The Public Supports a Foreign Policy Approach that Prioritizes Building Collaborative Partnerships with Other Democratic States

Third report by the U.S. Global Engagement Program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs shows a majority of voters interested in international affairs reject unilateralism and favor competitive cooperation rather than confrontation on global challenges.

December 15, 2020

Election Day 2020. Des Moines, Iowa. CREDIT: Phil Roeder (CC)

Four years after the collapse of the bipartisan consensus for U.S. foreign policy—which was established after the Cold War and held that deployment of U.S. power is indispensable for managing an international system—engaged U.S. voters are beginning to rebuild a unified vision of America's role on the global stage.

According to the latest polls by the U.S. Global Engagement Program at Carnegie Council, two-thirds of respondents agreed with the proposition that the U.S. should partner primarily with other democracies. Another 71 percent say that the U.S. should source important goods and services from other democracies. This "democratic community" narrative for U.S. involvement in foreign affairs posits that cooperation is possible and desirable amongst a group of like-minded countries—and that this cooperation can be mutually beneficial in solving challenges that cut across borders such as climate change and future pandemics. It can also be mutually beneficial in blunting the competitive edges of other states like China that don't support the security goals and value propositions of democracies. Indeed, only 11 percent of respondents believed confrontation was the norm for world affairs.

These findings come from the third report in a series on public opinion of foreign policy and U.S. global engagement, titled, The Public Responds: A New Narrative on the Future of U.S. Global Engagement. The insights are based on multiple polls of approximately 500 diverse U.S. voters throughout 2020 and incorporate previous research from 2018 and 2019 on how Americans perceive and conceptualize U.S. national interests abroad.

"The findings show Americans want to stay engaged in the world but would like the U.S. to calibrate its level of involvement. They want partnerships with other countries that generate clear benefits, whether in health, trade, or technology," said Nick Gvosdev, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow, U.S. Global Engagement Program. "Americans aren't isolationist, but they are calling on our policymakers to look carefully at our ties to the international system."

PARTNERING WITH CHINA

Improving U.S.-China relations is a key theme in the report. Respondents support a partial decoupling from China and a reorientation toward other democracies, and they are willing to pay for this viewpoint. Nearly 7 in 10 agreed with the statement, "Would you as a consumer be willing to pay up to 20 percent more for a good or service that you consume if that was to purchase it from another democracy instead of a cheaper alternative from a non-democracy, particularly if it has human rights problems?"

However, the majority of engaged voters also want to find a way to work constructively with China and do not support an overly confrontational approach to China, nor do they wish to preclude the prospect of beneficial cooperation with Beijing in tackling transnational challenges.

"Cooperation is possible between rivals. As a nation and global citizenship, we're facing challenges today that cut across borders and must be met in partnership,” said Tatiana Serafin, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow, U.S. Global Engagement Program. "One country can’t do it alone, and based on the results of this report, the 'us versus them' argument no longer resonates with voters."  

ACHIEVING EQUITABLE BURDEN-SHARING

Equity is another important consideration for voters surveyed. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents were comfortable with finding compromise solutions with other states—rather than taking a unilateral stance—to secure wide-ranging and effective solutions to pressing global issues and ensure a more equitable sharing of the burden. This suggests that respondents are prepared to give up some of America's freedom of action in setting the agenda in return for other countries shouldering more of the costs.

This equitable burden-sharing is also seen in respondents' views on foreign policy versus domestic policy. Engaged voters surveyed are aware of the problem of balancing foreign policy obligations with domestic considerations, but do not support a blatantly transactional "America First" approach.

To learn more about the survey findings and read the full report. For the latest information on how foreign policy developments impact the lives of everyday citizens, listen to Carnegie Council's twice-monthly podcast, The Doorstep.

Methodology

The surveys were conducted by Carnegie Council in February and August of 2020, and do not attempt to accurately duplicate a cross-section of the U.S. population. The approximately 500 respondents comprise representatives from all over the country, from different professional and occupational spheres, and across educational, generational, and gender cohorts.

Respondents self-selected to participate in the survey and largely comprise people who have taken part in Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs programming, who see themselves as taking part in civil society, and consider themselves interested in foreign relations, but who are not themselves part of the extended U.S. foreign policy community. Many of those who responded to the polls tended to be people involved in chapters of the World Affairs Council or the American Committees on Foreign Relations.