November 7, 2016

Trump’s Illusory Foreign Policy Popularity



As discussed here last week, there is a specific logic at the heart of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s understanding of world politics. Similar to his understanding of international economics, Trump sees international relations as a zero sum affair. There are winner and losers in every international engagement. And with the U.S. military providing defense for a large number of allies overseas, and American taxpayers footing the bill, Trump sees the United States as a clear loser.

While Trump’s worldview ignores the mutual benefits America’s alliance system provides, it is possible his message that foreign freeloaders are taking advantage of the United States could have resonance with voters. With voters going to the polls to pull the lever for either Trump or Hillary Clinton—the latter a firm supporter of America’s alliances—what do the American people think of their country’s array of security guarantees?

According to a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the American people—including what the report terms “core Trump supporters”—think highly of America’s alliances. The report, a regular survey of American attitudes on foreign policy the think tank has conducted since 1974, finds that 89 percent of the public thinks the United States should maintain its current system of alliance—with 84 percent of Trump supporters holding a similar view. As the report states:

A significant pillar in the Trump campaign has been to cast existing alliance partners as freeloaders who fail to pay their fare share for their defense. He has continually singled out NATO, Japan, and South Korea as prime examples of this behavior. But this view finds little resonance among the public or even Trump supporters.

Those surveyed also support the continued basing of American troops overseas. Moreover, they depart from Trump’s stance on nuclear proliferation, with the spread of nuclear weapons being among the top threats Americans are concerned about (alongside international terrorism). To be fair, the report does not distinguish between the acquisition of nuclear weapons by hostile states or those countries friendly to the United States. The GOP nominee has expressed no qualms about potentially former allies such as Japan, South Korea, or even Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons once responsible for their own defense. However, even if just those countries acquired nuclear weapons while remaining friendly to the United States, it would increase the chances of a nuclear war in their respective regions. It is also possible non-nuclear states hostile to American interests would seek nuclear weapons of their own in response to America’s former allies acquiring them. That the American people are in favor of tamping down on pressures for nuclear proliferation is therefore a positive sign.

Not everything in the Chicago Council report provides as much room for optimism. Not unexpectedly, the report does suggest that core Trump supporters are animated by economic nationalism and negative attitudes toward immigrants. Nor do the positive attitudes toward an internationalist foreign policy portend anything in particular about the results of the election. Historically, few voters make decisions based on foreign policy. It also says nothing about decisions to use military force, something Trump’s opponent has shown a penchant for supporting over the years.

Still, the Chicago Council survey suggests a great deal of support for one of the core features of America’s post-World War II grand strategy. Given the low number of voters who base their choice on foreign policy, it might not necessarily represent a full-throated rejection of Trump’s transactional understanding of international politics. However, it does suggest that, despite some claims to the contrary, the Donald’s “America First” approach to foreign policy is not all that popular with the American people.