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October surprise? Americans support a US engaged with world, survey finds.

patterns of thought

Despite the isolationist notes in the presidential election, Americans prefer to remain engaged with the world, a new survey says.

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Delegates protesting against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement hold up signs during the first sesssion at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File

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You wouldn’t know it from the long presidential campaign and the rise of populist Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, but Americans are generally favorable toward international trade, globalization, and America’s leadership role in the world.

More counterintuitive still, they even support TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Obama has negotiated with 11 Pacific Rim countries as the keystone of his administration’s pivot to Asia.

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Both Mr. Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton say they oppose the trade deal.

The portrait of an America that grasps the benefits of global engagement and values the international alliances the United States has formed with democracies from Europe to Asia is perhaps the most surprising feature of a survey of Americans conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and released this week.

At the same time, however, the annual survey suggests that a growing slice of Americans are concerned about the country’s identity and what they see as a weakening of the traditional definition of what it means to be American. And that is likely to mean that immigration – the key issue that has propelled Trump to the gates of the White House – will remain a hot-button issue no matter who wins the presidency in November. The survey, of a nationally representative sample of 2,061 adults, was conducted between June 10 and June 27.

Still, it’s the revelation of broad public support for a globally engaged America that is most striking about the survey, experts say.

“The numbers are quite surprising,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council and a former US ambassador to NATO. In this survey, “You find an American public that remains deliberate about a foreign policy and an open engagement with the world that have been pursued by this country for the last 70 years.”

Among all Americans, nearly two-thirds of those polled say the US is best served by an active role in the world, while equal or even larger majorities support maintaining traditional alliances like NATO and keeping US military bases overseas in countries such as Germany and South Korea.

Support for trade deal

On globalization and international trade, two-thirds say increased economic integration is generally good for the country, while 57 percent say international trade is good for the US economy, and 65 percent say it is good for their own standard of living.

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On the other hand, only 40 percent see trade as a positive factor in creating jobs in the US – but that number is up slightly from a decade ago. And in another surprising shift, Democrats are now considerably more supportive of globalization than Republicans, with a 15 percent gap opening up between them.

Indeed the Chicago Council survey confirms findings from the Pew Research Center this year that Republicans, traditionally most supportive of international trade and the free-market system, are turning against those ideas even as Democrats increasingly open up to them.

But then there is the support for TPP. The trade deal President Obama would like to see ratified by Congress before he leaves office comes out a surprising winner in the survey, with 60 percent of those polled supporting it.

Even half of those who identify themselves as Trump supporters say they consider the 12-country agreement a positive. 

Another surprise: Even a plurality of Bernie Sanders supporters back TPP. Moreover, the survey finds that Millennials are broadly more supportive of free trade and globalization than the general population.

Immigration is the concern

It is on immigration that Americans indicate their strongest concerns about a globalized world.

While 43 percent of all respondents say large numbers of immigrants and refugees pose a “critical threat” to the country, the share of Republicans taking that view – 67 percent – is at a peak in surveys conducted since the late 1990s. Among core Trump supporters, those holding that view soars even higher – to 80 percent.

What the numbers suggest is that despite Americans’ consistent rejection of isolationism, a growing minority is worried about the effects of globalization and immigration.

And even though it is Trump who has been most effective at tapping into this angst, no one should assume that the rising concerns will recede if Trump fails to win the election, analysts of the data say.

“Although the Trump campaign has been able to mobilize many of those who are most concerned about the effects of trade on our economy and jobs and about the changing demographics of the United States, these motivating concerns are not new,” says Ambassador Daalder. “Whoever wins the presidency will have to address this segment of the American public,” he adds, “one that has felt neglected by the traditional political class and is increasingly concerned abut the disruptions of globalization.”

Need for leadership

What some analysts see – in the seeming disconnect between what Americans support and what increasingly worries them – is a need for leadership. Whether the issue is TPP or the use of American military force in Syria, some experts say surveys like the Chicago Council’s demonstrate that latent public support for such internationalist policies is there – but what’s lacking is the leadership that could galvanize that support.

“It’s not true that public opinion is against [America’s] involvement” in global issues and in particular in crises like Syria, says Kori Schake, a foreign policy research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “The public is persuadable on these things, we’re just not doing the persuading.”

Daalder points out that if anything, Americans’ political representatives are often behind the curve in terms of where their constituents are. He notes, for example, the dim prospects for passage of TPP, despite indications of broad public support.

“Seventy-five percent of Democrats think globalization overall is a good thing for the US,” he says. “You wouldn’t know that from the way their Democratic representatives in Congress generally vote on matters related to trade and globalization.”

Adds Ms. Schake: “You need to have a continual conversation with the American public if you want to build support.” 


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