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Why ‘America First’ Resonates

What kind of foreign policy would emerge in America if it were crafted and sustained strictly by U.S. public opinion? We can’t know precisely, because we can’t sit down with the American people and ask them in a way that allows for give and take and for probing the thinking behind the various responses. But we do have polls, and they can tell us a great deal about the state of public opinion on major foreign-policy matters.

According to the latest survey by the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest, Americans remain wary of the past foreign-policy prescriptions of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. This poll, the third in a series on the subject, shows little change in the view of Americans, manifest in previous polls, that the country has become less safe over the past 15 years. Only 11 percent of respondents considered the country safer, compared with 51 percent who said it was less safe. Some 27 percent said it was about the same, and 12 percent didn’t know.

The same goes for the planet in general. Fully 47 percent of respondents said the rest of the world had become less safe over the past 15 years, while 9 percent said it was safer and 30 percent said it was about the same. This represents a modest shift since the previous poll late last year, in which 51 percent said less safe, 11 percent said safer, and 24 percent said about the same. Thus, while slightly fewer now believe the world is less safe, those who felt the world was safer also declined, by 2 percentage points. It was the about-the-same category that went up—by 6 percentage points.  

The survey respondents gave a nod to President Trump in responding to a question about whether U.S. foreign policy should be guided by the interests of other countries or the interests of America. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest tilt toward other countries and 1 being the strongest tilt toward America, respondents demonstrated an overwhelming view that U.S. national interest should come first. Categories 1–4 pulled 69 percent, while categories 6–10 pulled only 17 percent.

This may seem obvious and predictable. But the humanitarian impulse, which generally favors helping others around the world before tending to U.S. interests, has been driving American foreign policy to a considerable extent since the end of the Cold War. The American democracy project has been driving much foreign-policy decision-making in the administrations of both George W. Bush (Iraq) and Obama (Libya, the so-called Arab Spring, the anti-Assad stance in Syria).

Clearly, this outlook doesn’t hold much truck with the American people, as manifest in this poll. It also probably contributed to Trump’s presidential victory under his banner of “America First.” Another poll question asked whether the United States should actively promote democracy abroad through the use of military power. Fully 41 percent said no, while only 24 percent said yes (with 32 percent not venturing an opinion).

That America First slogan may help explain another element of the survey—that Americans don’t want to spend more money on defense and would favor instead directing any excess dollars to deficit and debt reduction and to domestic spending. The numbers: 42 percent to deficit and debt reduction; 37 percent to domestic spending; 12 percent to military spending.

What do Americans consider the greatest threat facing the country? By far, the answer is the Islamic State, or ISIS, and related entities struggling to establish a territorial caliphate in the Mideast heartland. Some 36 percent of respondents in the Charles Koch/Center for the National Interest survey cited ISIS as the country’s greatest threat. Far down on the scale were what respondents considered the next-greatest threats, Russia and immigration (both at 12 percent). The national debt came in at 11 percent.

But the respondents gave a nod to the NATO alliance, with 41 percent saying it is suited for the needs of American security in today’s world, compared with 20 percent who disagreed with that view (and 31 percent who neither agreed nor disagreed). They even went so far as to favor (by 33 percent to 20 percent) extending security guarantees to countries such as Georgia and Ukraine through NATO expansion. These aren’t numbers to warm the hearts of foreign-policy realists, who resist the idea of poking the Russian bear by meddling in its near abroad, where events have immense implications to Russian interests while affecting U.S. interests hardly at all.

But the poll revealed a far different perspective with regard to China. Asked if they favored cooperation with China over confrontation, respondents favored cooperation to the tune of 39 percent, compared with only 5 percent who favored confrontation. Some 48 percent opted for “equal amounts of cooperation and confrontation,” suggesting a significant plurality favored a policy of firmness coupled with sincere efforts to negotiate differences between the two nations.

Generally, this poll, like its predecessors, revealed that Americans favor a measured, cautious foreign policy for America that also incorporates a recognition that the country must continue to play a major role in the world. America could do worse—and has in recent years.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is a biography of William McKinley.

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