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Are Americans retreating into isolation? Here's what this survey reveals

Hal Brands | Bloomberg/ 13 May 19 | 07:55 AM

Public attitudes toward US foreign policy are a mess of ambiguities and seeming contradictions. Americans don’t particularly like Donald Trump’s policies, but they share some of his ambivalence about the country’s vast global role. They are not retreating into isolationism, but neither are they persuaded by the traditional justifications for America’s efforts to shape the world.


These are the principal takeaways from a recent opinion survey conducted by the progressive-leaning Center for American progress. For those who believe that American global engagement has been a good thing for the country and the world, the survey provides reason for optimism and pessimism alike. And it highlights the challenges Trump’s successor will face in rebuilding a foreign policy consensus that has frayed badly.

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The good news is that Trump’s statecraft — a zero-sum version of nationalism emphasizing military strength, opposition to immigration and skepticism about America’s global responsibilities — is not very popular. Yes, perhaps one-third of the population can be categorized as “Trump nationalists," but the president’s foreign policy approval rating is an unimpressive 40 per cent. Americans are not exactly clamoring for more casual belligerence, economic protectionism, diplomatic self-isolation and simple incompetence.


They are, however, receptive to some of Trump’s underlying critiques of America’s global project. According to CAP, Americans broadly support the idea of making allies take greater responsibility for their own defense. They place greater emphasis on dealing with direct, tangible threats such as terrorism than on confronting more abstract challenges such as geopolitical revisionism in Europe or the Asia-Pacific. They are wary of prolonged wars in the greater Middle East and show limited enthusiasm for promoting democracy.


Americans also worry about trade-offs between domestic and global priorities: They are in the mood to spend money on butter rather than guns. Finally, they don’t have any clue what the “liberal international order" is: In virtually all cases, the CAP study notes, that concept “drew a blank."


This doesn’t mean Americans are turning their backs on the world: The deeper logic of US engagement still appears to resonate. A bare majority of respondents (51 per cent) believes that “America is stronger when we take a leading role in the world to protect our national interests and advance common goals with other allies."


Sixty-four per cent of Americans agree that the US has to work with partners and allies to deal with cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction and other threats. Clear majorities view Russian and Chinese behavior as threatening, even if they are not eager for a showdown with them. And while the “liberal international order" means nothing to most voters, a clear majority either agreed or strongly agreed with the plain-English equivalent: “Our country’s commitment to taking a leading role in shaping security and economic affairs around the world after World War II led to safer and more prosperous lives for Americans."


What all this indicates, then, is not the death of American grand strategy. It shows that traditional justifications for an ambitious foreign policy have become less persuasive to those who can hardly remember World War II or the Cold War, that there is real anger and disillusion stemming from the wars of the post-9/11 era, and that support for American internationalism is becoming scarcer just as many voters have seen their economic fortunes stagnate or decline.


This last point is crucial: Sixty-eight per cent of those surveyed agreed strongly with the assertion that “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."


The Democratic candidates who hope to defeat Trump in 2020 have their work cut out for them if they want to rebuild the political foundations of American internationalism.


They will have to explain how Washington can be vigilant against terrorism while avoiding costly forever wars. They must articulate a vision for competing with China and Russia without provoking unwanted confrontations. They need to take burden-sharing seriously while explaining how alliances are force-multipliers, not money-pits. And they need to show that US engagement overseas makes the country stronger at home.


Making this case is hardly impossible. By the end of the Obama years, the US had actually hit upon a sustainable counter-terrorism strategy, one that used special operations forces, airpower and other tools to help local partners defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Trump’s trade wars have reminded Americans who work in agriculture, manufacturing, tech and other sectors that an open global economy is crucial to their own prosperity — and that they lose out when new trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leave the US behind.


With respect to great-power competition, many of the investments will need to make to stay ahead of China — in education, basic research, advanced technology and the like — will make America stronger and more prosperous at home. And the reason for investing in alliances, military power, and other competitive tools is that we don’t end up in a showdown because Moscow or Beijing think they can successfully take on the US.


Putting all this to voters in language they understand will be difficult, just as making the argument for American internationalism has always been difficult. We’ll soon find out if Trump’s challengers are up to the task.

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