skip to main content
Polling Matters
Trump's Foreign Policy and American Public Opinion
Polling Matters

Trump's Foreign Policy and American Public Opinion

President Donald Trump's appearance at the NATO meetings in Brussels has returned our attention once again to his views on the need to change the role of the United States on the world stage.

Trump's attempts to shift the ways of U.S. foreign policy are not a new phenomenon, of course. America has changed many times from an isolationist posture to one of full engagement in the world, and then back to isolationism. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in 1914 that the United States would not get involved in the nascent European conflict, only to declare war and send a huge number of troops to World War I three years later. Gallup data show that about three-quarters of Americans wanted the U.S. to remain isolated and not enter World War II as late as April of 1941, but that shifted to essentially full support for U.S. involvement in the war after Pearl Harbor. By over a 3-1 approval to disapproval ratio, Americans after the war supported the Marshall Plan which provided billions in aid to European countries.

But how well does Trump's latest effort to pull back U.S. commitments to alliances, treaties and allies around the world fit with American public opinion? A review of what we know about Americans' attitudes shows that Trump is clearly on target with some of his actions on the world stage, and off target on others.

There is little doubt that Americans, in general, think that the U.S. should play a role in solving the world's problems. An update on a long-standing Gallup trend last year found more than seven in 10 Americans saying the U.S. should play a leading or major role in "trying to solve international problems." About a quarter say the U.S. should shrink back and take only a "minor role," while very few say the U.S. should have no role at all.

Over the 13 times Gallup has asked this question since 2001, these sentiments have fluctuated only in minor ways. The basic attitudinal structure has been fairly constant.

A closer look at the data shows that those who say that America should have a "leading" role are in the clear minority: 23% say the nation should have a leading role compared with the 49% who say that the U.S. role should be a "major" one. In short, as is the case for any of our questions where we give Americans a chance to respond to nuanced alternatives, we get back nuanced responses.

Shockingly, in a world where the responses to almost every question we ask Americans seem to be divided by partisanship, Republicans and Democrats don't differ much in their answers to this query about U.S. leadership. Republicans, as of last year, are no less likely to say that the U.S. should play a leading role in world affairs than are Democrats.

So if Trump were focused on attempting to reflect public opinion as the basis for his broad foreign policy approach, he would have quite a bit of latitude -- given these data showing that the public wants the U.S. to have some sort of role internationally, but not necessarily a leading role.

Also in 2017, the significant majority of Americans told us that it was very important that the U.S. has as a foreign policy goal a) defending our allies' security (66% said this was very important) and b) working with organizations like the United Nations to bring about world cooperation (63% said this was very important). Americans' perceived importance of both of these items was as high as they have ever been across 16 years of asking these questions.

These are not at the top of the list of foreign policy goals, however. Other goals included in the same list scored even higher in importance: fighting terrorism, controlling other nations' use of nuclear weapons, securing energy supplies and promoting favorable trade policies. Defending our allies' security and bringing about world cooperation were rated more important than promoting human rights and helping build democracies.

Thus, in addition to the broad consensus that the U.S. should have at least a major role in solving international problems, the American public also views our working to help secure allies' security and working to bring about world cooperation as important.

When we asked about NATO last year, an overwhelming majority -- 80% of Americans -- said that the NATO alliance should be maintained. We have asked this question five times going back to 1989. The 80% response is the highest we have ever measured (the other four times support for NATO ranged from 62% to 75%). The implications for Trump's foreign policy efforts are clear. The president would be out of kilter with American public opinion if he were to withdraw the U.S. from NATO.

In line with that, Trump on Wednesday -- after berating NATO members for not paying their fair share for their defense -- reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and its aims, saying that U.S. commitment is "very strong." This would seem to fit with the public's wishes.

On the trade front, as I recently reviewed, Americans feel that trade is a positive for the U.S. Americans don't have strongly negative feelings about the impact of U.S. trade policies on them personally -- mainly because they say they don't know enough about it. These findings imply that Trump's position that U.S. trade policies are hurting average Americans and need to be changed is not strongly reflected in the public's opinion. Plus, Americans appear to give trade much lower importance on a relative basis than does Trump.

The president is in closer touch with public opinion when he lashes out at China's trade policies, given that over six in 10 Americans say that China's trade practices are unfair. We didn't ask directly about his imposition of tariffs on China goods and services, but the basic data indicate that his doing something about China and trade -- as he has done -- could resonate with the public.

Trump's threats against Canada and European countries have less n attitudinal support among Americans, who like these countries in general. The majority of Americans say that their trade practices are fair.

The data suggest that Trump will need to be able to show tangible positive outcomes for U.S. jobs and the U.S. economy to garner full public support for his confrontational trade tactics.

A final point on NAFTA: Trump's current trip is focused on Europe (although one of the NAFTA countries, Canada, is a member of NATO), but he has made negative views of NAFTA a big part of his rhetoric in his presidential campaign and while in office.

NAFTA has been controversial since it was first debated and then signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Current data show that Americans are split on NAFTA. Our update last year found 48% saying NAFTA was good for the U.S. while 46% said it was bad. Most other polls about NAFTA, taken over the past several years, show similar split opinions (one exception is a Pew Research survey taken last October which showed more positive sentiments toward NAFTA).

There seems to be enough doubt about NAFTA among Americans to suggest that Trump's attempts to renegotiate are not strongly adverse to public opinion.

Views of trade and views of NAFTA, I should point out, have become much more politically polarized in recent years. Republicans are now more likely to say that Canada and the EU's trade policies are unfair than used to be the case, and Republicans are now more negative and Democrats more positive about NAFTA than in the past.

One final point: Our February 2018 update showed that just 29% of Americans said that leaders of other countries around the world respected Donald Trump. This is lower than where Americans thought President Barack Obama was at any point over the eight times we updated the question during his time in office. In the last two years of his second term when U.S. involvement in the Iraq war weighed deeply on his image, President George W. Bush scored lower than Trump.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030