Commentary: Most Americans want more global engagement

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President Donald Trump stops and takes questions from reporters on his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, on Sept. 22, 2020. - Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America/TNS

The novel coronavirus is a deadly reminder that in our interconnected world, grave dangers originating beyond our shores can prove devastating at home. In little more than six months, the virus has killed about 200,000 Americans, and the death toll keep rising.

One might have expected Americans to respond to this plague by turning inward, focusing on addressing the health crisis that has befallen the country and putting people back to work — to reduce our vulnerabilities around the world by staying out of world affairs.

That, indeed, has been the inclination of the Trump administration — which moved to close borders, end dependence on foreign sources of critical medical equipment and supplies, pull out of the World Health Organization, which is leading the pandemic response, and rapidly develop vaccines to inoculate Americans first.

And, yet, the latest survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that most Americans reject this insular reasoning. Rather than moving to cut ties with the rest of the world, majorities of Americans continue to prefer active U.S. engagement and shared leadership in world affairs. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans (62%) say that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of U.S. coordination and collaboration with other countries to solve global issues.

“One thing I believe the pandemic has taught us,” a respondent to our survey explained, “is that we are part of one big world.” Most Americans agree. A strong majority (84%) agrees that international cooperation is the only way to solve large global challenges like pandemics and climate change.

True to this sentiment, 7 in 10 Americans (68%) say that the United States will benefit most by taking an active part in world affairs. This finding is in line with some of the highest readings in our survey over the past 46 years. Moreover, a majority of Americans think the United States should be even more involved in addressing global issues (52%), with an additional 25% saying it should be as involved as it is now.

At the same time, few Americans want the United States to lead alone. A strong majority (68%) prefer a shared leadership role for the United States. Just 24% prefer the United States take a dominant leadership role, and very few say the United States should have no global leadership role at all (6%).

President Donald Trump has steadfastly maintained that America should put its own interests first and ignore the preferences of our allies. He’s also insisted that they pay the United States for defending them.

The vast majority of Americans reject both arguments. Seven in 10 say that the United States should be more willing to make decisions with its allies when dealing with international problems — even if this means sometimes going along with a policy that is not its first choice (71%, up from 66% in 2018). And an even larger majority of the public (76%) rejects the notion that having allies is not worth the cost of defending them.

Public support for America’s security alliance remains strong in our latest survey. Solid majorities continue to say alliances in Europe (68%), East Asia (59%) and the Middle East (60%) mostly benefit both the United States and U.S. allies or mostly the United States alone. About three-quarters support maintaining or increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO (73%) — higher than at any time in the Cold War.

A majority of Americans also continue to express support for coming to the aid of key allies. Six in 10 are willing to send U.S. troops to defend South Korea if it is attacked by North Korea (58%); and 52% support the use of U.S. troops if Russia invades a NATO ally, such as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.

After the pandemic hit, many speculated that it would radically reshape or even bring about the end of globalization, and both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have argued for bringing manufacturing back home. Even so, two-thirds of Americans (65%) continue to say that globalization is mostly good for the United States — unchanged since 2014.

The public also continues to express solid support for international trade, with majorities believing trade is good for U.S. relations with other countries (84%), U.S. consumers (82%), the U.S. economy (74%) and creating jobs in the United States (59%). And when it comes to dependence on foreign sources of supply, Americans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (63-34%) prefer that many countries produce goods to keep prices low rather than every country produce all their own goods.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of life for Americans. But it hasn’t turned them away from the world. To the contrary, most Americans continue to believe that their security and prosperity are best served by remaining active in the world and working with others, especially our allies, to overcome global problems.



Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow for public opinion at the council’s Lester Crown Center for Foreign Policy.


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