Engagement: What Do Voters Think

May 8, 2018

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on May 8, 2018.

Following on earlier posts (Colin Dueck on what Republican voters are thinking and Ian Bremmer on populism and disengagement), Ali Wyne (of the Project for the Study of the 21st Century, among other affiliations) joins in the conversation. Commenting on the spring 2018 meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Singapore, he observes that there is "an increasingly marked disconnect between the issues that concern most Americans on a day-to-day basis and the way in which the foreign policy establishment discusses America's role in the world." The 2016 elections was not the cause but a symptom–with voters unsure of whether U.S. foreign policy supports and sustains their interests. (This was a phenomenon that both Ali and I discussed as it was unfolding two years ago, an event where it was noted that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were tapping into this discontent and unease.)

As both Dueck and Wyne note, a majority of Americans remain committed to the proposition that it is both a good thing (in values terms) and also beneficial for U.S. interests for the United States to remain engaged in the world and to play a leadership role in international affairs. Yet this "blank check" from voters is not unlimited nor does it come with significant overdraft protection–and one can argue that continued small withdrawals from the Afghan account over the course of two decades, among others, are eroding that support. Foreign engagement must be tied to domestic renewal to regain voter buy-in–a piece of advice Justine Rosenthal provided to the incoming Obama administration in 2009 that tended to be largely ignored and discounted at the time. Nine years later, Wyne's advice to American policymakers is more urgent, that if "they do not accord greater priority to domestic renewal and assuage wide-ranging public anxieties over the impact of globalization, the postwar order's erstwhile anchor may feel domestic pressure to abdicate its role."

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