foreign policy

Foreign Policy at the State of the Union

On foreign policy, the State of the Union was classic Donald Trump.

There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.

Will Trump’s Foreign Policy Matter for the Midterms?

In a recent piece at The Hill, I argue that Trump’s terrible approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy will matter more than most people think.

The basic argument consists of four points:

1. Trump has made foreign policy more important to Americans today thanks to his “America First” approach:

Ukraine, Trump, and Javelin Missiles

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in early April Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered his chief federal prosecutor to halt four anticorruption investigations involving Ukrainians connected to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and a central figure in Robert Mueller’s investigations here in the United States.

The Trump Doctrine and Public Opinion at One Year

In advance of the January 30 conference here at Cato—The Trump Doctrine at One Year—I review public attitudes toward Trump’s “America First” vision and his foreign policy handling over his first year in office. Join us for a what will undoubtedly be a spirited conversation with a fantastic group of experts.

Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign marked a sharp departure from the fundamental tenets of liberal internationalism that have guided U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Trump’s tirades against free trade, NATO allies, immigrants (legal and otherwise), and his general disinterest in engaging with the world unless there was money in it for the United States horrified the foreign policy establishment of both parties.

Beyond concerns about Trump, many observers worried that his success reflected the demise of public support for internationalism. Though the public supported robust internationalist policies after World War II and during the Cold War, Trump’s emergence coincided with rising economic insecurity and inequality, intense political polarization, and dropping confidence in government to solve the problems facing the nation. Had the public perhaps decided that internationalism’s time had come and gone? Would Trump’s presidency usher in rising support for nativist and protectionist policies and calls to turn inward, away from the international arena?

A wide array of poll data from Trump’s first year in office strongly suggests the answer is no. A large majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of foreign policy and his America First policies are among the most unpopular elements of his foreign policy.

Trump’s fiery attacks on unfair trading practices by China and Japan and his criticism of NAFTA as “the worst deal ever made” may have energized his base during the campaign, but since taking office Trump’s course on trade has not been a popular one. Though Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he took office and appears likely to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Americans remain committed to free trade. A June 2017 survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 72% of the public thinks international trade is good for the United States. An October 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center echoed this result, finding that Americans are more likely to believe NAFTA is good for the United States by 56-33%. 

America’s Foreign Policy Attention Deficit

We Washingtonians rightly get criticized for being hyper focused on politics. While D.C. natives gossip about the ups and downs of the powerful elite, most Americans are worrying about their marriages and mortgages. The disjuncture is even greater when it comes to foreign policy, an area in which public interest and knowledge are particularly limited. As many scholars have pointed out, to some degree this dynamic is the result of “rational ignorance” on the part of the public. Given the many other priorities citizens have in their private lives, the benefits of following policy debates closely is quite limited so long as people are generally confident that more knowledgeable people are paying attention. 

Taken too far, however, public apathy toward foreign affairs could become a problem for a democratic system. A central pillar of democratic politics is the ability of the marketplace of ideas to foster debate and produce sound policy. Without a certain level of public engagement, the marketplace of ideas cannot function effectively. If no one is paying attention, how can we have a meaningful debate over U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Africa, or what to do about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, or China’s growing power? 

The traditional method for criticizing the public’s attentiveness to foreign policy is to note Americans’ astonishing lack of knowledge about the world. The June 2017 Pew Research “News IQ” survey finds, as usual, that most Americans know little even about events and people that have appeared regularly in the news. On the four questions most closely related to foreign policy, 60% of those surveyed knew that Britain is leaving the European Union, 47% could identify Robert Mueller as the person leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, 44% could name Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, and just 37% could identify Emmanuel Macron as the president of France.

The public also typically lacks key facts informing specific foreign policy issues. Even as the Trump administration calls for new kinds of nuclear warheads, polls have routinely found that few Americans are aware that the United States already possesses thousands of nuclear weapons. And though 67% of Americans in 2014 knew that the Islamic State controlled territory in Syria, only half could identify the nation of Syria when it was highlighted on a map. In 2009, fewer than 30% knew that the United States had 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Thanks to Google we have another way to measure America’s foreign policy attention deficit. Google Trends gives us the ability to track how often people searched for a given term over a particular time period. If public ignorance is due to lack of interest, search activity on the Internet is a good way to measure that.

All I Want for Christmas Is…Civilian Leadership of U.S. Foreign Policy

In their infinite wisdom, the Founding Fathers warned against the dangers of standing armies and determined that it should be civilians, not military leaders, who had final authority over the size, shape, and use of America’s armed forces. Their reasoning was simple. Without civilian control of the military there would be no bulwark against military coup or dictatorship. 

But civilian control should not stop at simple control over the armed forces. Civilian officials must provide active leadership and management of the full spectrum of American foreign policy efforts, from intelligence gathering and alliance building to arms sales and crisis diplomacy and, most importantly, the decision to make war. The old chestnut that “War is too important to be left to the generals” is an old chestnut for a reason: It’s true.

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