The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently released its annual survey of American attitudes on various foreign policy issues. Like previous surveys, the latest one finds broad public support for U.S. international engagement. Some of that comes from the framing of the questions that respondents were asked. For instance, one of the questions asked, “Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?” Given that choice, the remarkable thing is that support for an “active part” isn’t higher than the overall 63% that they found.
No one thinks it is possible for us to “stay out” of world affairs all together, and no one really argues that it is desirable to try doing this, so it is extraordinary that not quite two-thirds of the respondents prefer the U.S. to take an “active part.” Of course, what taking an “active part” in the world means varies widely depending on who decides the definition of “action.” It might imply incessant meddling in the affairs of other countries short of military intervention, it could mean endless war in half a dozen countries or more, or it could mean intensive diplomatic and commercial engagement without any of the rest of it. One person’s idea of taking an “active part” would be derided as some form of “isolationism” by a more interventionist type, and the former would probably consider the interventionist’s version of international engagement to be little better than mindless interference for its own sake.
There was one other result that stood out from the rest that I wanted to mention. When respondents were asked which kind of U.S. role in the world they preferred, it was “core Trump supporters” that most strongly preferred that the U.S. be the world’s sole dominant leader (53%). When these voters respond favorably to Trump’s talk about “America first,” they aren’t thinking of disengagement or neutrality or even staying out of foreign wars. I suspect they are hearing Trump affirming the view that the U.S. should be on top, and I would also guess that this is what Trump thinks the phrase means. In other words, they aren’t just comfortable with U.S. hegemony, but are also among the least likely to welcome its end. They are similar to Republicans overall (47%), but are even more supportive of a dominant U.S. “leadership” role than the average Republican. Not surprisingly, then, “core Trump supporters” are also the least likely (42%) to favor a “shared leadership role,” which implies that they are least likely to prefer burden-sharing in practice. Most of them are nationalists that strongly favor U.S. hegemony, so they may be among the least likely of all to favor a real “America first” foreign policy.