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Stephen Sestanovich

Last week in Foreign Affairs, Richard Fontaine and Robert D. Kaplan analyzed the impact of this year’s campaign populism on U.S. foreign policy. Domestic economic difficulties, they argued, have made Americans less willing to have their country play a large role abroad. Even if neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders ends up as president, future policymakers will have to heed the strong sentiments these candidates have tapped.

At first glance, the data confirm this view. A Pew Research Center report published May 5 found that 65 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats want the next president to focus on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Almost two-thirds of Trump supporters—and a narrow majority of Sanders backers—agreed that the United States has suffered from its involvement in the global economy. And 61 percent of Americans (as well as 71 percent of Republicans) agreed that the United States has lost the international respect it once enjoyed.

Dig deeper, however, and the populist consensus looks shakier. On many of the most important issues, the big story is still disagreement between the parties—especially between Trump voters and Sanders voters. In the past five years, for example, support for increased defense spending has more than tripled among conservative Republicans, from 20 percent to 67 percent. Among Trump supporters, the number is 66 percent. By contrast, only 16 percent of those who “feel the Bern” want to increase the Pentagon’s budget; 43 percent prefer to cut it.

It’s conceivable, of course, that spend-more Republicans favor a strong national defense but have grown more cautious about actually using military power. The polls, however, suggest otherwise. Seventy-four percent of Republicans believe that the United States hasn’t gone far enough in fighting Islamic State (also called ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria. And they don’t just want more air strikes. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans favor ground troops, and among Trump supporters the number is higher still, at 70 percent. Liberal Democrats disagree: they oppose ground troops, 75 percent to 21 percent.

Partisan differences are equally stark when it comes to broader foreign-policy attitudes. Asked whether the United States defers too much to the interests of other countries, 58 percent of Republicans said yes. Only 22 percent of Democrats did. The Pew pollsters also asked what importance people attached to maintaining the United States’ status as the only global superpower. The answer: 67 percent of Republicans (and 70 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans) said that the United States should try to stay on top; only 35 percent of liberal Democrats agreed.

For all the familiar partisan disagreement, there are also trends in public opinion that cut across party lines and that a new president will have to take into account. The first concerns what might be called the United States’ self-image. No matter what one hears of the public’s pessimism, the percentage of respondents who tell pollsters that the United States is the world’s leading economic power has jumped eight points in the last year alone—and, at 54 percent, has reached its highest level since the financial crisis of 2008. When pollsters ask about U.S. military strength, they get a similar answer: 72 percent told Pew that the United States is number one. (This is up from 64 percent just three years ago.) Crimea, Iran, ISIS, China’s encroachments in the South China Sea—coping with these problems seems to have left Americans feeling more, not less, dominant.


A second trend is harder to measure but may be even more important. Over many decades, pollsters have had trouble figuring out the best way to measure changing foreign-policy attitudes. No matter what is going on in the world, for example, when asked about the urgency of domestic versus foreign concerns, an overwhelming majority almost always puts domestic affairs first. (When Barack Obama was elected president eight years ago, exactly the same percentage of Republicans and Democrats—79 percent—gave this answer.) And although the Pew Center has for decades been asking people what kind of U.S. global role they favor, the percentage answering “single world leader” has never budged much above—or below—12 percent.

Even so, sudden changes in poll results can be very significant. In the last half century, there have been only three stretches when Pew found a sharp and sustained decline in public support for the idea that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally.” And each of these periods was followed by a more activist foreign policy. In the late 1970s, a ten-point drop in the mind-our-own-business percentage (from 43 percent to 33 percent) prefigured the foreign policy activism of the Reagan years. From the mid-1990s, a similar drop (from 41 percent to 32 percent) anticipated the increased activism of the late Clinton and early George W. Bush years. In the past three years, the number of Americans who say that the country should “mind its own business” has again dropped, from an all-time high of 52 percent to 43 percent. Opinion is far from united about what role the United States should play abroad, but the trend at least is clear. Contrary to what Fontaine and Kaplan claim, the public seems more ready for greater involvement.

Now imagine that you had to brief Donald Trump on what these poll results mean for his own populist campaign. Telling him that the United States is turning inward hardly captures the complexity of the numbers. Public opinion does not support his view that U.S. alliances may be obsolete—77 percent consider membership in NATO good for the United States. Trump voters, moreover, are at odds with their candidate about intervening in Syria and are more unequivocal than he about defense spending. (Trump’s odd promise to fund an increase in the Pentagon budget by “ending the theft of American jobs” may put him closer to Sanders than to the Republican mainstream.) Finally, the polls do not show an emergent consensus in favor of a smaller U.S. role abroad. If anything, the trend may be the other way. Three years ago, Pew found that 55 percent of independents believed the United States does “too much” in the world. These are voters Trump needs to win—but today fewer of them, just 43 percent, say the same thing.

It’s always hard, of course, to extrapolate from polls to policy, as the American people often embrace contradictory goals. In the 1970s, they told pollsters that they favored détente and arms control agreements but also that they didn’t trust the Soviets and didn’t want them to get ahead. Today, they favor global leadership but say that it should not divert presidential attention from what’s happening at home.

Trump may well have positioned himself to exploit such contradictory opinions. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that Jack Kennedy would surely have endorsed; Ronald Reagan (and Bill Clinton, for that matter) would also have been happy to wear it on a baseball cap. Trump has given the phrase a nasty, insular edge that may be in keeping with the times. But if he believes, or if his advisers tell him, that Americans simply think they’ve been “losing”—or want, in their populist rage, to slam the door on an ungrateful world—he’ll be reading the public wrong.