Rejecting Retreat

Where We Stand


On Sept. 6, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released Rejecting Retreat: Americans Support US Engagement in Global Affairs, which examines American attitudes toward foreign affairs.

Much of the content of the Chicago Council’s polling has direct relevance to the ecosystem in which American diplomacy works, and certainly to the American Foreign Service Association’s ability to connect with audiences around the country when we tell the story of the U.S. Foreign Service.

The Chicago Council’s polling is also especially useful because it directly focuses on what Americans think of the U.S. role in the world— and because the council has been asking these questions for the past 45 years.

Intentionally or not, this year’s report title evokes the wording of the 2017 State and Foreign Operations subcommittee report that called the then-proposed 32 percent cut in the international affairs budget a “doctrine of retreat.” Just as Congress then made a strong statement against American retreat, according to the polling, Americans are rejecting a U.S. retreat from the world now.

Here are a few numbers. As in earlier years, nine in 10 Americans want the United States to have a leadership role in the world. Consistent with earlier findings, 66 percent want that leadership role to be shared. A full 74 percent think alliances make the United States safer. Seventy-three percent say the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is essential for our security.

Support for international trade is still rising. There is robust general support for international trade as being good for the American economy (87 percent) and for American companies (83 percent)—and yet there are high levels of Republican support for tariffs.

The report’s authors lightly speculate that the seemingly contradictory outcome “partly reflects support for President Trump’s trade policies”— the inference possibly being that Republicans think that tariffs are a good way to open trade further.

Getting below the top lines, the report shows a strong partisan split on the notion that immigration is a critical threat (78 percent of Republicans to 19 percent of Democrats) and the idea that climate is a critical threat (78 percent of Democrats to 23 percent Republicans).

Americans want the United States to be involved in the world with our allies—not necessarily always with troops, but with cooperation.

Americans support the use of U.S. troops to come to the aid of allies only selectively (depending on the country). More Republicans see the rise of China as a critical threat (54 percent of Republicans to 36 percent of Democrats). However, for the first time since the question was asked in 2008, a majority of Americans (54 percent) sees climate change as a critical threat.

These findings are encouraging. Despite some influential voices who would ignore or antagonize our long-standing allies, Americans want the United States to be involved in the world with our allies—not necessarily always with troops, but with cooperation.

Keep these numbers in mind when the going gets tough—and these days, we know it can get very tough. You, working around the globe to strengthen America’s relationships, are in sync with the American people.

And we here at AFSA want to be in sync with you. AFSA’s active-duty survey closed in early September. While the survey certainly confirmed widespread support for AFSA’s current activities, you told us that AFSA could do better.

For example, you told us we could do a better job in focusing on Foreign Service Specialists and Foreign Service personnel in non- State agencies. You told us to reach out to more parts of the diplomatic family–like Diplomatic Security members.

You also told us that you want help to be more available when you might be in trouble. Finally, you told us that we need to communicate more about what we are doing on your behalf and we need to sustain forceful advocacy on Capitol Hill and with agency management.

We hear you loud and clear, and we want to bring more voices into the conversations we have with members. Our resumed structured conversations started off with the Foreign Commercial Service, and we hope to continue with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, and then move to State specialists.

We will look for ways to expand our bandwidth so we can better respond to your needs. We will continue to tell the Foreign Service story on Capitol Hill and all around the country, and we will fight for our members when the going gets tough—and in current circumstances, we know it will.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for the time you took to complete the survey. Finally, thank you for the honest feedback, and keep it coming!

Julie Nutter is Director of Professional Policy Issues at the American Foreign Service Association.