Since 1992, every successful presidential candidate has campaigned on a promise to do less abroad and more at home. Bill Clinton ran on the idea that “it’s the economy, stupid” and promised to “focus like a laser beam” on improving it. George W. Bush, despite warning that “America’s first temptation is withdrawal — to build a proud tower of protectionism and isolation,” nonetheless promised to focus more attention at home. And Barack Obama ran on ending the wars his predecessor had started with a pledge to begin nation-building at home.
No presidential candidate hit the isolationist drum harder than Donald Trump. His “America First” agenda reflects a belief that voters have tired of fighting wars and signing “bad” trade deals. Even Never Trumpers like the historian Robert Kagan maintain that Americans no longer want to lead, see little value in having allies, and oppose free trade. They just want to come home. As Charles Krauthammer once said, “Isolationism seems the logical, God-given foreign policy for the United States.”
There’s only one problem with the notion that Americans want to retreat from the world: They don’t. They tell pollsters they favor a broad and active role for the United States, and they have done so for decades. If anything, public support for American leadership abroad has increased as voters have seen firsthand what “America First” means in practice.
The public’s increased appreciation for the old way of doing business — let’s call it internationalism — can be seen in the latest survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The Council has been polling public attitudes on foreign policy since 1974, and its surveys offer some of the clearest insights into how views have and haven’t changed as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, won the Cold War, launched a war on terrorism, and shifted to putting America first.
Take the broad question of what role the United States should play in the world. Seventy percent of Americans want it to take an active role in world affairs. That is six percentage points higher than when Trump was elected. The only time that question recorded a higher level of support in the past 44 years came just after Sept. 11, 2001, when 71 percent favored an active U.S. role abroad.
The public’s preference for internationalism holds in specific circumstances. Ninety-one percent say that it is more effective for the United States to work with allies and other countries to achieve its foreign policy goals than to go it alone. Sixty-four percent say that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations, and with its allies, even if that means Washington might have to adopt a policy that is not its first choice. That’s the highest support recorded for that question in a dozen years.
Americans also like having allies and military bases overseas. Seventy-five percent believe the United States should maintain or increase its commitment to NATO, a level of support that has held steady for years. Six in 10 Americans also want to keep U.S. military bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea. Strikingly, support for overseas military bases in these three countries and elsewhere has risen by 10 percentage points or more over the past decade.
And Americans understand that having allies possibly means having to defend them. Asked what the United States should do if an ally is invaded or has its territory seized by another country, respectively 85 percent and 73 percent of Americans support sending in U.S. troops. Asked specifically about defending Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Japan and South Korea against invasion, strong majorities say the United States should fight.
Nowhere is the support for internationalism more robust than on trade. Eighty-five percent of Americans say international trade is good for consumers like them; 82 percent say it is good for the U.S. economy; and, most surprising given Trump’s insistence that trade deals cost jobs, 67 percent say trade is good for creating jobs in the United States.
The public continues to supports specific trade deals even as Trump denounces them. Six in 10 Americans supported participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The same percentage now support joining the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that emerged after Trump withdrew from the TPP. Sixty-three percent of Americans supported the original NAFTA agreement even as the president attacked it as a horrible deal.
Trump is similarly losing the public debate on other foreign policy issues. Public support for the Paris agreement on climate change rose six percentage points to 68 percent in the year after he canceled U.S. participation. Support for the Iran nuclear deal rose from 60 to 68 percent between 2017 and 2018 despite the president’s withdrawal from what he called “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
The rising support for internationalism isn’t just another manifestation of our polarized politics. Stark partisan differences do exist in foreign policy attitudes, and Democrats are generally more supportive of internationalism than Republicans are, with independents somewhere in the middle. But support for internationalism is trending higher across the entire political spectrum. Take the Paris agreement. Support among Democrats held steady at 83 percent, while it rose eight points among independents and nine points among Republicans. Or consider the Iran deal. Support was up nine points among Democrats, five points among Republicans, and two points among independents.
These numbers point to the growing split among Republicans over foreign policy. Republicans who view Trump favorably have starkly different views on many of these issues than Republicans who don’t. So while Trump Republicans believe by a margin of 68 to 30 percent that NAFTA hurt the U.S. economy, 61 percent of non-Trump Republicans go the other way. Similar disparities exist in support for other agreements. So while 63 percent of non-Trump Republicans continue to favor the Iran deal, only a minority (46 percent) of Trump supporters favor the deal. In short, the president is keeping his base but losing other Republicans and Independents.
These poll results don’t mean the public is demanding that Washington return to its traditional ways abroad. Domestic events almost always matter more than foreign policy in how Americans vote. Presidents learned long ago that the public will give them wide berth in foreign affairs — until their decisions backfire.
The poll results also don’t mean that Americans have suddenly embraced foreign aid. They have always preferred to spend money on problems at home, even as they vastly overestimate how much the United States actually spends overseas. But that hostility has been a constant for decades even as presidents and policies have changed. It’s notable that no Republican lawmakers appear to have suffered electoral reprisals for repeatedly rejecting Trump’s proposal to cut the State Department budget by 30 percent.
What the poll results show is that Joni Mitchell was right when she sang that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” As Washington calls friends foes and rips up one international agreement after the next, Americans are gaining a renewed appreciation for what U.S. global leadership can achieve and why it matters. They want to work with others and worry that “America First” really means America alone, leaving Americans carrying a heavier burden and facing a more dangerous world.