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Commentary: For the American public, ‘Foreign Policy for the Middle Class’ mostly gets it right

Commentary: For the American public, ‘Foreign Policy for the Middle Class’ mostly gets it right

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“Those of us who conduct foreign policy haven’t always done a good job connecting it to the needs and aspirations of the American people,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his first major speech. President Joe Biden’s administration, he said, seeks to change that and is calling this approach a “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.”

According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ new survey on American attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, the administration’s ideas coincide with public opinion in many ways. Where they don’t, the administration should invest in making the case at home for how these policies benefit the American people.

The basic sentiment that U.S. foreign policy has not traditionally served average Americans is shared by both administration officials and the general public. According to the survey, Americans believe U.S. foreign policy has benefited the wealthy and large businesses far more than the middle class.

Many of the administration’s specific ideas for shifting priorities also align with public preferences. To start, the administration is focused on building resilience here at home — in our economy, education, environment and health care — to ensure we remain globally competitive, particularly against a rising China. This means investing domestically to ensure our communities and systems can better withstand global shocks and shoring up our own democracy so we can prove that our form of government serves people better than growing authoritarian movements across the globe.

Americans agree. Strong majorities want their government to focus more on domestic issues to enhance America’s position in the world, by improving education, strengthening our democracy and maintaining U.S. economic power.

Biden has also championed the need to lead with diplomacy and work closely with friends and allies to address global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19. As he said in his speech last month at the United Nations General Assembly, “As we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.”

Contrary to what some in the foreign policy establishment assume, Americans are not weary of this kind of engagement in the world. Like the administration, Americans in the survey strongly back both diplomacy and alliances and want America to play a leading role in global challenges like preventing nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism, sharing COVID-19 vaccines with countries in need and limiting climate change.

Like the Biden administration, most Americans surveyed believe maintaining military superiority is very important for national security. There is even strong support for maintaining or increasing U.S. military presence abroad and defending allies if they are attacked. But this doesn’t mean Americans want to use force indiscriminately. For example, a broad majority continues to support the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan even following the ugly exit. And Americans still strongly prefer shared global leadership to America having a dominant role.

In some areas, however, public opinion diverges from the administration’s assumptions. Biden’s team has underestimated public support for international trade. Secretary Blinken has questioned whether Americans have broadly shared in economic gains of free trade agreements. But American public support for international trade is high, according to the survey. A record majority of Americans now believe globalization is mostly good for the United States too.

But Americans still support trade restrictions against China and government funding of research and development of emerging technologies to help U.S. companies compete. This aligns with policies the administration is using or considering to help balance the playing field.

Other administration goals simply haven’t sparked strong public interest yet, such as prioritizing the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad and tackling global corruption and the global tax environment, but that doesn’t mean these should be abandoned. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class isn’t foreign policy by referendum, but it should ultimately be able to generate public buy-in. An administration hoping to bring foreign policy closer to the people should invest the time and effort necessary to make the case for how these goals serve their needs.

Engaging the American public in foreign policy is more important than ever, but it isn’t easy. The good news is that Americans today are more aware than ever of how intertwined our lives are in the worldwide community. Every American has felt the impact of global health, global supply chains and the global crisis of climate change on their own lives.

But the government still needs to better explain how some foreign policies ultimately impact their lives. If the administration can’t successfully draw the connection between a foreign policy position and the interests of the American people, maybe it’s worth taking time to reconsider whether there is one.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”

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