How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Rolling into the 2020 election, President Donald Trump is bound to tout his record on foreign policy as a resounding success. While he hasn’t built a wall and expensed it to Mexico, he has followed through on pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to renegotiate NAFTA, and to aggressively press China on trade. He has delivered on many of his campaign promises, whether the rest of the United States supports them or not.
Mostly not, according to public opinion surveys. While American attitudes on foreign policy tend to change very slowly, surveys conducted since Trump’s election in 2016 capture some interesting shifts, especially among Democratic voters. In the era of “America first,” Democrats are even more likely than usual to rally behind U.S. allies and multilateralism. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats support the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, and trade—all of which reads as a rebuke of Trump. What’s more surprising is that the public at large generally shares these views, though by more modest majorities.
With the first primary debates slated for Wednesday and Thursday, Democrats are clearly looking for a leader who can revive important alliances that have withered under Trump. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of Democrats and those leaning toward the Democratic Party rate improving relationships with U.S. allies as their top foreign policy goal. Large majorities of Democrats also say that U.S. relations with the rest of the world are worsening (85 percent, according an unpublished partisan breakdown of the 2018 Chicago Council Survey) and the United States is losing allies (77 percent, according to the same poll). The broader electorate feels similarly, with 56 percent of Americans saying foreign relations are worsening and 57 percent saying the United States is losing allies. In this light, Trump’s foreign policy “successes” look more like liabilities. We should expect Trump’s Democratic challengers to exploit them.
In the September 1924 issue of Foreign Affairs, Norman Davis, who served as undersecretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson, wrote, “The foreign policy of a political party is usually of the same cloth as its domestic policy. The domestic policy of the Democratic Party is to do away with privilege as between individuals, and to secure the cooperation of all citizens for the common good.” He went on to say that the party’s foreign policy goal was “to do away with privilege as between nations, and to secure the cooperation of all nations for their mutual welfare.”
Nearly 100 years later, public opinion surveys show that Americans who describe themselves as Democrats still generally subscribe to this viewpoint. In poll after poll, Democrats support foreign policies that rest on multilateral organizations and cooperation with other countries. But since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, the percentage of Democratic voters who support these types of policies has surged even higher. Whereas in 2012, 66 of Democrats agreed that “when dealing with international problems, the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice,” fully 80 percent of Democrats agreed in 2018—the highest percentage since the Chicago Council Survey began asking in 2004. (By comparison, just 42 percent of Republicans, and 64 percent of the overall public, agreed.) Similarly, a 2017 University of Maryland survey found that 85 percent of Democrats thought “the United States should look beyond its own self-interest and do what’s best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the US.” The same poll found that eight in ten Americans favored continued NATO membership, regardless of political affiliation.
Since Trump was elected, Democratic support for sending U.S. troops to defend allies has surged to new highs
Democrats’ strong support for diplomatic, as opposed to military, measures should therefore come as no surprise. According to a 2019 survey by the Center for American Progress, 72 percent of registered Democrats agreed that the United States should “prioritize economic and diplomatic efforts, rather than military action, to protect our interests around the world.” And a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found 83 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners believed that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace. That was also an all-time high since Pew first asked the question in 1994—and 61 percent of the overall public agreed.
Yet Democrats don’t always shun the use of force. In fact, since Trump was elected, Democratic support for sending U.S. troops to defend allies has surged to new highs. According to the 2018 Chicago Council Survey, 63 percent of Democrats favored sending troops to South Korea in the event of an invasion by North Korea (up from 40 percent when the question was first asked in 1990), and 61 percent supported sending troops to NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia if Russia invaded (up from 41 percent when the question was first asked in 2014). On issue after issue, Democratic views have shifted in opposition to Trump’s.
Trump’s influence, and the circumstances of his election, can be felt in how Democrats rank their biggest foreign policy concerns. Terrorism, North Korea, and cyberattacks frequently top the list of potential threats to the United States in public opinion surveys. But the 2018 Chicago Council Survey found that Democrats rated the threat of Russian influence on U.S. elections ahead of all other potential dangers. Gallup polls also show a large increase in the percentage of Democrats who think Russian military power is a critical threat (65 percent in 2019, up from 38 percent in an unpublished breakdown of a 2016 poll). And surprisingly, Democrats are now more likely than GOP supporters to say that the United States should try to contain Russia.
On China, the opposite is true. Fifty-four percent of Republicans say China’s economic power is a critical threat, versus 37 percent of Democrats, according to unpublished partisan breakdowns of a 2019 Gallup poll. The public at large doesn’t find China as menacing as do U.S. political leaders from both parties. But after a year of heightened trade tensions, polls show a growing understanding that U.S.-Chinese relations are not in a good place. A Gallup poll from February showed a 12 percent drop from the previous year in Americans’ favorability ratings of China, and a 2019 Chicago Council Survey found that most Americans now view the United States and China as rivals rather than partners. Between 2006 and 2018, opinion was divided.
Trump has moved the needle on immigration as well, although both parties had begun to significantly shift their thinking on this issue more than a decade before his election. From the 1990s until about 2002, polls showed little difference in the attitudes of Republicans versus Democrats on immigration. But by 2019, 84 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners agreed that “immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents,” while only 42 percent of Republicans agreed, according to Pew. The pattern is similar in Chicago Council Surveys over the same time period. Among Republicans, immigration is now considered a top threat along with international terrorism, while Democrats consistently rank it at the very bottom. In the 2018 survey, for instance, only 20 percent of Democrats saw immigration as a critical threat, down from 27 percent in 2016. Democrats were more in line with the general public’s view (39 percent saw it as a critical threat) than with Republicans’ view (66 percent).
Climate change is at the top of the list of issues Democrats say they want to hear presidential candidates talk about
Likewise, climate change is an area where trends that preceded Trump have grown more pronounced during his tenure. In 2017, the Chicago Council Survey found the largest-ever gap between partisans (a 53-point difference) on whether climate change was viewed as a critical threat. The shift was driven primarily by increased concern among Democrats: 69 percent saw it as a critical threat in 2017, up from 51 percent in 2014. Climate change is also at the top of the list of issues Democrats say they want to hear presidential candidates talk about, according to recent polls from CBS, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Third Way. And while the public as a whole still doesn’t rate climate as a top concern, the share that does has increased from 26 percent in 2011 to 44 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center surveys.
Perhaps most consequential, under Trump, Americans have begun to think more positively about trade. While protecting American jobs has long been a cherished goal among voters across the political spectrum, the trade bashing of previous campaigns is unlikely to play well this time around. Even as Trump’s trade disputes with China and Mexico have made daily headlines, public support for trade has increased dramatically over the past year. Interestingly, Republican attitudes have changed the most: in 2019, 70 percent said trade was an opportunity for growth, compared with 51 percent in 2015. Across the board now, more Americans (74 percent) say that foreign trade is an opportunity for economic growth than at any time since 1992, according to Gallup, although polls are conflicted over whether trade creates or destroys jobs.
Conventional wisdom says that presidential elections aren’t won on foreign policy. Few American voters rate issues such as trade and development as highly as jobs or health care. So it should come as little surprise that foreign policy issues rarely loom large over presidential campaigns. The Iraq war generated fierce debate ahead of the 2004 election, but it didn’t prevent President George W. Bush from winning reelection. Even in the 1968 election, fought against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, most voters cast their ballots based on issues that were closer to home.
One reason foreign policy hasn’t featured centrally in presidential politics is that voter preferences in this area have historically been slow to change. Gallup has asked Americans about the U.S. role in solving international problems 13 times since 2001, and the number of respondents who said that the United States should play a leading or major role hovered consistently around seven in ten. Chicago Council Surveys dating back to 1974 also show that remarkably stable majorities support an active U.S. international role. With so much consensus about the need for active U.S. engagement in world affairs, presidential aspirants have often struggled to distinguish themselves on foreign policy. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry voted for the Iraq war before he criticized Bush’s handling of it in 2004, and in 1968, little daylight separated presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey on the Vietnam War.
A majority of Americans still support U.S. engagement and shared leadership in international affairs, as well as U.S. participation in alliances and agreements. In fact, the U.S. electorate has grown even more committed to these principles over the last two years, while the president has moved in the opposite direction. Reams of polling data reveal the deep unpopularity of his overseas agenda—from Iran to climate change to trade—and fully 57 percent of respondents to the recent Center for American Progress survey said they disapproved of his foreign policy performance. It makes sense, then, that Democratic presidential hopefuls will exploit these vulnerabilities on the campaign trail. This time, foreign policy might just tip the election.