from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: How Americans See the World

Mail-in ballots await verification at the San Diego County Elections Office during the 2016 election.
Mail-in ballots await verification at the San Diego County Elections Office during the 2016 election. Mike Blake/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This week: Democrats and Republicans see foreign policy very differently.

September 18, 2020

Mail-in ballots await verification at the San Diego County Elections Office during the 2016 election.
Mail-in ballots await verification at the San Diego County Elections Office during the 2016 election. Mike Blake/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

What do Americans think about foreign policy headed into Election Day? Thanks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs we have a pretty good idea. The Council has been asking Americans about the world since 1974, and it released the results of its latest annual survey yesterday. The main finding is telegraphed in the report’s title, Divided We Stand. Simply put, Democrats and Republicans view the world beyond America’s shores very differently, and they favor very different approaches to advancing U.S. interests overseas.

Before delving into the specifics of what divides Democrats and Republicans, it’s worth noting that despite the seemingly incessant barrage of news stories about Americans turning isolationist, most Americans in fact want the United States to remain active in world affairs. Indeed, 54 percent say that the United States should be more involved in the world.

68 percent of Americans think it is good for the country to take an active part in world affairs. 30 percent think it is better if we stay out.

Just as notable given COVID-19 is that Americans still haven’t soured on globalization. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans continue to think that globalization has been “mostly good” for the United States—and the numbers have barely budged since the Chicago Council last asked the question three years ago. 

Overall, 65 percent of Americans think globalization is good for the country. That includes 75 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans.

The division between Democrats and Republicans that this last chart hints at becomes a chasm when the question turns to what constitutes the most critical threats facing the United States in the next ten years. The lists of the top five threats for Democrats and Republicans don’t overlap at all. Democrats worry about COVID-19, climate change, racial inequality, foreign interference in U.S. elections, and economic inequality. Republicans worry about China, terrorism, immigration, domestic extremism, and Iran. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is the top threat seen by all Americans, but the rest diverge along partisan lines.

Democrats and Republicans are just as divided over how the United States should make its way in the world. The Chicago Council’s report characterizes the views of Democrats as stressing “diplomacy and cooperation.” Sixty-three percent of Democrats favor increasing U.S. participation in international organizations, 59 percent favor increasing humanitarian aid, and 55 percent favor signing more international agreements. A fifth or less of Democrats favor greater use of drone strikes against terrorists, relying more heavily on tariffs, or doing more to threaten adversaries with military force.

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Election 2020

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Polls and Public Opinion

In contrast, Republicans favor what the Chicago Council calls a foreign policy of “self-sufficiency and independence.” Forty-four percent of Republicans want to see more drone strikes against terrorists, 43 percent want to see greater use of sanctions, 43 percent want to see more tariffs, and 28 percent think the United States should do more to threaten adversaries with force. Conversely, a quarter or less of Republicans think that the United States should provide more humanitarian aid, increase its participation in international organizations, or provide more economic aid.

Readers with a sense of U.S. history can no doubt hear echoes in the split that the Chicago Council has identified. A century ago the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and with it the League of Nations. That rejection is frequently and wrongly characterized as Americans turning inward in the wake of the Great War. In truth, the treaty’s defeat was less about isolationism and more about the clash of two competing visions of internationalism: the cooperative internationalism that Woodrow Wilson championed and the unilateralist internationalism that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and many of his fellow treaty opponents favored. 

The Cold War eventually closed the split between those who favored acting with others and those who preferred the policy of the free hand. But the debate reemerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and has been growing ever since. The intensifying polarization of American politics and President Trump’s brand of America First has only fueled it. China’s rise may eventually remind Americans of what the Cold War Generation learned about the value of working with others. As the Chicago Council’s survey shows, however, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Biden wrote an op-ed criticizing Trump’s Iran policy as “a dangerous failure” that has “been a boon to the regime in Iran and a bust for America's interests.” The former vice president offered his “unshakable commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and pledged that “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Biden spoke about climate change in a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. He argued that “while [Trump] turns against our allies, I’ll bring us back into the Paris Agreement. I’ll put us back in the business of leading the world on climate change, and I’ll challenge every other country to up the ante on climate commitments.” When Biden was asked at a CNN Town Hall held last night in a parking lot in Moosic, Pennsylvania, whether he supports the Green New Deal, he answered that “I’ve got my own deal.” Which he does

More on:

Election 2020

United States

Polls and Public Opinion

Trump used rallies in Henderson and Minden, Nevada, over the weekend and an ABC Town Hall on Tuesday to tout his relationships with world leaders like Xi Jinping, his success in striking deals between Israel and Arab nations, and his progress in ending what he called America’s “endless wars.” 

Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at the White House on Tuesday to sign the Abraham Accords. In remarks at the ceremony, Trump said: “We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.” In a press conference with Netanyahu that preceded the signing, Trump said there were discussions between other Arab countries and Israel and that “we’ll have at least five or six countries coming along very quickly, and we’re already talking to them.”

What the Pundits Are Saying

James Traub wrapped up his month-long series on what a President Biden’s foreign-policy might look like by confessing that history “compels humility in anyone hoping to predict the foreign policy of any new president.” What Traub does see over the course of Biden’s career is “a through-line of skepticism” about what U.S. power can achieve in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Libya that leaves the former vice president “far more hopeful about the United States than … about the remote places in which its power is often exercised.”

Steven Pifer, a retired Foreign Service officer who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that the Trump administration has been “spinning an image of progress on nuclear arms control” in the run-up to the election, but “the image does not reflect reality.” 

Campaign Update

RealClearPolitics’ average of national political polls shows Biden leading Trump by 5.9 points, 49.0 percent to 43.1 percent. That’s down from a 7.5 percentage-point Biden lead last week. FiveThirtyEight pegs Biden’s chances of winning based on current trends at 77 percent. That’s up two points from last week

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Green Party ticket is ineligible to appear on the ballot in Wisconsin. The ruling upheld the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s decision last month to disqualify the Green Party ticket because the petitions it filed to get on the ballot provided two different addresses for its presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins. One of the reasons the court gave for its ruling was that the Green Party had waited too long to file its lawsuit. The court said that overturning the commission’s decision would potentially upend the election because ballots would need to be redesigned and reprinted. Wisconsin began sending ballots to voters yesterday.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down several rulings yesterday that affect voting in the Keystone State. First, it extended the deadline for mail-in ballots to be received from 8 p.m. on Election Day to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 6, provided that the ballot is postmarked by November 3. The court also ruled that Pennsylvania’s counties may use drop boxes to collect ballots and that Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins had not qualified to appear on the ballot. Democrats applauded these rulings. Republicans, on the other hand, applauded the court’s other rulings. It declined to require local election officials to notify voters that their mail-in ballots had been rejected, thereby giving them an opportunity to fix, or “cure,” their vote. The court also said election officials could reject so-called naked ballots, that is, those lacking a privacy sleeve around the actual ballot itself, and it barred third parties from collecting and returning mail ballots, a procedure known as “ballot harvesting.”

The Pennsylvania Department of State directed county election officials on Monday not to discard mail-in ballots solely because the signature on a ballot doesn’t match a voter’s signature on the electoral rolls. Some 26,000 ballots (out of more than 1.5 million cast) were spoiled during the state’s June primary because of signature mismatches. To put that number in perspective, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by slightly more than 44,000 votes. 

North Carolina kicked off the mail-in ballot process last Friday by beginning to mail ballots to voters who requested them. As of tomorrow, nineteen other states will have done so as well. Just as important, early in-person voting began today in both Minnesota and Virginia. So, yes, some people will have voted before Biden and Trump square off in their first debate, which is set for September 29 on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. 

FiveThirtyEight reported that as of the middle of this week, North Carolina election officials had received some 75,000 mail-in ballots and had rejected roughly 1.8 percent of them. Ballots from Black voters had been rejected at more than four times the rate of ballots from white voters. The total number of votes cast so far is a small portion of the total number that will eventually be cast—as of today, nearly 900,000 North Carolinians had requested mail-in ballots—and North Carolina law allows voters whose mail-in ballots are rejected to cure them. But the early numbers show why election experts worry that mail-in voting may not go well this fall. Roughly 1 percent of mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2016 election, when the influx was far smaller than what is expected in 2020. There were significant variations among states in their rejection rates back in 2016, with some of them exceeding 5 percent. Studies have also found that mail-in ballots cast by people of color are rejected at a higher rate than mail-in ballots cast by white voters. 

The Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution both graded and scored how easy it is for voters to complete mail-in ballots in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. Eight states and DC received A’s. Washington State came out on top with a perfect score, boosted by the fact that all voters automatically receive a mail-in ballot. On the flip side, Alabama was the only state to receive an F. It also managed to record a score of -1 on a 22-point scale. Alabama earned its negative distinction because mail-in ballots are due before the close of in-person polls and voters must provide a copy of a photo ID and two witnesses or a notary to submit their vote. 

Election Day is just forty-six days away. 

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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