A powerful belief about American views of the world has taken hold among foreign policy experts — that Americans are exhausted from global overreach and want to shed the burdens of global leadership. Arguing that American voters’ “foreign policy views stink,” New York Times columnist David Brooks opined that, after “Iraq and other debacles, many Americans are exhausted by the global leadership role” and “actively hostile” to key elements of U.S. foreign policy from past decades.
Brooks is not alone in this view. It animates much of foreign policy thinking, among Democrats and Republicans.
There’s just one problem: This view is wrong.
The latest annual survey examining American attitudes on foreign policy conducted for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs by polling and market research firm Ipsos Public Affairs shows that, rather than supporting a retreat, large numbers of Americans favor active U.S. engagement in the world and support long-standing pillars of U.S. foreign policy — alliances, trade, democracy.
The survey, conducted June 7-20, found that American support for taking an active role in world affairs remains near record high, at 69%, compared to 30% of Americans who want to stay out of world affairs. While President Donald Trump has frequently railed against the costs to the United States of maintaining security alliances and trade agreements, a strong majority of Americans (61%) believe that the benefits of staying engaged outweigh the costs.
In a first, the survey asked what people mean by taking an “active part” in world affairs. Large majorities of Americans (70% or more) believe that engaging in trade, providing humanitarian and economic aid, promoting democracy and human rights, defending allies and participating in international organizations form part of such active engagement. And 62% believed increasing spending on defense and diplomacy is part of an active U.S. role. A bare majority (51%) say it includes intervening in other countries, while a larger majority (62%) exclude selling arms abroad from an active role.
When asked what policies would make America safer, majorities cite alliances with other countries (74%), U.S. military superiority (69%), promoting democracy and human rights (56%) and participating in international organizations (54%) as most effective.
While President Trump has consistently suggested that U.S. alliances mostly benefit allies rather than the United States, the survey finds Americans reject that view. Sixty% of Americans believe alliances in Asia are mutually beneficial or mostly benefit the U.S., and 64% believe this when it comes to alliances in Europe.
And Americans are willing to use force to back up these alliance commitments. Fifty-eight% favor using U.S. troops to defend South Korea if North Korea invaded it, and 54% do so in case Russia invades a NATO ally such as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. They also believe we should increase or maintain U.S. troops in South Korea (69%) and Japan (59%). The largest majority yet (73%) believe NATO is essential for European security, and more Americans (78%) believe that we should maintain or increase our commitment to NATO than at any time since the question was first asked in 1974.
It isn’t just alliances that receive record levels of support. So does international trade. The survey showed 87% of Americans believe international trade is good for the U.S. economy (up from 59% just three years ago), and 83% think trade is good for American companies (up from 57% in 2016).
What is significant about all of these findings is that despite the political turmoil and deep partisan divisions on many issues, when it comes to America’s role in the world there is a large degree of agreement and support among all Americans. Alliances, the bedrock of American military engagement abroad since World War II, enjoy strong and growing public support.
What Americans reject is using force in other countries to try to resolve conflicts. The bitter experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have left Americans weary of interventionism.
But this concern is not the same as wanting to retreat from the world. Even after decades of war, a major financial crisis, and new challenges to U.S. powers, Americans strongly favor maintaining a leadership role in the world.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.