It’s frequently observed that Americans don’t closely follow international affairs. That may be true, but my experience, over a period of decades, suggests most Americans appreciate the importance of our foreign policy and have a clear-eyed and sensible view of our nation’s role in the world.
I served on congressional committees dealing with foreign affairs and national security and on a variety of similarly focused boards and commissions after I left the U.S. House of Representatives. In that capacity, I met with numerous groups and with hundreds if not thousands of individuals to discuss these questions.
As any politician would, I paid attention to what people thought about foreign policy and what they believed our global role should be. That experience led to several observations:
First, most Americans accept the importance of U.S. leadership, take pride in it, and want America to be a forceful and positive presence in world affairs. They see our leadership as essential to preserving world stability and peace, and they applaud the United States for playing a leadership role on climate change, nuclear proliferation, environmental quality, developmental aid, global security, and other issues.
Their views vary, of course. Some support a vigorous, highly engaged foreign policy role for the U.S. while others are more restrained. For most of them, cooperation with other countries is essential; they don’t want the United States to go it alone. They certainly do not want to see America’s role shrinking.
Overwhelmingly, they reject isolationism, and understand that the more unity we have at home, the more influence we have abroad.
While accepting that government officials should pay heed to those they represent, they understand that occasionally policymakers will depart from the prevailing public opinion. But they don’t want it to happen often. Officials should act without solid public support only occasionally, and then cautiously.
It seems to me that Americans accurately assess the risks to our national security and wellbeing from abroad. They clearly see the critical threats posed by Russia and China, but favor selectively engaging with those countries. They want to avoid conflict but are wary of our adversaries and feel we must not be pushed around. They strongly support U.S. military supremacy.
They also favor giving diplomacy a chance before resorting to force, and believe that most problems can be resolved through negotiation. They endorse Churchill’s admonition: Better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.
They don’t want to close our borders, but neither do they want an unchecked flow of people into our country. They understand that the U.S. cannot accommodate all who want to come here, and they all favor select immigration that benefits the country. They have a positive feeling about association with our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, so long as we maintain strong border protection.
They support free trade for the United States and for the world, and they reject protectionism. Preferably, they want us to act with partners in the global economy, rather than to go it alone.
They like America setting an example for the world: opposing corruption, favoring human rights and encouraging decent treatment of all people.
While they understand the importance of foreign policy, they consistently favor giving priority attention to domestic matters.
Overall, I am impressed with the American public’s understanding of the challenging issues of foreign policy. For the most part, their views are clear and prudent.
I have always thought that such thoughtful and commonsense attitudes make the work of policymakers and government officials easier. We can all hope their views will continue to guide us in these polarized times.
By Lee H. Hamilton