The People Want “America First,” in Theory

The tenets of Trump’s foreign policy would be popular if they weren’t Trump’s.

Trump greeting Dunford and other military officials.
President Donald Trump greets Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 30, 2018, in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Americans don’t much like how Donald Trump has been acting toward the rest of the world, according to a new study based on focus groups and polling across the country. That’s more surprising than you might think.

This survey, conducted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, finds that only 40 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of foreign policy. This is slightly lower than their approval of the job he’s doing overall and 10 points lower than his marks on the economy. The reason this disapproval is surprising is that many of the core tenets of Trump’s worldview actually do resonate with voters.

Like virtually everything else in American public life, views on foreign policy are split along party lines. Democrats are much more likely to favor the U.S. working with allies and international institutions on problems like climate change and global poverty. Republicans are much more interested in securing U.S. borders to prevent illegal immigration.

But there is some common ground. The survey finds that voters generally reacted favorably to the Trumpian argument that “the United States should stop being the world’s policeman and that it should focus more on its own problems rather than worrying about what is happening in other countries.” Overall, it found that voters “want U.S. foreign policy and national security policies to focus on two concrete goals: protecting the U.S. homeland and its people from external threats—particularly terrorist attacks—and protecting jobs for American workers.” Like Trump, 56 percent of Americans see China as “mostly a competitor.”

Only 45 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “American values like democracy are universal to all people, regardless of country.” The argument that “other countries should pay more for their own security needs”—a key tenet of Trumpism—receives strong bipartisan support. Some Trumpian arguments, such as “The wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money,” are more popular with Democrats and independents than Republicans. Overall, the survey finds, “Failed military interventions have driven widespread skepticism about the use of force.”

So why, given all this, isn’t Trump’s foreign policy more popular? Probably because “America First” has turned out a lot different in practice than it looked on paper. Despite Trump’s oft-stated skepticism about military intervention and regime change, the U.S. is currently drifting dangerously close to military action in both Venezuela and Iran. Despite Trump’s grumbling, U.S. troops remain deployed in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and counterterrorism operations are growing and spreading elsewhere around the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Trump may say he wants, along with most Americans, to focus on America’s problems rather than solving those of other countries, yet he proposes record military budgets while gutting domestic programs.

And while Americans may have little interest in spreading democracy across the globe, that doesn’t mean they share Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of foreign autocrats. According to the CAP survey, 57 percent of Americans see Russia as “mostly an enemy”—third after North Korea and Iran. Trump’s friends in Saudi Arabia are fourth on that list at 36 percent. Majorities see longtime allies Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union—which Trump has treated with indifference or hostility—as “mostly a friend.” The biggest problem may just be Trump himself. Sixty-two percent of voters believe that America has lost respect in the world under this president. Trump ran as a very different kind of Republican on foreign policy but time and again has been swayed by more hawkish advisers, catered to parts of his base, and simply been too erratic and self-serving to follow through on many of his America First principles.

All of this presents both opportunities and pitfalls for Democrats in next year’s election. A foreign policy platform that combined skepticism about military action, a focus on competition from China and Russia rather than the conflicts of the Middle East, and an emphasis on domestic prosperity as the basis of American influence in the world—while eschewing Trump’s bigotry, authoritarianism, corruption, and unpredictability—would seemingly play well with liberal Democrats as well as moderates.

The danger, the survey suggests, is that candidates will fall back on the sort of language often used by people who work within a 10-block radius of the Brookings Institution—people like, well, me—to critique the president. The authors write:

Traditional language from foreign policy experts about “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship,” “promoting democracy,” or “working with allies and the international community” uniformly fell flat with voters in our groups. Some participants questioned the idea that an international community actually exists. Democracy promotion reminded others of the 2003 Iraq War and the failures of the George W. Bush administration. When asked what the phrase “maintaining the liberal international order” indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases and ideas meant or implied.

As far as candidates go, Joe Biden—who has more experience and a greater fluency in international affairs than all of his competitors combined—would seem to be best positioned to offer a critique of Trump’s foreign policy. But he also tops the list of candidates most likely to use “the liberal international order” as a talking point.

From the left, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are running on broadly similar foreign policy visions that draw links between fighting authoritarianism abroad and combating inequality and challenges to democratic values at home. Both these campaigns are skeptical of military intervention—Sanders more so—and emphasize the importance of diplomacy. While these platforms address some of the priorities emphasized in the CAP survey, they may not appeal to voters skeptical of democracy promotion and indifferent about international institutions.

(Another lesson of the survey: Whether liberals like it or not, 18 years after 9/11, Americans are still deeply concerned about international terrorism, and Democrats should be wary about appearing to downplay these concerns.)

How much will any of this really matter, though? Although foreign policy is one of the areas where a president has the most latitude to implement any policy he or she wants, voters generally don’t get too excited about the subject—except in extreme cases like the Iraq war. The survey finds, somewhat alarmingly, that the largest number of voters receives their information about foreign policy from “local TV news” broadcasts, not exactly known for their global perspective. That’s more true of older voters, but the young are actually even less engaged. “Many Generation Z and Millennial voters [those born from the late ’80s to mid-2000s] hold no strong views whatsoever about any foreign policy or national security issue,” the authors write.

On the other hand, it’s surprising to see that nearly two-thirds of respondents say “foreign policy decisions our government makes matter to me and my family.” But until voters get more actively engaged on foreign policy issues, those decisions will continue to be made—for better or worse—by people who have very different priorities than they do.