In many ways, the election of Donald Trump could easily be read as a sign that American voters wanted their foreign policy orthodoxy upended.
On the campaign trail, Trump had hinted at dramatic foreign moves that put him at odds with conventional wisdom — easing tensions with Russia, taking a more confrontational stance with China, drastically rethinking NATO responsibilities and expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal to name just a handful. At the same time, Trump had talked repeatedly of “draining the swamp” and ousting Washington elites.
Many of his closest advisers on foreign policy — such as Stephen K. Bannon, Michael Flynn and Peter Navarro — held views heretical to the wider international relations community. This community responded in kind, openly rejecting many of Trump's ideas and refusing to offer them his support.
However, just a few months into Trump's presidency, it doesn't look like a new dawn for American foreign policy. Many of the U.S. president's most incendiary foreign policy ideas have been walked back, while his more controversial advisers have been sidelined or ousted. So are American voters missing out on the radical foreign policy they hoped for?
A poll released Thursday suggests that most voters might not have wanted a dramatic change to U.S. foreign policy after all. In fact, many seem to hold views that place them fairly close to the same foreign policy establishment derided by many of Trump's most vocal supporters. Yet at the same time there were also notable areas of disagreement between the general public and foreign policy elites, most notably on trade and immigration. These areas of disagreement may show how Trump could have leeway to pursue some of his more isolationist policies, even if he does not have support for such a foreign policy in general.
This qualitative research, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs ahead of the November election, sought to contrast the views of foreign policy elites with those of the general public. From Aug. 25 to Oct. 25, 2016, 484 foreign policy opinion leaders were interviewed. Half of that number identified as Democrats, 17 percent as Republicans and 33 percent as independents.
A separate poll of regular voters was conducted June 10-27, with a national sample of 2,061 adults. The council said the margin of error for its survey was 2.38 percent for the whole sample, though it was higher for partisan subgroups.
The research found broad bipartisan consensus in foreign policy elites, defined as those from executive branch agencies, Congress, academia, think tanks, the media, interest groups and NGOs, religious institutions, labor unions and business. To a lesser degree, the poll also found that U.S. voters of all ideological stances often agreed with these viewpoints, though there were notable differences, too.
In particular, there was a remarkable consistency in agreement that America should maintain an active role in world affairs. Among Democrats, 99 percent of elites said an active role was required, vs. 93 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of independents. In the general public, there was also support for taking an active role in foreign affairs: 70 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents said they supported it.
While these attitudes appear to differ from much of Trump's rhetoric, they fit into a tradition in the United States. The council has polled elites and the public on this subject since 1974, with little change over the years other than a slight surge in the public's approval for an active foreign policy after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Looking more closely at the details on foreign policy, it's possible to find more agreement. Despite Trump's harsh words about NATO, a consensus exists among all groups polled that the United States should either maintain or increase its commitment to the organization; fewer than 1 in 10 in any group supported leaving NATO. Meanwhile, though Trump had questioned the wisdom of U.S. support for allies such as Japan, South Korea and Germany, there was widespread support for keeping U.S. military bases in these countries.
There were some important details to note, however. While U.S. foreign policy elites and the general public wanted to engage on the world stage, only the Republican elite (64 percent) said the United States should be the dominant world leader. There was also notable skepticism with the Democratic and independent public on keeping military bases in Australia, though this was less pronounced with Republicans. Finally, there were large divergences between the elites and the public on how important protecting allies' security should be for Americans, with elites largely favoring but fewer than 1 in 4 members of the general public agreeing.
When it came to defining the top threats to the United States, both elites and the public agreed that international terrorism was a major threat — a viewpoint largely in accordance with the policies of Trump. The president may also find support for his Syria policy, with 9 in 10 elites and 72 percent of the public supporting airstrikes against Islamist extremist groups in the country and just a third supporting an agreement that would keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.
But there was far less consensus on issues surrounding nuclear weapons. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons was listed as a goal by a majority of all groups surveyed, and the threat of nuclear weapons spreading to unfriendly nations was listed as a major threat to the United States. However, while Trump has spoken negatively about nuclear weapons in countries such as North Korea and Iran, he has been more broadly approving of the weapons, suggesting not only that the United States should expand its arsenal but also that Japan and South Korea should consider building their own.
While there was largely agreement in terms of broad foreign policy goals, when it came to issues regarding trade, immigration and jobs, things got a lot more complicated. In contrast to the rhetoric used by Bannon and some others, globalization was viewed positively by a majority of all groups surveyed, though the elite groups were notably more enthusiastic about it than the public. There was also a broad consensus that international trade had been good for the United States overall in a number of ways.
Yet while elites and the general public agreed that globalization had not necessarily been beneficial for the job security of U.S. workers, they differed in how important they felt this was. Large majorities of the U.S. public thought protecting the jobs of Americans was a very important goal for U.S. foreign policy, but among the foreign policy elites, only 37 percent of Democrats, 25 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of independents agreed. The council noted that its research showed that this discrepancy between the elites and the public on U.S. jobs has existed since 1978.
There was also a substantial disagreement between Republican elites and the Republican public regarding immigration. Only a small portion of Republican elites, like Democrats and independents, listed immigration and refugees as a critical threat to the United States, but 67 percent of the Republican public said it was. This figure stood in marked contrast to the Democratic and independent public as well, but it wasn't new: The council's data showed that since 1998, there has been at least a 30 percentage point gap between Republican elites and the party's voters.
For Trump, this is a mixed bag. As many observers have noted, the president appears to have ditched some of his unorthodox ideas about foreign policy since taking office in January, moving closer to the viewpoints espoused by “the Blob” — the infamous nickname for the Washington foreign policy elite coined by a former Obama official. Trump has dramatically walked back some of his ideas about China, Russia and NATO, surprising even his critics. Meanwhile, a quick decision to target the Syrian regime this month angered many of his most eager supporters, who argued that he had been tricked into following a pro-war stance.
But Trump often seems acutely aware of popular opinion. Now it seems his foreign policy flip-flops may actually place him closer to the views of the U.S. public than he stood before. And the gap between the foreign policy elite and the public on trade and jobs suggests that there may still be a populist foreign policy for the president to exploit.
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