Michael A. Cohen

Voters have a message for the foreign policy elite

 The White House.
The White House.AP/FILE

So far, 22 Democratic candidates have thrown their hats in the presidential ring — and few of them have had much of anything to say about America’s place in the world. International affairs, it seems, are not high on the agenda, either for those seeking the nation’s highest office or those picking the next president. But perhaps the problem is that we’re having the wrong conversation about US foreign policy.

A fascinating new survey by the Center on American Progress on voter attitudes about foreign policy and national security turns upside down Washington’s stale debates about global affairs.


According to the survey, the top foreign policy priority of American voters is for the United States to be “strong at home.” Even in an age of intense political polarization, 74 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents, and 62 percent of Republicans want more money spent on improving infrastructure, education, and health care in the United States. They hold this view not because they want to pull up the drawbridge to the rest of the world. In fact, nearly two-thirds of voters agree that foreign policy decision-making affects them and their family. Rather, they think it will make America more globally competitive.

Americans are making an explicit connection that far too many in the foreign policy community ignore or give short shrift to — the link between investing at home and being strong abroad.

This dovetails with the conclusions from my recent book, “Clear and Present Safety,” on the greatest challenges facing America today. It’s not Iran or China or Russia. It’s coming from inside the house, in the form of a record number of deaths from drug overdoses, a 40-year high in gun deaths, and a life expectancy rate that is in unprecedented decline. Too many Americans lack access to health care; of those who have it, many can’t afford to pay their premiums and deductibles. Too many are seeing their wages only begin to creep up after years of stagnation; far too many are anxious about making ends meet or ensuring their kids can move up the economic ladder.


The foreign policy buzzwords that get thrown in D.C. debates, like “promoting democracy,” “working with allies and the international community,” or “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship,” or “maintaining the liberal international order,” were largely an abstraction to voters in the survey. Not only did they fall flat, but many didn’t even know what they meant.

Instead, Americans view national security through simple parochial terms: protecting the US homeland, particularly from terrorism, and safeguarding jobs are the two overarching concerns.

Nearly 20 years after 9/11, Americans still have wildly inflated fears of terrorism. Yet they remain skeptical of the use of military force and would prefer to see the United States use diplomatic, political, and economic tools to further US interests. They reject the president’s “America First” language and would prefer to see the United States work in concert with its allies — a perspective that has long been apparent in public surveys of foreign policy attitudes.

These views are more pronounced among younger Americans, who, of course, have come of age during one military debacle after another.

To be sure, there are strong partisan divides on issues like illegal immigration and climate change. Not surprisingly, Republicans are more focused on the former, while Democrats prefer to see the latter addressed. On military spending, Republicans are generally more supportive, but it’s worth noting that after a $60 billion increase in the defense budget in 2018 (and the Pentagon asking for $33 billion more this year), the worst scoring question in the survey was the notion that “The United States must prioritize spending for the military and defense, even if it means making cuts in other areas.”


What message do voters want to hear from the presidential candidates? If candidates are “planning a traditional foreign policy speech — stop! Just please stop. No one really wants to hear you sing the praises of alliances or your 10-point plan on nuclear proliferation,” Brian Katulis, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview. What voters want to hear from their next president is “a clear economic plan that connects what’s been happening at home and connects it with the global competition that’s been going on for years.”

The message from voters to the foreign policy elite is to rethink what national security means. They want America’s leaders to spend less money on the latest fighter aircraft and more on rebuilding roads and bridges and expanding access to health. They want America to focus on protecting the homeland, but also continue to engage in the world, work with allies, and stop fighting dumb, endless wars that don’t make them safer. In short, they want a rational, common-sense, and economic-focused foreign policy that speaks to their most basic concerns - and that of the nation. For decades, much of Washington has ignored these calls for a simpler foreign policy. On the eve of a crucial presidential campaign, will they start to listen now?


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.