Robert Galbraith / Reuters A coal miner prior to the start of his afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, West Virginia, May 22, 2014.

How Foreign Policy Came to Divide America

And What It Means for U.S. Leadership

It has been 15 years since the historian Robert Kagan proclaimed that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. In his view, the two faced irreconcilable differences, with Americans favoring power and coercion and Europeans dedicated to diplomacy and law. One of the reasons the characterization went viral—if there was such a concept in 2002—is that it coincided with the run-up to the Iraq war, which seemed to reinforce his thesis that “Europeans and Americans no longer share a common view of the world.” 

On first glance, U.S. President Donald Trump’s behavior since assuming office only seems to confirm such a view. He has withdrawn from the Paris agreement on climate change; shown an unwillingness to reaffirm Article 5, the collective-defense provision of NATO; and declared Germany “very bad” when it comes to trade. But on closer inspection, it might be more accurate to say that in both Europe and the United States, the nonmetropolitan masses are from Mars and the metropolitan elites are from Venus.

Gather members of the Washington foreign policy establishment and the London metropolitan elite in a room, and there is almost no daylight between any of their policy views. Convene any group of transatlantic elites in Bratislava, Munich, or New York, and there will be a unanimous show of disgust with Trump’s rupturing of the liberal international order—a set of rule-based institutions focused on open markets, collective security, and democracy—that the United States helped establish after World War II. It is an order that favors the perpetuation of American power in the long term. Foreign policy elites in the United States are commmitted to this order and overwhelmingly express support for free trade, the United Nations, and an active role for the United States in the world and in support of its allies, even if that means using military force. But these very issues have created major divisions between the Washington elites and the large swaths of the American population that they are charged with representing.

A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES

This “tale of two countries”—and the ripple effects on foreign policy—is more apparent in the United States than in Europe. Because of vast inequalities in the United States, geography now dictates a person’s chances of success. The zip code in which an American is raised is a significant determinant of how much money he or she will make in his or her lifetime. For a variety of reasons, Americans are less mobile now than they were in the years since 1948. Self-segregation—birds of a feather flocking together—has led to increasing political polarization, as exposure to alternative viewpoints has faded and an “us versus them” mentality has become entrenched.

Much of the ensuing handwringing over Americans’ immobility, inequality, and polarization has focused on the domestic consequences. But there are beginning to be repercussions for foreign policy as well, such as the exposure of fissures in the idea that Americans are all from one planet, be it Mars or Venus.

In 2016, Trump won the support of voters living in 85 percent of the country, mostly rural areas, but lost virtually every metropolitan region in the country—which is how he won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. Surveys suggest that these groups—the nonmetropolitan citizens who supported Trump and the metropolitan constituents who supported the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton—are separated not just by geography but by stark and growing cleavages in how they see the liberal international order. 

Today, two-thirds of Democrats polled agree that free trade has been good for the United States (up from 57 percent in 2009), compared with 36 percent of Republicans. Although, according to a Pew survey, 49 percent of the population as a whole agrees that there are no circumstances in which torture is acceptable, only 27 percent of Republicans share that view (compared with 67 percent of Democrats). Almost 60 percent of Democrats polled indicated that climate change is a serious threat and that the country should address it “even if this involves significant costs,” compared with just 12 percent of Republicans. As these data suggest, when it comes to foreign policy, Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. 

The implications go beyond an exercise in nomenclature. Such extreme partisan differences mean that turnover in the White House may create a sense of foreign policy whiplash. Democratic administrations will tend to be quite at home abroad, as they promote international institutions. Republicans, reflecting the more skeptical views of their voters, will tend to be more hostile and retreat from U.S. commitments. 

Despite these oscillations in U.S. foreign policy, prognostications of a U.S.-European divorce may be wildly exaggerated, as are laments that the loss of American leadership will mean either the end of the liberal international order or the transfer of international leadership to China or Germany. That is because global governance consists of more than just what happens at G-7 meetings among heads of state. Lurking below, at the subnational level, are increasingly prominent and influential ways to perpetuate American leadership of the liberal international order.

GLOBAL GOVERNANCE WITHOUT THE U.S. GOVERNMENT

For some issues, such as the United States’ commitment to NATO, establishing global governance without the federal government is more of a challenge, because advanced industrialized democracies have national militaries, not state militias that could step up and fulfill, for example, NATO’s collective-defense commitments.

But on other transnational issues, the U.S. government does not have a monopoly on the type of power that matters. Climate change is perhaps the best example. Trump, in declaring the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement, said that he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Soon after the announcement, the mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, tweeted that his city, more than 75 percent of whose voters went with Clinton in the presidential election, would continue to work toward the Paris climate goals. Peduto is part of the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, an initiative signed by 68 mayors and that has committed to the goals of the Paris agreement. California, which is the world’s fifth-largest economy, is instituting rigorous emissions and energy-efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances, which will not only drive how industry invests in and markets its products but also contribute to reaching the country’s emissions-reduction targets. The state has even asserted that it will pursue its own climate deal with China.

Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed budget would slash U.S. foreign aid, a plan that pleased 68 percent of Republicans but just 42 percent of Democrats. But in this area, too, the United States should not be written off too quickly. Americans rank highest in the world for charitable giving as a percentage of GDP. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone, based on the $4.2 billion it spent on direct grantee support in 2015, is the tenth-largest donor of development assistance in the world. Individual Americans and U.S. foundations can continue to shape the development landscape even if Washington reduces U.S. foreign aid under Trump. 

International cooperation and leadership on technology are yet a third area in which nongovernmental entities can represent the United States on the world stage even as U.S. federal commitments wane. For example, Facebook and Google are taking the lead in bridging the global digital divide, a Silicon Valley start-up known as Zipline is using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda, and a U.S.-based network called UAViators is promoting the safe deployment of drones and robots to help in humanitarian crises. 

Paradoxically, the same geographic and political polarization that have produced such extreme foreign policy differences within the country can also contribute to a layering of international governance that will transcend any particular administration. Nothing precludes U.S. metropolitan areas, individuals, foundations, and corporations from taking the lead in sustaining the liberal international order. In fact, its continuation may depend on it.

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