During the Trump administration, the two major parties have undergone a reversal of sorts on foreign policy. Democrats have shown more support for strong U.S. leadership in the world and robust efforts to push back Russia; Republicans have gone in the other direction, seeking to disengage and retrench. Democrats are unabashedly defending human rights; Republicans see nothing wrong with President Trump’s praise for authoritarians. This raises the question whether the switch is permanent, or a function of Trump’s peculiar brand of America First/Russophile foreign policy.
Many Democrats have shed their dovish feathers. A poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that Democrats (66 percent) are about as likely as Republicans (65 percent) to say it would be best for the United States to take an active role in world affairs. That’s a big change from the Obama years when at one point the gap was 12 points (Democrats 65 percent/Republicans 77 percent). Democrats now favor maintaining existing alliances (55 percent) while not even a majority of Republicans (43 percent) do. This should hardly be surprising. (“Core Trump supporters are the most skeptical of the benefits regarding alliances for the United States. Perhaps taking their lead from the president, a majority favor withholding US security guarantee from NATO allies until they pay more (60%); 51 percent of overall Republicans agree.”)
The Pew Research poll found an even more dramatic shift among Democrats:
Today, a 56% majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners say it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs while 39% say the country should pay less attention to overseas problems and concentrate on domestic problems. In 2014, the balance of Democratic opinion was the reverse: 58% said the country should focus more on problems at home, compared with just 38% who supported an active U.S. role in world affairs. While the views of both liberal Democrats and conservatives and moderates associated with the party have shifted, the shift is more pronounced among liberals, and what was a modest intraparty gap has widened.
Likewise, recent polling shows Republicans have gone soft on Russia. (“Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying rising popularity among Republicans according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center. The poll found that the share of Republicans expressing confidence in Putin doubled to 34 percent from 17 percent in 2015, when Donald Trump launched a campaign for the White House that was seen as friendly toward Moscow.”) In April, Pew Research found, “Nearly four-in-ten Democrats (39%) name Russia as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States – the highest percentage expressing this view in nearly three decades, according to a new survey. Compared with 2013, the last time this question was asked, greater shares in both parties volunteer Russia as posing the greatest danger to the U.S. – but nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans now say this (39% vs. 21%).”
With an administration and secretary of state who often downplay the importance of human rights and/or embrace thuggish regimes, the partisan flip-flop on many foreign policy issues is predictable. Whereas the “freedom agenda” in the administration of President George W. Bush became conflated with the Iraq War, and therefore an anathema to Democrats, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successful effort to help undermine Hillary Clinton and the distasteful sight of an American president coddling dictators have spurred Democrats now to adopt a more forward-leaning position on human rights.
Democrats naturally view Trump’s desire to dump international agreements forged under Obama (e.g. JCPOA, the Paris Climate agreement) negatively, reaffirming their determination to exercise world leadership. Republicans imagine such agreements compromise our own national interests.
Outside of strictly partisan politics, we’ve noted an emerging consensus on foreign policy between center-left and center-right. That leaves many pundits, former officials and think-tankers (what former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes dismissively called “the blob”) joined at the hip regardless of party standing in opposition to Trump’s crude version of ethno-nationalism. Moreover, Trump’s own advisers have defended the NATO alliance, urged continuation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), discouraged trade wars and otherwise sought to ease Trump back into the mainstream on foreign policy.
Where will that leave Democrats going forward and Republicans in the post-Trump years?
If Democrats want to present themselves as capable of international leadership and to recapture centrist voters (“soccer moms,” white-collar workers, etc.) they’d be well advised to reclaim the Democratic tradition of Truman-Kennedy-Bill Clinton on foreign policy and to position themselves as defenders of real American values (e.g. free speech, democratic institutions).
On the Republican side, the uneasy divide between pro-Trump Republicans (including libertarian isolationists), on one hand, and, on the other, traditional Republican who favor a strong military and bold international leadership mirrors to a great extent the larger battle for the soul of the GOP. If the GOP really is going to go the way of Trump and Stephen K. Bannon, its foreign policy will reflect the worst of Trump’s America First philosophy; if, however, sober adults prevail and Trumpists get drummed out (or leave in a huff), at some point, we may well see a return to a foreign policy associated with traditional Republican internationalists — e.g. Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John McCain (Ariz.), Rob Portman (Ohio).
For now, Democrats, especially those with an eye on 2020, would do well to oppose Trump’s sidling up to dictators, repudiation of international agreements, Middle East retrenchment and hostility to our North American neighbors. The ability to discern which nations are friends and which are foes is a prerequisite (or used to be) for the job of commander in chief.
Each new president tends to be a repudiation of the last. So hopefully the winner in 2020 will fully embrace responsible world leadership and defense of universal human rights.