Pew Research Center Report on US Foreign Policy



Now that Donald Trump has solidified the Republican nomination, we will be devoting increasing attention to the foreign policies of the nominees toward Asia and the Koreas in particular; my views on Trump’s Asia policy can be found here; Peterson colleagues Fred Bergsten and Gary Hufbauer and Tyler Moran weigh in on his foreign economic policies.

The issue is not simply what the candidates say; it is also what voters think. A lengthy new report from Pew (“Public Uncertain, Divided over America's Place in the World”) highlights some of the underlying partisan differences on foreign policy that Donald Trump has both exploited and stoked. The key takeaway: the Democrats will be fielding a candidate with a more internationalist base than the Republicans, and not only with respect to general engagement with the world but with respect to economic issues as well.

Starting with the overall view of the parties, Pew has for some time asked about which party would do a better job at making wise decisions with respect to foreign policy. Republicans historically enjoyed an advantage on this score. That advantage narrowed in the late-1990s, reversed as the Iraq war dragged on and in the early days of the Obama presidency, and has remained relatively close before widening somewhat in the most recent poll. 

The report shows that Republicans and Democrats have quite different views of foreign policy priorities, starting with defense spending. The Republican emphasis on the security challenges that the United States faces are reflected in sharply increasing differences on military spending, which Trump has promised to increase despite a more isolationist foreign policy. This is consonant with the findings of the report that the parties differ on the share of constituents who see particular issues as a “major threat to the well-being of the United States,” particularly hot-button campaign issues such as ISIS (91% of Republicans vs. 76% of Democrats) and Middle East refugees (74% vs. 40%). 

Partisan differences on threat narrow somewhat with China, although Republicans are more anxious there as well: 57% perceive China as a major threat compared to 46% of Democrats. Yet a longer-run series on attitudes toward China paints a somewhat more relaxed picture, with only a gradual uptick in those who see China as an adversary. Most respondents still cluster around perceptions that China is “a serious problem but not an adversary” and about 30 percent consistently do not see China as a problem at all, more than see it as an adversary. 

These findings may relate to geographic priorities. The survey asks a question about the relative importance of Europe and Asia, leaving out the drain on American attention coming from the Middle East. Despite a one-time spike around a visit of Hu Jintao to the US in 2011, Europe still looms larger in voters’ minds than Asia. 

Some of the most interesting findings on partisan differences stem from how engaged the United States should be in international affairs including in the world economy. After the August 2014 poll, there has been a marked uptick in the share of Republicans who think that the United States does “too much in helping solve world problems” (from 37% to 44%) while Democrats have remained flat (at 36% between the two polls). But when we shift to supporters of particular candidates, Trump and Clinton show wider differences than their parties as a whole, with 54% of Trump supporters saying we do too much while only 34% of Clinton’s voters think so. 62% of Republicans think that the US should deal with its own problems rather than helping other countries deal with theirs; 47% of Democrats think so.

Predictably, these differences are even sharper when we look at economic issues. The survey asks a so-called “double-barreled” question about the advantages and disadvantages of engagement in the world economy in which responses are not necessarily the opposite of one another or even mutually exclusive (involvement with the world economy is “a good thing because it creates new markets and growth” or “a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs”; both of course can be true). Nonetheless, despite the perception of Democrats as protectionists, 55% of Clinton supporters see American engagement with the global economy as a good thing, while only 37% say a bad thing. By contrast only 31% of Trump supporters see the world economy as a good thing, and fully 65% say it is not. Trump voters are also decisively negative on importing more goods from developing countries (67%), increasing foreign investment in developing countries (63%) and increasing foreign aid (78%). Surprisingly, Clinton supporters support each of these activities by solid majorities (57%, 57% and 61% respectively).

At one level, the Pew report does not contain huge surprises given the issues the Republican candidates have emphasized and Mr. Trump’s views. But taken together, they suggest a quite interesting role reversal: that a Democratic presidential candidate will be carrying the more internationalist banner than her Republican rival, and even on economic issues on which Democrats are typically deemed more cautious. 

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