Ivo H. Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Is the United States retreating from the world? Anyone watching the presidential campaign can be forgiven for thinking that Americans want little to do with what occurs beyond their borders.
Republican nominee Donald Trump is touting an America First approach, proposing to build walls to stem immigration and raise tariffs to bar the import of foreign goods. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has turned against the very trade agreements she once championed as the nation’s diplomat-in-chief. And both are vying to replace President Obama, who came to office on the promise of ending U.S. foreign wars but who has often been reluctant to lead in addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Yet, while politicians seem to think that the American public wants to turn inward, recent polling done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs paints a very different picture of Americans’ attitudes on foreign policy. One of the key indicators of their attitudes about foreign engagement — whether the United States should play an active role in world affairs or stay out — shows that Americans by a nearly 2-to-1 majority favor an active U.S. role (64 to 35 percent). This is very much in line with findings over the past four decades that we have asked this question.
Americans’ generally positive attitude toward increased global engagement is also reflected in more specific findings on how the United States should engage with the world. For example, Americans support maintaining existing military alliances, with 89 percent saying that doing so is very or somewhat effective at achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. This general support extends to specific alliances. Thus, despite Trump’s repeated denunciation of NATO, three-quarters of Americans (and 60 percent of his supporters) believe the United States should maintain or increase its commitment to the Atlantic Alliance.
Contrary to much of the 2016 campaign rhetoric, moreover, Americans also generally support the other main pillar of engagement overseas: international trade. Indeed, a solid 65 percent of Americans think globalization is mostly a good thing. Democrats are most positive (74 percent); but nearly half of core Trump supporters (49 percent) also agree. And while both major candidates have come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fully 60 percent of Americans support this important trade pact with Asia — including a notable 56 percent of those who supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries and 49 percent of Trump’s core supporters.
Although campaign rhetoric has often stressed U.S. weakness abroad, the average American still believes that the United States is by far the most influential country in the world. The public as a whole rates U.S. global influence an average of 8.5 on a zero to 10 scale. For comparison, Americans overall ranked China second, with a mean influence of 7.1, the European Union third at 7 and Russia fourth at 6.2 on the 10-point scale.
Moreover, for most Americans the criticism of the United States heard throughout much of the campaign has not stuck. A majority (61 percent) says that the United States “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” compared to 38 percent who say that “every country is unique, and the United States is no greater than other nations.”
Given these findings, what accounts for the perception that Americans are turning inward, if not isolationist? Part of the reason is that Trump has been able to mobilize a sizable minority that feels strongly about the threat posed by immigration and Islamic fundamentalism and, to a lesser extent, by foreign trade.
According to our polling, fully 80 percent of core Trump supporters believe large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming to the United States constitute a critical threat (a view shared by just 43 percent of Americans overall). As a result, 92 percent of his supporters favor building a wall on the border with Mexico. Fears of Islamic fundamentalism have also been rising, especially among Republicans, more than three-quarters of whom see it as a critical threat to the country — the highest percentage since the question was first asked in 1998. And while a majority of Americans believe trade has generally been good for the American economy, for consumers like them, and for overall living standards (though not for American job security), larger majorities of core Trump supporters believe trade has had a negative impact on all these measures.
Donald Trump has proven adept at mobilizing anti-immigrant and anti-trade sentiment among a minority of Americans into a strong movement that seeks to put the United States first in global affairs. Yet, his is not the majority’s view. Most Americans favor the measured, open engagement to the world that has been at the core of U.S. foreign policy for the past 70 years. That is good news for those who believe an active American role abroad is vital to U.S. security and prosperity. What they need now is a strong voice to make that case.