Engage Or Retreat? American Views On U.S. Foreign Policy | Wilson Center
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Engage Or Retreat? American Views On U.S. Foreign Policy

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Event Co-sponsors

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Webcast Recap

Washington is torn between two futures for US foreign policy: one of engagement and intervention, another of retrenchment and retreat. The 2020 presidential election will provide an opportunity for the American public to critically assess the Trump administration’s America First foreign policy. The Wilson Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released the 2019 Chicago Council Survey, a detailed look into Americans’ views on today’s vital issues, including the value of trade and military alliances, the threats posed by China, Iran, Russia, and other rivals, and how America should respond to immigration and climate change.

Selected Quotes

Jane Harman

“It’s also reassuring, certainly to me, to learn the good news in this report; that Americans, by huge bipartisan margins, continue to support an active U.S. role in foreign policy and world affairs.”

“We’ll hope, at least, I will hope, that Woodrow Wilson the president, and certainly the Woodrow Wilson Center, will be very proud of the people of this country who have made their voices heard, and really want a foreign policy that reflects their values, which I think are enduring American values.”

Ambassador Ivo Daalder

“This idea of a transactional reliance, the transactional relationship, where we do stuff in return for payment, whether it is NATO payment or something else, as opposed to ‘we do stuff because it’s in the mutual interest of both of us’—a win-win, rather than win-lose—is fundamental to the American conception of our role. By the way, it has been for 75 years. The president is trying to move away from that, and, as far as we can tell, he’s not succeeding with the American public, when it comes to foreign policy.”

“In terms of public opinion, there’s no doubt that the public has completely soured on both of these wars, and see both Afghanistan and Iraq as failures of American foreign policy. And I think, generally speaking, that’s probably not a bad analytical judgement on their part…  We are now in the third administration when it comes to Afghanistan—18 years in, almost, in this war—and not one of those administrations has ever had a serious strategy.”

“In the normal foreign policy elite circles which we all live in… there’s this assumption that if you are against, or if you think that wars like Iraq and Afghanistan have been high cost, and perhaps not [of] immediate benefit… you’re against all things military, and you’re no longer willing to be tough. That toughness is the willingness to intervene in other countries. This poll says something completely different. It says that, in fact, the way you make America safe is the traditional way in which the United States has made America safe, which is U.S. military superiority, strong alliances, basing forces overseas, and being willing to defend your allies when they’re attacked. There is 50, 60, 70, 80 percent of Americans [who] support that, including defending allies…. Where there is no support is for military intervention to resolve conflicts, which is how we made the question. ‘Yes’ to defending allies. ‘Yes’ to being there. ‘Yes’ to being strong/believing in deterrence. But ‘no’ to the kind of interventionism we’ve had in the past.”

Dina Smeltz

“We’ve been tracking it over the past three years since Trump’s been in office, and, in fact, you might expect some of the ‘America First’ type of policies to get more traction, but instead, we’ve seen the opposite. So, we have even higher numbers of Americans now saying alliances are mutually beneficial. Super majorities that say trade benefits U.S. companies, the U.S. economy, and relations with the United States and other countries. So, it’s underscoring what [Americans] have always said over the last 40 or 45 years.”

“Early on, Democrats and Republicans weren’t really that different. Now, in the Trump Era, Republicans are actually even more fearful of immigration, and Democrats have been steadily declining [in] thinking it’s not a big threat. And part of that has to do with the composition of the Democratic Party; it’s younger, it’s more diverse, than the Republican Party which has pretty much stayed the same.”

“I think that, perhaps, this presidential election, more than others, people I think will be judging just the character, and the way the president comports himself to our allies in the world. So, it’s even more diffuse than a specific policy or specific leader, and that’s how it might come into play.”

Richard Fontaine

“Since the end of World War II, there have been kind of three animating principles of U.S. foreign policy: to keep the peace we would have strong alliance underwritten by the forward deployment of American troops, to increase prosperity we’d have a strong economic system undergirded by free trade, and then to support the forces of freedom when possible … The debate between Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals and realists and neo-conservatives and everything else is more about how you do these things.”

“If we adopt a policy of retrenchment, retreat, disengagement, whatever you want to call it… What comes next? Is it true that if the United States steps back—whether it’s militarily, diplomatically, economically—then sort of friendly locals step up, in a spirit of burden-sharing, and do things in our interests that we would otherwise prefer not to do? I think the answer is no, and I think [John McCain’s] answer would be no.”

“Yesterday, our Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said, in a speech, that great power competition is the national security focus of the United States. Great power competition means China and Russia. His predecessor, Jim Mattis, said that great power competition, not terrorism, is the top challenge to U.S. defense policy. The National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy both reflect that. And if there’s anything approaching a consensus in Washington on these issues, it’s that a great power competition is the thing we’ve got to hyper-focus on. But look at page 34, when they ask: ‘What are the threats to the United States?” Russia and China are all the way down the list. Ahead of Russia and China, you’ve got cyberattacks, terrorism, North Korea, Iran, climate change, foreign interference, political polarization, arms races, immigrants, refugees. All of those things are seen as greater priorities, in this poll, than the military power of Russia, or the development of China as a world power. That shows a great power disconnect between the policymakers and the public that is going to potentially have fairly profound impacts. The numbers on China are rising, but they’re still below all these other things, and if the policymakers who talk about great power competition are right—that this is going to require sort of a whole of society effort to wage a long term competition, particularly with China—the American people certainly do not seem to be there. And so, not only does that suggest to me that there’s work to do in addressing that gap, but it also suggested to me that you can’t do great power competition unless you also address these other issues that the American people care about.”


Read the full survey results and interactive>>>









  • Ambassador Ivo Daalder

    President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, former US Permanent Representative to NATO
  • Richard Fontaine

    CEO, Center for a New American Security
  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Dina Smeltz

    Senior Fellow on Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, Chicago Council on Global Affairs