US Electorate Shows Distrust of the Realities of Foreign Policy

The identity of the next US president is yet to be determined, but the foreign policy views of the American public are already clear. In principle, Americans support US engagement in the world but, in practice, they worry other countries take advantage of the United States.

Expert comment Updated 3 July 2024 Published 4 September 2020 3 minute READ
A poll station official holding "I Voted" stickers in South Carolina. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

A poll station official holding “I Voted” stickers in South Carolina. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

Whoever occupies the White House after the election, it is evident the emphasis will be on ‘America First’, and that only characteristics and approaches will differ. If Donald Trump is re-elected, his electoral base will support a continuation of isolationist, protectionist policies. If Joe Biden becomes president, he will enjoy some limited popular backing for international re-engagement, but his voters still clearly want him to prioritize domestic issues.

Implications for the foreign policy of the next US administration are evident. America may have a long history of isolationism, but that should not be confused with ignorance of the growing interconnectedness of today’s world. However, Americans are struggling to find a new equilibrium for their country’s role in the world.

Around seven-in-ten hold the view that the United States should take a leading or major role in international affairs, and the same number acknowledge that international events affect their daily life. But Americans remain reticent about global engagement, and half of registered voters believe other countries take unfair advantage of the United States.

This clear contradiction is mirrored in what can be expected from the election victor, with a Joe Biden administration likely to speak for those who want America to lead, while a second Donald Trump administration is expected to continue complaining about US victimization by an ungrateful world.

A majority (57%) of Americans say foreign policy is ‘very important’ to them as they decide who to vote for in the 2020 election. This may seem like a high priority, but American polls often show many issues are ‘very important’ to voters. What matters is relative importance and foreign policy pales in comparison with the significance the public accords to the economy (79%) or healthcare (68%). Immigration (52%) and climate change (42%) are of even less relative importance to voters.

Notably, despite the deep partisanship in American politics today, there is no difference between Republican and Democrat voters on the low priority they accord foreign policy. And barely one-third (35%) of the public give top priority to working with allies and international institutions to confront global challenges such as climate change, poverty and disease — in fact only 31% say improving relations with allies should be a top foreign policy priority over the next five years.

However, despite this apparent lack of support for international relations, a rising majority of Americans believe international trade is good for the economy — running contrary to many international assumptions that Americans are inherently protectionist. But this increased interest may not amount to much in reality. Americans also believe trade destroys jobs and lowers wages. Trump is clearly wedded to a protectionist worldview and may continue to try dismantling the World Trade Organization (WTO). Biden is unlikely to initiate any new trade liberalizing negotiations given what would be, at best, a slim Democratic majority in the Senate and anti-trade views held by many unions and blue-collar voters among his constituency. Any political capital he commits to trade is likely to focus on reforming the WTO, but privately his advisers admit they are not optimistic.

In addition, both Biden and Trump face strong public support for ratcheting up pressure on China, although their lines of attack may differ, with Trump likely to double down on tariffs while Biden would work closely with Europe on both trade and human rights issues. More broadly, almost three-quarters (73%) of Americans now express an unfavourable view of China, up 18 points since the last presidential election. One-quarter of Americans classify Beijing as an ‘enemy’ with almost half saying the US should get tougher with China on economic issues, although attitudes do divide along partisan lines, with Republicans generally more critical of Beijing, but Democrats are tougher on human rights.

On immigration, Trump’s policies are out of step with the public. Six-in-ten Americans oppose expanding the border wall with Mexico, 74% support legal status for immigrants illegally brought to the United States as children — including a majority of Republicans (54%) — and as many Americans favour increasing immigration as support decreasing it. But Trump has already promised to double down on limiting immigration if he wins because it is what his Republican electoral base wants and, as with trade, this is one of his long-expressed personal beliefs. If he wins, expect more mass roundups of undocumented people, completion of his border wall and stricter limitations on legal immigration.

In contrast, Biden is likely to loosen constraints on immigration because he believes immigration has been good for the economy and the Democratic party is increasingly dependent on Hispanic and Asian voters, the two fastest growing portions of the population. However, open borders are not a Biden option. The US foreign-born population is at near-record levels and, every time in American history the portion of foreign born has come close to being 14% of the total population — in the 1880s, the 1920s and now — there has been a populist backlash. Democrats cannot risk that again.

On climate change, there is strong evidence the American public is increasingly worried, and likely to support rejoining the Paris Agreement if Biden is elected and increases US commitments to cut carbon emissions. But the public also appears unlikely to punish Trump if, as promised, he leaves that accord, and he is almost certain to continue denying climate science in the interest of the coal, oil, and gas industries.

The public’s concern about global warming does not necessarily translate into support for taking substantive action. There is a huge partisan divide between the number of Democrats (68%) and Republicans (11%) who say climate change is a very important issue in the 2020 election. When pressed on what action they want on climate change, and who they trust to do it, Americans are less likely than Europeans to accept paying higher prices. A carbon tax stands no chance of passing the Senate, thanks to moderate Democrats from fossil-fuel states, and America’s love affair with large, CO²-emitting vehicles shows no signs of ebbing.

The outcome of the 2020 US election will almost certainly not be determined by foreign concerns, although an international crisis — a terrorist incident, a military confrontation with China or North Korea — could impact voting in an unforeseen way. But given the mood of the American electorate, if Trump is re-elected, there will be scant public pressure for a more activist, collaborative US foreign policy, beyond support for a tough line on China, while a win for Biden will give more room for some international initiatives.

But public opinion data is clear. Voters want the next US president to focus first on domestic issues — overcoming the pandemic, digging the country out of a deep economic hole, calming racial tensions, and reversing inequality. The outcome of the election may end America’s recently antagonistic foreign policy and halt the deterioration of its international role. But dramatic American re-engagement appears unlikely as the public’s priorities lie elsewhere.