President Trump with Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, in the Oval Office on Tuesday. (Ron Sachs/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Opinion writer

After more than two years of a presidency in which the commander in chief paints the United States as victims of our allies, undercuts the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), announces a precipitous withdrawal from Syria, lavishes praise on dictators and declares he wants to charge allies for basing our troops overseas, one could understand if large numbers of Americans didn’t think much of NATO or the United States’ role in the world. The good news is that President Trump is awful at persuading people outside his base; the bad news is that Republicans do listen to him and Americans are generally already souring on the United States taking an active role in the world.

The Pew Research Center finds:

Nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) — including large majorities in both parties — say being a member of NATO is good for the United States. These numbers are essentially unchanged from April 2016. . . . A plurality of the public (42%) says NATO is about as important to the U.S. as it is to other NATO countries. About a third (34%) say the alliance is more important to other NATO countries, while just 15% say it is more important to the U.S.

However, the parties have essentially flipped sides when it comes to support for a more active foreign policy. “Nearly half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (47%) say NATO is more important to other NATO countries than the U.S.; only a quarter of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the same.” It is now the Democrats who see more clearly the need for international leadership. “Today, 51% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say it’s best for the country to be active in world affairs. . . . These views have changed little since 2017, but in 2014 only 38% of Democrats said it was best for the future of the U.S. for it to be active globally.” Among Republicans, 57 percent oppose a strong role in the world while 37 percent say we should be active in the world. As Democrats attract more college-educated voters who favor active foreign policy and the GOP becomes a party of non-college-educated whites who don’t favor active foreign policy, you can imagine that the trend will continue.

Overall, that comes out to 49 percent favoring a less-active foreign policy while 44 percent favor a more-active approach. On one level, after a long war without a definitive ending and other foreign policy debacles (e.g., the Iraq War, failing to stop Syrian genocide when we could), you can understand why Americans might sour on an active foreign policy.

One wonders, however, whether they oppose foreign policy engagement per se, or military intervention. One clue comes from attitudes about our allies:

A majority of Americans (54%) say “the U.S. should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them,” while 40% say “the U.S. should follow its own national interests even when its allies strongly disagree.”

A wide partisan gap remains on how accommodating the U.S. should be toward its allies. A strong majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (69%) say the U.S. should compromise with allies. About half as many Republicans and Republican leaners (35%) say the same.

Trump’s “America First” mantra does seem to be the watchword in the Republican Party these days.

And yet, despite reluctance to engage in the world a substantial majority of voters know that the world would be worse off without the United States. “A large majority of Americans (64%) say that problems in the world would be worse without U.S. involvement. . . . About three-in-ten (29%) say that U.S. involvement in the world generally hurts more than it helps.” And despite their aversion to an active foreign policy, Republicans overwhelmingly think the world would be worse off: "Currently, 76% say problems would [be] worse without U.S. involvement, up from 60% three years ago.”

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these contradictory impulses. However, for politicians who understand how important that active engagement in the world is to our own security and prosperity, they might want to stress these ideas:

  • If we exercise diplomatic and economic leadership (including foreign aid), we are more likely to have the support of allies and to avoid the need for military engagement;
  • A more violent and unstable world is bad news for the United States since refugees, terrorism (cyber or otherwise), epidemics and climate change don’t respect national borders; and
  • We gain respect and influence when we are reliable, consistent and adhere to our own values — including respect for the the integrity of borders and universal human rights.

In any event, Democratic presidential candidates should understand that the country at large, and Democrats specifically, don’t see retreat from the world as a benefit. Nor do they think we can go it alone. It’s up to contenders for the Democratic nomination to articulate a responsible vision of a post-Trump foreign policy.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Congress shouldn’t put up with a foreign policy this awful

Daniel Drezner: The tuning out of Donald Trump

Max Boot: Trump is turning U.S. foreign policy into a protection racket

Jennifer Rubin: How Democrats can capitalize on Trump’s foreign policy malpractice