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Why Trump's foreign policy resonates with Americans – to a point

Modes of thought

Important aspects of Trump's foreign policy play on America's weariness as global cop. It's his extreme prescriptions that worry voters.

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    A girl waits to see Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after a rally at Nathan Hale High School Sunday in West Allis, Wis.
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In recent weeks Donald Trump has offered one provocative foreign-policy pronouncement after another, reflecting his view that America can no longer afford to pay for the world’s security and prosperity.

The United States, he says, should leave a NATO alliance where wealthy Europeans are mooching off a “poor” US for their national defense needs. Asian partners also need to prepare for an era of American retrenchment – to the extent that allies Japan and South Korea might want to acquire their own nuclear weapons, he suggests.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of his envisioned southern border wall – which he says Mexico must either pay for or face a cutoff of the billions of dollars that Mexicans working in the US send back home each year.

Such proposals may leave most of Washington’s foreign-policy elite gasping for breath, but they resonate with a significant slice of the American public for a couple of key reasons, national security and opinion experts say.

For one thing, many in the US have tired of America’s role of superpower and sympathize with the idea that playing the world’s policeman has gotten too expensive and offers diminishing returns. Then there’s the fact that much of Mr. Trump’s more extreme thinking on US relations with the world has been around in milder forms for years – and has even picked up steam under President Obama.

For instance, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates caused a stir when he used his farewell tour of Europe in 2011 to castigate European allies for not paying their fair share of the alliance defense bill. And Mr. Obama, elected as a kind of antidote to the interventionist George W. Bush, has as president espoused a more domestically focused America. He recently lamented to The Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg about the “free riders” who can afford to pay more than they do now but rely on the US for their security.

From there, it’s not much of a leap to nod and cheer at Trump’s take on an overburdened America, experts say.

“Trump is effectively speaking to a widespread feeling in the American public of frustration with aspects of being the global hegemon, the big man on the world stage,” says Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. “He speaks to a deep-seated feeling, and he gets a response.”

'Getting ripped off'

Americans have a “gut reaction” when they hear Trump say, as he told The New York Times, that for too long the US has been the world’s “big stupid bully” being “systematically ripped off by everybody,” says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow specializing in defense spending at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

“People off the top of their head say, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ when they hear someone saying we’re too much of the world’s policeman or that others aren’t paying their fair share,” Mr. Korb says.

One reason Americans can relate to Trump’s worldview is that they have already been exposed to the broader thinking that lies beneath his more extreme specifics – through Obama, Korb adds.

“In a lot of what Trump says, there’s a ring that’s familiar to people,” he says, and part of that “familiarity” comes from the Obama presidency.

“Obama has delivered a kind of retrenchment that was a reaction to Bush, who was viewed as overly interventionist,” he says. “So when Trump talks about America paying for the world when it needs to pull back and fix things up at home, people think they’ve heard it before and it has a grain of truth for them.”

Korb notes that all of Obama’s past Defense secretaries have upbraided European allies for not paying their fair share into NATO.

“If you go back and take a look at what [Robert] Gates and [Leon] Panetta and [Chuck] Hagel said, they all carried the message that ‘You guys have to do more,’ ” he says. “People may be fuzzy on the specifics,” he adds, “but they remember the general idea that our allies in Europe and Asia aren’t stepping up to the plate the way even the president thinks they should.”

As long as Trump is talking in terms of greater burden-sharing among allies, the public is broadly with him. Most Americans feel the US is less respected on the world stage but at the same time favor a greater degree of shared leadership in global affairs, recent surveys from the Pew Research Center in Washington suggest.

And according to a Pew survey taken a year ago, only about half of Americans have a favorable view of NATO – with the alliance’s detractors higher among Republicans.

Too extreme?

But Americans appear to part ways with the Trump foreign policy vision when general feelings confront specifics. 

Any misgivings over NATO do no translate into support for abandoning the alliance, says Dr. Kull of the University of Maryland, citing his own research. Similarly, views that Asian allies should take on more of their own defense do not translate to support for Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons.

“Yes, there is pretty strong thinking that our allies for too long have been relying on our generosity, but does that mean the public thinks we should pull out of NATO? No,” Kull says, “about two-thirds don’t think so.”

That number was among the findings of a study his group recently did for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

While Americans may approve when Trump the businessman talks about the US needing a “better deal” with the world, that does not mean they are looking for a revolution in world affairs, Kull adds.

“There was support for NATO [in the Chicago Council survey] and there is support for the basic international order” of security alliances and trade relations, he says – “and that’s where Trump departs from the general public.”

Of course, for dealmaker-in-chief Trump, threats to abandon NATO or Asian allies could simply be starting-points for negotiation. But Kull points to surveys showing Trump’s unusually high negatives for a presidential candidate, and he suggests that misgivings about how a President Trump would conduct relations with the world are part of that.

“People may be unhappy about things, but they aren’t looking for a president to turn global affairs upside down or put the world order at risk,” he says. “They’re not ready to say that’s how presidents act, or that that’s how America acts in the world.” 

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