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Washington’s foreign policy elites have been left just as disoriented by the rise of presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as everyone else. In signaling the rise of populism as a dominant strain in U.S. politics, Trump and Sanders challenge the basic assumptions on which decades of U.S. foreign and domestic policy have been built. Although it is too early to determine the election’s outcome, it is already clear that the success of the next administration’s global engagement will turn on a correct reading of the mood at home.
The domestic conditions that Trump and Sanders have exposed are a yearning for a restored middle class, a sense of profound and increasing economic insecurity, and anger over wage stagnation and widening inequality. This dark mood carries with it serious implications for foreign policy, something the next president would be wise to consider. It will be impossible to simply turn the page on the 2016 election campaign without first contending with the populist forces that have already made this year one for the history books.
The outsider candidates have directed their fiercest firepower at international trade. For Donald Trump, NAFTA “destroyed our country as we know it,” and to Bernie Sanders’ mind, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is “a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy.” Their opposition to trade agreements spurred similar statements from their competitors, and both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz came out strongly against the TPP.
At first glance, restricting trade would seem an anomalous position in a country that has just five percent of the world’s population and has historically made securing markets abroad a national priority. For example, former President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, an agreement negotiated by the George H. W. Bush administration. Meanwhile former President George W. Bush secured free trade pacts with Australia, Chile, Jordan, and others. Trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea took effect under the administration of President Barack Obama, which has sought a transatlantic free trade agreement as well.
Yet it has become an article of faith among large swaths of the American population that trade hurts workers and accrues benefits mostly to rich corporations. A new Pew Research Center poll, for instance, shows that half of the public believes that global economic engagement is “a bad thing” because it lowers wages and costs jobs in the United States. Trade pacts are beneficial and still possible—less than a year ago, the U.S. Congress voted to give the president trade promotion authority to streamline the consideration of new agreements—but it is clear that the next president will need to fortify them with a better social safety net. This should include significant assistance for the education and retraining of workers displaced by international trade.
The populist impulse goes well beyond trade. Both Trump and Sanders have emphasized what Obama has termed “nation building at home,” and public sentiment backs them up. In the Pew poll, most Americans say that it would be better if the United States simply dealt with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs as best they can. Sanders and Trump have both criticized the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, Obama’s Libya intervention, and the notion of regime change to foster democracy abroad. Cruz condemned the toppling of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and warned that the United States should not attempt to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Even Hillary Clinton has been on the defensive during her presidential campaign, both for her Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq and for her support for humanitarian intervention in Libya.
At the same time, Americans are still motivated to fight terrorism and see the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) as the chief threat to the United States. The lesson seems clear: in light of the disappointing results from wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq and an intervention in Libya, Americans want to know that their leaders will not rush into costly military adventures without an easily definable national interest at stake. Even then, they will demand to see allies on board, a clear sense of progress, a limit to the casualties, and a light at the end of the tunnel. The next president will need to deliver all of that—with respect to both the wars that still need to be wound down in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria and the new ones to come—in order to sustain popular support.
Alongside the populist impulse today is a diminishing national confidence. Trump famously promises to make the United States great again, and in the Pew poll, nearly half of Americans reported believing that their country plays a less important and powerful role as world leader than it did a decade ago. This is not a contradiction: the public does indeed want to see a strong United States, but one that gets involved only where national interests are clearly defined, defended, and done so successfully.
Of course, both of the outsider presidential candidates have offered prescriptions to U.S. ailments that are ill-conceived, sometimes disastrously so. But their diagnosis of the national mood and what Americans want is largely correct. Americans today are concerned about economic and homeland security, weary of endless wars, and distrustful of business and government elites. These sentiments will not disappear overnight, whoever is elected president.
Some of the United States’ greatest presidents have channeled the forces of populism—however much diluted—into a source of national renewal. Others have used the diagnoses of unsuccessful candidates to fashion a sustainable and successful foreign policy. Past democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s concern for the common man found its way into some of the domestic agendas adopted by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and President Ronald Reagan's vision of winning the Cold War was partly inspired by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. The opportunity is at hand for the next president to craft a foreign policy more activist than Obama’s but less expansive than George W. Bush’s—one suited to a world of chronic, interlocking crises where quagmire and inaction both carry great costs. But this will begin with a recognition that the trends that have made 2016 unique in the annals of U.S. politics may not soon be past but are more likely a prologue.