At the center of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was the idea that the world is taking advantage of the United States. Poor trade deals, immigration, and military alliances were screwing over American workers and taxpayers. Trump’s views on these issues were summed up in a simple phrase: “America First.” Despite being a throwback to the pre-World War II isolationist movement, Trump suggested that the slogan meant his foreign policy decisions would be treated as transactions in which mutual benefits were irrelevant and the United States would come out on the better end of the deal.

A number of foreign policy analysts who wish to see America’s liberal internationalist foreign policy come to an end credited America First with enabling his victory last November. Public opinion suggests otherwise.

A report released yesterday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that immigration, trade, and alliances are all very popular among the American people. The public’s views of alliances are particularly interesting:

Americans have repeatedly rated alliances as one of the most effective ways for the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals since the question was first asked in 2014. Today, the US public is more convinced than ever of their importance. Americans rate maintaining existing alliances as the most effective foreign policy tool, with 49 percent responding “very effective” (Figure B), followed by maintaining US military superiority (47%) and building new alliances with other countries (36%).


screen-shot-2017-10-03-at-1-55-50-pm screen-shot-2017-10-03-at-1-56-47-pm


Americans also express confidence in Asian and European allies to deal responsibly with world problems, and solid majorities favor maintaining or increasing the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific (78%), Europe (73%), and the Middle East (70%). A slightly larger majority now (69%) compared with a year ago (65%) say NATO is essential to US security. And for the first time, majorities of Americans are willing to use US troops to defend South Korea if it is invaded by North Korea (62%) or if NATO allies like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia are invaded by Russia (52%).


The most specific wish that President Trump has for NATO is for allied countries to contribute more to collective defense; he and other administration officials have advocated for withholding US commitment to defend allies until they have paid more. But a majority of Americans think that NATO allies should be convinced to do their part through persuasion and diplomatic channels (59%) rather than threatening to withhold the US security guarantee to NATO allies to get them to pay more for defense (38%).


Given these views, it is clear that Americans appreciate the advantages that alliances bring. Majorities say that alliances with Europe and East Asia (60% each) are either mutually beneficial or mostly benefit the United States, and 48 percent say the same about alliances in the Middle East.


These numbers are in line with a similar report released last year by the Chicago Council.

The findings are interesting given what scholars have found about public opinion and foreign policy. While there is some debate, the prevailing theory is that public opinion on foreign policy—like domestic—is a product of “elite cues” broken down by partisan worldview. As president and leader of the Republican Party, Republican voters and at least some independents should have followed his lead as far as America’s alliances are concerned. Yet they have not.

Writing at his Washington Post blog, political scientist Daniel Drezner sees the Chicago Council’s findings as part of a larger trend in Trump’s presidency:

[I have] repeatedly stressed the degree of presidential impotence across all areas of Trump’s presidency. He cannot get Congress to do what he wants. He cannot get other countries to do what he wants. He cannot even get his own executive branch to necessarily do what he wants.


In response, Trump’s populist supporters like to argue that these other actors are thwarting the will of the people. When it comes to foreign policy, however, Trump’s policy instincts do not reflect some deep-seated groundswell for radical change. It is the president’s own policy instincts that are out of step. He has, in his customary witless manner, made liberal internationalism great again.

The good news is, as Drezner notes, there is not latent hostility toward American engagement in the world among the public. The better news is, even if there were, Donald Trump appears to be too weak and inept of a president to exploit it.