Isolationist who? Americans are more globalist than you might think.
© Getty

It is old news that, as a candidate, President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE’s foreign policy rhetoric departed sharply — dangerously, many would say — from decades-old precepts about the role of the United States in the world. But what has received less attention is, does the new administration’s approach reflect the will of the American people?

The assumption seems to be that Trump voters want bellicose warnings to our foes and sharp elbows with our allies, sweeping reductions in foreign aid, a get-tough approach on trade deals, and an intensified military fight against ISIS. As the administration puts theory into practice, the foreign policy establishment worries that we, as a country, have turned a corner: that 70 years of domestic consensus on America as the leader of the free world, and on the importance of a rules-based international order, have come crashing down.


Not so fast. President Trump’s electoral victory was not the death-knell of the American public’s desire for U.S. global leadership, or for advancing our interests using all “three D’s”: defense, diplomacy, and development. To assume the contrary is to over-learn the lessons of last November.


Americans are, in fact, more internationalist than we might have guessed. It is vital that congressional appropriators recognize this — and use it to push back against the president's budget blueprint, which proposes drastic cuts to the State Department and USAID budgets.

We should understand public opinion on foreign policy by taking into account the appeal of Donald Trump’s campaign (where trade and immigration seem to have dominated Trump voters’ concerns in the foreign policy arena), but also by looking at trends in the abundant survey data of recent years.

The data underscore that most Americans want to see active U.S. engagement in the world, though many remain wary about U.S. efforts to address problems overseas. See, for example, data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Pew Research Center, Charles Koch Institute and Center for the National Interest, and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and University of Maryland (UMD).

In the Chicago Council poll, large majorities said it was best for the future of the country that the United States “take an active part in world affairs.” The CFR/UMD meta-study analyzed hundreds of polls and found that “an overwhelming majority (of Americans) thinks that it is critical for the United States to act together with its closest allies on national security issues.” At the same time, Pew found last year that 41 percent of Americans say the United States does “too much” to solve world problems, while 27 percent say it does “too little,” and 28 percent say it is doing about the right amount. (The same question in 2013 found 51 percent saying "too much" and 17 percent saying "too little.")

More surprisingly, the Chicago Council poll found that core Trump supporters said the following tools are very or somewhat effective in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals: maintaining existing alliances (84 percent); building new alliances with other countries (77 percent); strengthening the United Nations (60 percent); and signing international agreements (59 percent). In the same poll, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents overall were even more supportive of all these tools. A majority of Trump supporters also said that we should keep the U.S. commitment to NATO what it is now (51 percent) or increase it (9% percent. In the Charles Koch poll, Americans voiced strong support for pursuing diplomatic solutions rather than military interventions, including working with the UN.

How can we reconcile broad support for U.S. international engagement and commitment to our allies, with the concurrent desire to step back from being the world’s problem-solver-in-chief? First, the latter likely reflects unease about U.S. experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Second, when a survey question frames U.S. actions abroad as imposing costs on priorities at home, responses become less internationalist.

And third, the public vastly overestimates how much money the U.S. government spends on foreign aid. About one percent of the federal budget goes to foreign assistance, but in one representative poll, respondents estimated on average that foreign aid makes up 26 percent of the budget. This misperception, together with some skepticism about aid effectiveness, may skew opinions on foreign aid.

A 2016 Pew poll found that 50 percent of Americans were opposed to increasing foreign aid, while 48 percent would support increasing aid. Nevertheless, there is a widely shared desire that the United States maintain and expand its alliances, work cooperatively with other countries, support humanitarian operations and the United Nations, and strengthen our military while avoiding overseas deployments wherever possible.   

The upshot is that President Trump’s budget blueprint — which would slash State Department and USAID funding by 28 percent — is out of step with the role that Americans want the United States to play in the world. It harmfully exploits misperceptions about U.S. spending on foreign aid, while neutering the federal agencies that wield the soft power tools which Americans strongly support. Likewise, the president’s disdainful, crass treatment of foreign leaders — including our staunchest allies — offends the sensibilities of most Americans.

But policymakers misread public opinion on these issues.  A recent poll of nearly 500 U.S. foreign policy leaders found that, across party lines, they “substantially underestimate public support for international engagement, globalization, and immigration.”

As a consequence, national leaders might perceive political constraints where, in fact, there are few or none. They might engage in rhetoric or push policies that are isolationist or protectionist, believing they are aligned with public opinion — yet, in reality, these leaders are nudging public opinion toward isolationism.  

It is fundamental to our democracy that U.S. policy should reflect the will of the people. There is, therefore, a deep need for both a well-informed citizenry whose opinions inform the policymaking process, and a policy community that correctly perceives the openings and constraints afforded by public opinion.

As appropriators pick their battles and argue against would-be disastrous cuts to the International Affairs budget, they should be under no illusion: the American people are behind them. Americans know diplomacy and development are not trade-offs to an "America First Budget" — they are part of U.S. national security, and thus part of any budget that puts America first.

Kate Bateman is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.