Alliances are what Americans really want in foreign policy
By ROBERT B. ZOELLICK | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 10, 2019
Donald Trump’s election — and his vitriol against his predecessors, former policymakers and his opponents — led many internationalists to retreat and voluntarily undergo an American version of Mao Zedong’s self-education campaign. Yet it turns out that the American public, when asked, evidences a great deal of common sense about the nation’s role in the world.
According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2019 survey, published in September, large percentages of Americans — across parties — support U.S. security alliances, believe trade is good for their country and favor promoting democracy and human rights. In fact, some of the expressions of public commitment to internationalism are at higher levels than at any time in the Chicago Council’s nearly 50 years of surveys.
The results contrast with the world-weary writings of foreign policy experts who assume that the public’s frustrations with international burdens require a shrinking global role. Indeed, 69% of Americans want the United States to play an active role in world affairs — and they prefer shared leadership (66%) over Washington seeking a dominant position (26%).
Despite Trump’s dismissal of alliances, they have increased in popularity. A striking 74% of Americans favor the country’s military alliances, including with Japan (78%), Germany (75%) and South Korea (70%). The public also signaled a strategic approach to these ties. Americans want to maintain military superiority (69%) and are willing to station troops in allied countries (51%), but only 27% believe military interventions make the country safer. Like the founders of the U.S. alliance system in the mid-20th century, Americans look to these partnerships to keep the peace through deterrence and defense.
On trade, although Trump practices a costly protectionism of special interests, Americans do not want economic isolationism. Congress, which has constitutional authority over trade, should note that 87% of Americans believe trade benefits the U.S. economy, and 83% recognize trade helps American companies; 77% say the United States should comply with World Trade Organization rulings, even if Washington loses the case. Whereas Trump views trade as a win-lose proposition, 63% of Americans rightly recognize benefits for both trading partners.
The Chicago Council survey identifies party divides on immigration and climate, but even some of these differences narrow when people turn to pragmatic solutions. Between 65% and 81% seem to agree on an immigration policy that combines a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain standards, increased border security and fines for businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
Even China — which draws bipartisan venom from bellicose commentators in Washington — elicits a more nuanced response from the public. Driven by a big jump in Republican hostility, 42% of Americans view China’s world power as a critical threat, but 68% still prefer friendly cooperation and engagement, compared with 31% who want to actively limit its power. A notable 74% favor trade with China.
Trump’s successor will need to build upon this underlying sentiment with initiatives that address current problems. An obvious starting point is to treat North American neighbors as partners, not punching bags. The U.S. needs border security but also will have to work with Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama to create safe conditions and economic opportunities in Central America. North America should be a secure continental base, with three prosperous democracies, from which the U.S. can project global influence.
To lead alliances, U.S. diplomacy should bring its partners together, not divide them. By concentrating on evolving threats — cyberattacks, election interference, nuclear and missile proliferation, bullying by authoritarian states and spreading seeds of Islamic State — the U.S. can rebuild cohesion and a sense of shared purpose.
Instead of penalizing trade through tariffs, the U.S. could combine trade and environmental agreements to open markets while offering incentives to reduce carbon and safeguard biodiversity, especially in developing economies. American assistance, together with economic growth, could encourage constructive steps such as reforestation (including the expansion of wildlife habitats and corridors), protecting existing carbon sinks, enriching soil carbon for agriculture, energy conservation and developing and diffusing alternative energy technologies.
The U.S. should stand for the rule of law and against corruption instead of manipulating politics and investigations to help demagogues hold on to power. Traditional allies and partners in Europe and Asia — and new ones in Latin America and Africa — would rally to safeguard cyberspace and elections and to put authoritarians on the defensive in places such as Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba.
The Global Affairs survey affirms that Americans are not ready to abandon the fundamentals of the foreign policies that made the United States the most successful power in world history. The national challenge is to identify political leaders who can apply those principles to a new generation of problems, reconnecting American power with the United States’ purpose.
Robert B. Zoellick served as president of the World Bank, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state.