US Foreign Policy Will Continue to Divide Americans Beyond 2020

Conflicting public opinion about America’s role in the world is not unique to the era of Trump and ‘America first’.

Expert comment Updated 8 March 2019 Published 5 March 2019 2 minute READ
Donald Trump and Angela Merkel at the commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending the First World War. Photo: Getty Images.

Donald Trump and Angela Merkel at the commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending the First World War. Photo: Getty Images.

Former US vice-president Joe Biden asserted at the 2019 Munich Security Conference that ‘this too shall pass’, referring to the Trump administration’s challenges to the transatlantic alliance structure and US commitment to multilateralism. Unfortunately, any assumption that America’s commitment to global engagement will revert to the status quo ante in 2021 if President Donald Trump is not re-elected belies the growing polarization in US public opinion about America’s role in the world.

This partisan divide in Americans’ sentiment pre-dated Trump’s election and is likely to continue whatever the outcome of the next US presidential election. Americans have long held ambivalent feelings about their relationship with the rest of the world. Many are descendants of people who turned their backs on their homelands to seek a better life in the New World. Thomas Jefferson’s admonition against ‘entangling alliances’ was a mantra taken up by isolationists in the first half of the 20th century who argued against early US entry into both world wars.

And now, three generations after the searing experiences of both the Great Depression and the Second World War thrust upon the US the mantel of global leadership, a significant portion of the American public is both weary and wary of continuing to bear that burden. These are sentiments that candidate Trump shared and amplified, but he did not create.

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel first met President Trump in March 2017, she reportedly told aides in exasperation: ‘He thinks America is a victim!’ So too do many of his supporters. Eight-in-ten Republicans believe that other nations take unfair advantage of the United States, according to a November 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Only three-in-ten Democrats agree.

This was not always the case. In the 1990s supporters of both parties saw the US as a victim. Now perceptions have changed, in part because the demography of the two parties has changed. Democrats – who today are disproportionately young and better educated, and more likely to be ethnic minorities and women – are far less wary of being taken advantage of by the world. Republicans – who are now disproportionately older and less educated than the US average, and are more likely to be white men – still harbour a sense of victimhood.

There has been a similar rise in polarization over relations with America’s longstanding international partners. Fully 77% of Democrats say improving ties with allies should be a priority of American foreign policy. Just 44% of Republicans see alliance strengthening as a priority. So today there is a 26-percentage-point partisan gap on this issue where no such divide existed when this question was asked in 2008.

Americans have never placed a high priority on multilateralism. Since 1993 less than half the public has thought strengthening the United Nations should be a US foreign policy aim. And such sentiment has always been a partisan issue. In 2001, for example, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to prioritize boosting the UN, by 53% to 36%. In 2018, that divide remained: 47% to 28%. Such consistency over time suggests a new president will not have much impact on boosting Americans’ commitment to multilateralism

Similarly, Americans have long been wary of the value of promoting democracy and human rights or improving the living standard of people in poor countries. In 1993, just 22% of Americans thought democracy promotion should be a US foreign policy priority. In 2018 even fewer, only 17%, valued such efforts highly. But, while for virtually a quarter century there has been no partisan division on these issues, an 11-point gap has now emerged, with Democrats more supportive than Republicans.

Again in 1993, just 22% of Americans believed that promoting and defending human rights should be a major US foreign policy goal. That number has now risen to 31%. But more significantly, the six-point partisan division that once existed on this issue has now grown to 19 points, with Democrats more in favour than Republicans.

Finally, in 1993 roughly one-in-five Americans thought it was important for the US to help improve the living standards of people in developing nations. This share has not changed appreciable. But where once there was a four-point partisan divide on this priority, it is now 20 points, with Democrats much more likely to support such efforts than are Republicans.

In each of these cases, partisanship about the US role and responsibilities in the world began to emerge in 2013, prior to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, suggesting that his rhetoric built on a phenomenon, rather than created it.

The 2020 US presidential election is still 20 months away. So it is far too early to know which issues will be the most important in that campaign. But one thing is clear. The American public is ambivalent and increasingly divided about their country’s role on the world stage. Such sentiment pre-dated the Trump era. And there is a great likelihood that a large minority of the American public will continue to question US global engagement long after the Trump presidency ends.