How Does the Public See America’s Role in the World?

May 17, 2016 By John Glenn

In a turbulent political season where the candidates have confounded the conventional wisdom, many of us will turn to public opinion surveys for a hint of where Americans stand on foreign policy. Last week the Pew Research Center released an update of its study, “America’s Place in the World,” and I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that an American public about to nominate Hillary Clinton on the one hand and Donald Trump on the other has conflicting ideas.

The report is worth a deep read (at over 100 pages), but my take-away is that Americans continue to want our country to stay engaged in the world, that the isolationism seen a few years back is receding, but that Americans are ambivalent – which creates opportunities for campaigns on both sides of the aisle. This is especially true when it comes to the global economy and the polls shows significant differences in the Republican Party, with Trump voters more hesitant on global engagement.

Caveat: When looking at polling data, the best advice is to take questions collectively, since any single one can be interpreted in different ways, and to follow the trends over time. For example, the Pew Report notes that majorities have supported the statement “we should focus more on problems at home” since the 1960s. This suggests to me that this is not a strain of isolationism but that the word “more” may be the key to how people answer the question. Given the lack of change over a fairly dramatic period time, I don’t think Americans are saying they don’t care about problems overseas but that we should always make sure we focus on problems that we feel affect us directly, an entirely human view of the world and consistent with being able to do both.

Not Isolationist but Ambivalent

Broadly speaking, isolationism seems to have receded. In 2013, a majority of Americans (52%) agreed for the first time that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally.” This year, only 43% agree. Perhaps this isn’t surprising if you recall that in 2013, Crimea was still part of Ukraine, ISIS hadn’t declared its caliphate, Ebola hadn’t hit Liberia or landed in Dallas, and no one had even heard of Zika.

Americans continue to want our country to show global leadership. Two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) want the United States to play at least a major role in world affairs, and, despite the campaign rhetoric, partisan differences are actually minimal.

Minorities at 39% of both Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally (compared with 47% of independents). And since 2009, there has been an 11-point decline in the share of Americans who agree that “we should go our own way in international matters” (from 44% to 33% now).

On the question of whether America does “too much” in helping to solve world problems, 41% of Americans agree, but differences emerge with more Republicans agreeing at 44% and a majority of Trump supporters at 54%, compared with 36% of Democrats and 42% of Sanders supporters.

Divided on the Global Economy, Trump Voters More Skeptical

Trade has been prominent in the debates in both parties. At a time when President Obama may have to rely on Republicans if he is to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Congress, much of the campaign has focused on the impact of NAFTA on American manufacturing, even when experts often point out that the biggest job losses were due to the rise of competition from India and China, not Mexico and Canada. As Dan Drezner wrote, “NAFTA is not responsible for Ohio.”

Given the applause that anti-trade statements garner in the debates, it may be unsurprising to find Americans are divided over U.S. involvement in the global economy with 49% who see it as a “bad thing” and 44% as a “good thing.” Republicans are more skeptical at 55% with Trump supporters at 65%. Fewer Democrats see it as a bad thing at 44%, including 48% of Sanders supporters.

Here, we see clear divisions across education and age. Sixty percent of Americans with a postgraduate degree and 53% of 18-29 year olds agree U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing and creates new markets and growth. By comparison, only 36% with a high school degree or less and 38% of those 65 and older agree.

Yet it is worth noting that another recent Pew poll found that 58% of Americans say trade deals have been good for the economy, a view largely shared by Democrats and Republicans with only modest differences between higher and lower educated Americans.

Aid to Developing Countries?

When it comes to foreign assistance, the Pew study finds Americans split with 50% who oppose increasing aid to developing countries and 48% who support it. Here there are fairly dramatic differences across the aisle and within the parties. Sixty two percent of Democrats supported increasing aid to developing countries, including 60% of Sanders supporters, whereas 32% of Republicans agreed and 22% of Trump supporters.

Although six of the ten fastest growing economies have been in the developing world in recent years, Americans’ wariness extends to economic engagement. Overall, only a slim majority of Americans at 52% supported increasing U.S. companies’ investment in developing countries, with 44% opposed. Even fewer Republicans supported increasing investment at 44% and fewer Trump supporters at 36%, compared with 57% of Democrats and 57% of Sanders supporters.

Opportunities But Also Challenges for Candidates

Looking ahead, candidates for higher office are facing an electorate that wants America to lead but is divided and cautious.  In a world of difficult problems, this creates opportunities but also challenges for candidates, perhaps especially Republicans who are facing bigger differences among them. Take Iraq and Syria: while Democrats and Republicans agree the top international concern is Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, although more for Republicans than Democrats, the biggest partisan split (other than climate change) is over the refugee crisis in the region. Trump supporters overwhelmingly see it as a major threat at 85%, compared with 77% of Republicans, and, by contrast, only 37% of Democrats and 34% of Sanders supporters.

Interestingly, the poll was conducted in mid-April, before Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the race, and it would be fascinating to see whether views shift or coalesce now that it is clear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are their party’s nominees.