for trade partly reflect backing for President Trump’s trade policies: 74 percent of Republicans favor the imposition of tariffs against Chinese imports, while a majority of Democrats oppose doing so (66%); Independents are split (50% support). (See Figure 16.)

 

Deepening Divides on Immigration, Climate, and China

These data underscore widespread consensus among Americans to maintain and support alliances, military strength, and international trade. But the American public divides sharply along partisan lines when it comes to three threats to the United States: immigration, climate change, and China. On each of these issues, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is at record highs.

Largest Recorded Partisan Differences on Immigration

Immigration is certain to be a heated issue in the 2020 elections and it presents one of the largest partisan gaps in the history of the Chicago Council Survey (Figure D). Of all 14 potential threats presented in the survey, Democrats rate immigration as the least likely to pose a critical threat (19%). In contrast, more Republicans consider large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States a critical threat than any other facing the country (78%).

When it comes to President Trump’s immigration policies, there are sharp partisan differences. Republicans (81%) are far more likely than Democrats (23%) to support the use of US troops to stop immigrants from coming into the United States from Mexico and to say that carrying out more arrests and deportations is an effective way of dealing with illegal immigration (82% Republicans, compared with 29% of Democrats). Although a minority, more Republicans than Democrats view separating migrant children from their parents when they are accused of entering the United States illegally as an effective policy (40% compared with 10%).

Democrats Far More Concerned about Climate Change

For the first time since the question was introduced in 2008, a majority of Americans (54%) consider climate change a critical threat (Figure E). Concern has reached majority levels among Democrats (78%) and Independents (54%), but remains much lower among Republicans (23%).

Democrats have also grown more convinced that climate change is a serious problem requiring immediate action regardless of significant costs (76%, up from 62% in 2016). But only two in 10 Republicans (20%) favor immediate action. Instead, a plurality of Republicans say that because the effects of climate change will be gradual, we can deal with the problem by taking gradual steps that are low in cost (46%).

Republicans Far More Concerned about Threat from China

While climate change and immigration are longstanding disagreements between Republicans and Democrats, polling has only recently revealed a growing partisan divide on the threat of China. Less than half of Americans overall (42%) say that the development of China as a world power represents a critical threat, whereas the share of Republicans who view China’s rise as such has increased twelve percentage points in the past year (Figure F). In fact, for the first time since 2002 a majority (54%) of Republicans say China’s rise represents a critical threat to the United States, compared with 36 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Independents.

Conclusion

As the 2020 election cycle kicks into full gear, the American public’s priorities will come under closer scrutiny. Much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment seems to think that Americans want to retreat from the world, and many believe that view is reflected in support for President Trump’s America First policies or the retrenchment policies of the Democratic progressives. But the 2019 Chicago Council Survey strongly refutes this line of thinking. The American public wants to reinvigorate the time-tested alliances and strategies of US foreign policy that have been in place for the past seven decades. Given that this sentiment has been underscored in each of the Chicago Council Surveys since 2016, it is clear that the American public does not seek a retreat from the world.

Methodology

This report is based on the results of a survey commissioned by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The 2019 Chicago Council Survey, a project of the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy, is the latest effort in a series of wide-ranging surveys on American attitudes toward US foreign policy. The 2019 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the Crown family and the Korea Foundation.

The survey was conducted from June 7 to 20, 2019, among a representative national sample of 2,059 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is ±2.3, including a design effect of 1.1607. The margin of error is higher for partisan subgroups or for partial-sample items.

Rejecting Retreat

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