America Engaged



Lily Wojtowicz | The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Executive Summary

In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, political analysts warned of a dark era ahead. Newly elected President Donald Trump had long expressed opposition to US security alliances, skepticism of free trade, and support for authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin. Since the American public generally relies on their political leaders for foreign policy decisions, many policy watchers cautioned that the country was headed for a populist, unilateralist, and protectionist retreat from global leadership.

While the Trump administration has taken action along this path—unilaterally withdrawing from the Paris and Iran agreements, pulling the United States out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and questioning the value of long-time alliances like NATO—the majority of the American public has not followed this lead.

To the contrary, most Americans have moved in the opposite direction. The largest majority since 1974—except for just after the September 11 attacks—now support active US engagement in world affairs. A solid majority supports multilateral diplomacy, underscored by public willingness to accept international decisions that are not the first choice for the United States. A record number of Americans now acknowledge the benefits of international trade. Even though the United States withdrew from both the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, public support for these agreements has actually increased. And as the ultimate indicator of commitment to allies, increased majorities express support for sending US troops to defend both NATO and Asian allies if they are attacked.

Americans Want the United States to Remain Engaged

Despite attempts by the White House to pull the United States back from global engagement, seven in 10 Americans (Figure A) favor the United States taking an active part in world affairs (70%). This reading is a 7 percentage point increase from the 2017 Chicago Council Survey and is the highest recorded level of support since 1974 except for 2002, the first Chicago Council Survey conducted after the September 11 attacks.

A Majority Wants Shared Action on Global Issues

The American public does not envision the United States working alone when playing an active role on the world stage. Rather, a striking majority (91%) say that it is more effective for the United States to work with allies and other countries to achieve its foreign policy goals. Just 8 percent say that it is more effective for the United States to tackle world problems on its own.

Sharing leadership on global issues may mean that the United States does not always achieve its preferred policy outcomes. Yet a majority support the United States making decisions with its allies even if it means the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (66% agree, 32% disagree). Similarly, two-thirds of Americans believe that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations even if it means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (64% agree, 34% disagree)—the highest level of support on this question since it was first asked in 2004, when 66 percent agreed.

Support Is Up for the Iran Deal and the Paris Agreement

President Trump has broken away from several international agreements since taking office, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. But the American public has not followed the president’s cues. Majorities of the public say that the United States should participate in the Iran deal (66%) and the Paris Agreement (68%). In fact, support for US participation in both of these high-profile international agreements has risen 6 percentage points over the past year.

It’s More Important to be Admired than Feared

The administration has attempted to change the nature of US influence around the world by using coercive rhetoric toward both allies and hostile actors. Perhaps reflective of this approach, more Americans think that the United States is now more feared (39%) than admired (20%) around the world today, though many volunteer an alternative response, ranging from “a joke” to “weak” to “falling apart.”3 But almost three times as many Americans think admiration (73%) of the United States is more important than fear (26%) of the United States to achieve US foreign policy goals.

As interactions with US allies have strained over the course of the past year, majorities of Americans  say that relations with other countries are worsening (56%) and that the United States is losing  allies (57%). Just 12 percent of the public says that the United States is gaining allies and 31 percent state there has been no change.

US Public Wants to Maintain or Increase Commitment to NATO

While some administration officials have praised NATO, the president has repeatedly criticized European allies for not spending enough on defense.4 Yet his attacks do not seem to have dented public support for the transatlantic alliance. A majority of Americans continue to favor maintaining (57%) or increasing (18%) US commitment to NATO; in fact, a higher percentage of Americans now favor increasing the US commitment to NATO than ever before.

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