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Defend Multilateralism—It’s What People Want

By John Halpin Brian Katulis

Tagged Foreign Policymultilateralism

Donald Trump is the ultimate unilateralist, and not a particularly talented one. He undermines and demeans close allies. He pulls out of treaties and international accords designed to advance our own security and economic interests. He ignores global organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, and instead seeks ways to work around these institutions to pursue a constantly shifting set of foreign policy impulses. His top advisers operate under the same assumptions as Trump in pursuit of a “go it alone” approach that is getting increasingly dangerous and risky.

In many ways, there’s nothing new about Trump’s isolationism. The President’s approach goes back as far as Charles Lindbergh and other conservative voices arguing against America’s intervention in World War II. Embers of this angry unilateralism have flickered on ever since. Whether railing against the “blue helmets” at the United Nations or trying to scuttle all manner of international accords, elements on the right have long been squarely at odds with the bipartisan political consensus that developed during the Cold War for U.S. engagement in the world.

During that time, the right has hammered Democrats for being soft on national security and bending to the will of the rest of the world. “America First” vs. “soulless globalism” remains the central frame of the Trump argument about the world. Progressives have been too timid in their own defense—crouched in a tactical posture, allowing Trump and his allies to set the terms of the foreign policy debate when it comes to multilateralism.

This is exactly the wrong approach. Our recent research into American attitudes on foreign policy, building on our earlier opinion project from January to March 2019, and as outlined in the report entitled “America Adrift,” finds that majorities of voters want multilateralism.

Plain and simple—Trump’s unilateralist approach is deeply unpopular outside of his core base. Democrats should lean into arguments about working with other countries and institutions in the world with no apologies.

But in order to win this argument at the national level, they will need to ditch their usual abstract language about the liberal international order and devise a convincing storyline about multilateralism that connects global issues to the primary economic and cultural concerns of ordinary Americans.

The evidence from our most recent survey conducted in July 2019 is clear: Strong majorities of voters favor working with other countries on a broad range of issues. Virtually all American voters, 94 percent, agree that the United States must take new steps to invest in its own economy and build alliances to help respond to China’s rise, while similar agreement, 93 percent, exists on the idea of working together with allies to address shared global challenges like terrorism and climate change.

When asked to choose between two competing visions related to one of Trump’s signature issues—facing down China in a trade war—most Americans prefer the opposite of what he is doing: Two thirds of voters believe that, “Rather than launch a trade war with China, which will only increase costs of products for U.S. consumers, the U.S. should build strong alliances with European and other Asian allies to force China to abide by fair rules,” instead of Trump’s unilateral approach of slapping up to 25 percent tariffs on Chinese goods.

In other words, progressive alternatives win out on nearly every issue tested in the survey. Strong majorities of voters, including Democrats and Independents and roughly 30 to 40 percent of Republicans, choose a progressive approach over Trump’s nationalism, often winning these message battles by a two-thirds to one-third margin.

For example, comprehensive immigration reform with legal, managed, and humane border control beats Trump’s harsh approach to the border by 64 to 36 percent. A proposal to increase investments in domestic clean energy beats Trump’s position of exploiting domestic fossil fuels and ignoring climate change by a 68 to 32 percent margin. Across the board, the items on the progressive agenda for the world win out when it comes to working with other countries versus going it alone.

So, how can a multilateralist message prevail next year? First, progressives and Democrats need to broaden the debate on foreign policy and get beyond the usual jargon. They need to invent a new language for internationalism—even the word “multilateralism” is unclear. Start talking in terms of getting other countries to do their part on problems that know no national borders. This stands in sharp contrast to Trump—who operates with a gated community mindset, treating America like it is his private resort, Mar-a-Lago, and everything else that happens outside of America’s borders doesn’t matter.

Another approach is to connect these often complex foreign-policy goals to realities that people live every day in our country. Enlist middle-class farmers from Wisconsin and Iowa to tell Americans about Trump’s ill-conceived trade war and how it’s undermining their long-term economic interests. Ask mayors and local officials in coastal cities to tell the story of how frequent extreme weather events and rising seas are affecting their communities (and budgets). Put young people in front of voters to explain their fears about rising chaos and instability around the world and how they’re ready to help rebuild American statecraft and diplomatic power to help solve these challenges. Highlight religious voices, local activists, and immigrant groups doing the hard work of assisting migrant families and refugees as they seek both safety and a chance to contribute to American life.

Second, progressives need to give Americans a clearer picture of what they want to achieve globally and how that will tangibly help everyday citizens. We need to explain how renewed multilateral engagement will keep Americans better protected from terrorist threats like al-Qaeda and ISIS; how coordinated international efforts are essential to stopping cyber warfare; and how American participation within international trade and economic agreements is essential if we want to protect worker’s rights and jobs in the face of aggression from China and other countries.

Multilateralism is not an end itself but rather a method for achieving what we want: improved conditions across the globe, and a future controlled by strong democratic voices and not reactionary ones seeking to do us harm. Using a pop culture analogy, the progressive approach on foreign policy is more like The Avengers than Captain America: We all work together rather than alone because we face challenges no one can deal with on their own.

Third, the progressive movement needs to seriously beef up its public communications and outreach efforts on foreign policy if we are to implement these emerging narratives. The anti-war left has done a decent job advancing its agenda to end “forever wars” and rebalance our social spending and military budgets through effective organizing and social media. Even though their overall agenda lacks broader support in the electorate and they too often talk about what they oppose and not what they favor, their grassroots organizing and tactics of reaching outside of the Beltway offer some valuable lessons to the broader foreign policy community on the left, which is often like a self-licking ice cream cone, one geared toward promoting its own existence not connecting with the broader American public the way it should.

A strong majority of American voters already prefers multilateral approaches to security and economic issues over Trump’s unilateral nationalism. The goal heading into the 2020 general election is to show voters that America is stronger and better when we work with others to achieve common interests. Get out of elite foreign policy bubbles; connect with ordinary Americans; and enlist them in the effort to build a stronger, safer nation.

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John Halpin is a senior fellow at American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) focusing on political theory, communications, and public opinion analysis. He is the co-director and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAPAF.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at CAPAF, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy and counterterrorism policy.

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