Polls show ‘America First’ doctrine has backfired, ‘diplomacy-first’ policies are increasingly popular

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Ben Winsor
on September 18, 2020

After four years of President Trump’s ‘America first’ doctrine, polls show that the administration’s ‘might is right,’ ‘go it alone’ approach to foreign policy has only become increasingly unpopular among Republican, Democratic and independent voters.

Recent polling from Pew Research and ReThink Media shows a sharp increase in support for diplomacy, international engagement and multilateralism over the past four years. It’s a shift in sentiment which stands in stark contrast to an administration which has ripped up numerous international agreements — including the Iran nuclear deal — and attacked institutions including the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

According to Pew polling, a record high of 73% of Americans — and 90% of Democrats — now say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, rather than military strength. Voters are also now more likely to believe the US should play an active role in world affairs, and majorities in both parties believe the US should take allies’ interests into account, even if it means compromising on our own interests.

According to ReThink Media’s poll, a clear majority of Democrats, across all age groups, now believe that most US military action taken post-9/11 has not been worth the cost. Almost 70% of Democrats believe that the party should draw a contrast with Republicans on national security by “championing the message that the US needs to lead through diplomacy, innovation and development.”

Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum from ReThink Media says the shift among Democratic voters is significant, and will likely have a long-term impact on the party’s approach to foreign policy.

“Democrats have undergone stronger and more widespread shifts than we anticipated,” Galanes-Rosenbaum wrote in a post on Responsible Statecraft. “Unlike the centrism of the Clinton era, the reflexive militarism of the post-9/11 years or the comparatively cautious Obama years — notable for progress on arms control, but also sharply increased drone killing — Democrats want their party and its leaders to articulate a different path by a lopsided margin.”

“By a striking five-to-one majority, Democrats do not feel they are sufficiently heard on foreign policy,” Galanes-Rosenbaum writes, describing this as both a challenge and an opportunity for party leaders.

Diplomatic engagement and deal-making has always been politically popular, and is only becoming more so over time. While the Iran deal was seen as controversial when it was first announced, it quickly gained widespread support. Less than a third of voters backed Trump’s decision to renege on the deal in 2018.

J Street’s own polling of both Jewish Americans and Democratic primary voters backs up the findings from Pew and ReThink Media.

Two-thirds of Jewish Americans opposed Trump’s rejection of the Iran deal. A significant majority support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and want the United States to play an active diplomatic role in bringing it about.

Three quarters of all likely voters in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary said they would prefer a candidate who was “supportive of both Israelis and Palestinians and is willing to exert pressure on each to achieve a peace agreement.” More than 70% of voters supported re-entering the Iran deal.

The signs couldn’t be clearer: Trump’s belligerent “America first” policies are widely viewed as a failure — while diplomacy-first policies are seen as the blueprint for foreign policy success.

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