What Americans Want

May 8, 2019

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has released their exhaustive survey of what Americans want in foreign policy—and their results track closely with the conclusions reached by the U.S. Global Engagement study group.

The CAP report concludes:

Debates about maintaining the rules-based international order, working with allies through global alliances and multilateral institutions, promoting democracy, and fighting rising authoritarianism are clearly important matters. But they are secondary issues for voters, particularly as currently articulated to the public. In today's fractured political and media-driven environment, old foreign policy language and ideas no longer penetrate the minds of most voters.

Voters do not see how these elite debates relate to their primary concerns around security and terrorism and a strong economy. They do not connect these debates to their shared desire for more domestic investments in infrastructure, education, and health care to make America more competitive in the world. They do not see how these debates are connected to new threats from cyberattacks, chemical weapons, and drones. They do not see these debates leading to a plan for the United States to measure up against China on the global stage.

To more fully engage the American public, this study suggests that foreign policy elites and policy makers should make these debates more tangible to voters, grounded in real security and economic priorities and more closely related to what voters desire most: an America that is stronger at home in order to be stronger in the world.

This dovetails with the conclusions reached last year by the Carnegie Council study group, which noted:

For the last 30 years, since the end of the Cold War, American politicians and strategists have assumed that the general public is in broad agreement with the broad parameters of what is often termed the "the bipartisan consensus" for U.S. foreign policy: that the sustained deployment of U.S. power around the world is indispensable for managing an international system which promotes peace and stability through greater integration and interconnection and creates conditions for the spread of liberal values. While there have been major policy disagreements about how to execute such a strategy, with different parties and presidential administrations preferring different approaches, the assumption was that this post-Cold War bipartisan consensus for U.S. foreign policy was fixed and enduring and was unassailable.

The 2016 primaries and the general election revealed a major blind spot in how changes in the U.S. domestic political and economic systems have altered how Americans perceive and conceptualize U.S. national interests abroad. It exposed the extent to which the narrative that sustains the variants of "pragmatic internationalism" espoused by both Democratic and Republican administrations has collapsed altogether for a portion of the American electorate, and with many Americans questioning at least some of its basic tenets.

The CAP report also reinforces the conclusions reached by the study group, namely:

  • Americans want to amend, not end, their involvement in global affairs.
  • They want to renegotiate some of the terms of American involvement in terms of costs and burden-sharing.
  • They want to revisit the question of how costs and benefits of U.S. engagement will be distributed among the population.
  • They want a balanced approach that navigates between the extremes of isolationism and declaring that 160+ countries in the world are equally vital to U.S. national interests.
  • They want to see a national security community that has the ability to set limits and to say no and to be able to cut losses and move on.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the broad parameters of what Americans want, or at least seem to want, in foreign policy will be taken up by any of the 2020 candidates.

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