Over the last three years, Americans have become familiar enough with President Donald Trump’s ideas and impulses about U.S. foreign policy. Trade protectionism, embraces with autocrats, a more adversarial approach to China, and a global military pullback — each was a rare idea in Washington just a few years ago. Now, each has fierce advocates, often on both sides of the aisle.
But a core element of Trump’s America First agenda, his disparagement of our closest allies, remains a bridge too far for most Americans — and it should remain so.
From the outset of his administration, Trump has sought to overturn how Americans understand alliances. To him, a system once thought to enhance U.S. security now endangers and constrains U.S. decision-making. What was once a force multiplier for the U.S. military has now been cast as an effort by foreign capitals to deplete the U.S. treasury.
“Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies,” Trump said at a Pennsylvania rally last month, “and someday, I’m going to explain that to a lot of people.”
So far, most Americans are not convinced.
As they have for decades, a majority of Americans still want the United States to take an active role in the world. In fact, as the newly released 2019 Chicago Council Survey shows, 69 percent of Americans support an active role for the United States. It is among the largest percentages recorded since polling began in 1974. Close to two thirds of Americans — including Republicans and Democrats — disagree with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
What do Americans mean by an “active role?” Three-quarters of all Americans, or 74 percent, believe that preserving U.S. military alliances with other countries helps make the U.S. safer. That includes the majority of Democrats (77%), Republicans (75%), and independents (70%). To a lesser degrees, but still a 50 percent majority, Americans believe that stationing U.S. troops in allied countries contributes to U.S. safety.
Americans do not see NATO as an obsolete burden, as Trump portrayed the military alliance during his 2016 campaign and early presidency. On the contrary, all-time-high percentages of Democrats (86%) and Republicans (62%) say NATO remains essential to U.S. security. Nearly eight in ten Americans (78%) believe that Washington should maintain or increase its commitment to the transatlantic alliance.
When asked about specific countries, strong majorities of Americans — between 70 and 80 percent — say that relations with longstanding allies that host large numbers of forward-deployed U.S. troops such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea further strengthen U.S. national security.
“We need global allies in order to sustain our economic and democratic standards, as well as to deter the threats of war,” said one survey respondent, a 66-year-old man from Alabama.
Americans are clear-eyed about the responsibilities inherent in a military alliance. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say they favor committing U.S. troops to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion (58%) and to defend NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia from a Russian invasion (54%).
For its part, Congress, too, has defended U.S. alliances. In 2018, the Senate approved a motion in support of NATO by a vote of 97-2, and the House passed its resolution of support unanimously. This year, the House also approved a measure by a vote of 357-22 prohibiting the president from using federal funds to withdraw the United States from NATO.
Americans understand that alliances remain an important asset in today’s world. They are what separate the United States from challengers such as Russia and China. It is a sign of isolation, not strength, when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin invokes Emperor Alexander III in saying that “Russia has just two allies, the armed forces and the navy.” The veneer of machoism quickly gives way to a reality that it is better to move through the world with people who can be counted on to help.
American leaders understand this too. It is why Jim Mattis made his support for alliances a key reason for his resignation from the Trump administration as secretary of defense. “Nations with allies thrive, and nations without them die,” Mattis said, on his book tour in Washington last week.
This week marks 18 years since the attacks on 9/11 and the immediate decision by NATO allies to invoke Article 5 for the first time in the alliance’s history. Today, it is worth recalling what Condoleezza Rice, former national security advisor, told the U.S. ambassador to NATO in that moment of national crisis: “It’s good to have friends in the world.”