When it comes to foreign policy, American voters have always been a mass of contradictions. The majority still believes their country is the most powerful in the world, but they see that position slipping. In many cases, they just seem to wish the rest of the planet would go away.
Clearly, that’s not going to happen. While the 2016 presidential election looks set to offer American voters a choice of foreign-policy viewpoints on a scale unseen in recent political history, recent experience seems to have dashed any hope that current challenges might have easy answers.
That’s hardly surprising. In the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has plowed colossal human, political and economic effort into trying to keep itself safe, particularly through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither seems to have made things significantly better—indeed, quite the opposite. The wider geopolitical picture continues to look ever more complex, with the European Union deeper in crisis than ever after Britons voted to withdraw in June.
The recent attacks in Orlando and Nice inevitably fueled calls from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to step up military action against Islamic State in the Middle East—even though the attack itself appeared homegrown. At the same time, Washington faces direct challenges from major nation states—particularly Russia and China—on a scale not seen since the Cold War.
Inside the United States, many voters seem to have lost their belief that America’s engagement in the world—military, economic and diplomatic—genuinely serves their interests. To them, globalization has simply meant exporting jobs overseas while importing security problems and competition, particularly through migration.
Republican standard bearer Trump’s ability to tap into that xenophobia looks to have been a key factor of his astonishing success. Even if, as some polls suggest, Clinton, the ultimate foreign-policy insider, ends up winning this election, the isolationism his campaign has tried to tap is unlikely to go away.
At the same time, Trump was quick to demand more action against IS in the aftermath of Orlando. When it comes to dealing with such militants, some 60 percent of Americans—a majority of Republicans and Democrats—said they wanted the Obama administration to “do more.” But, as always, it was far from clear what that might actually mean.
Republicans, for sure, were notably more enthusiastic than Democrats on ramping up airstrikes against IS. The majority of voters from both parties, however, were not keen on ramping up the use of special forces in Iraq or Syria and even less on deploying conventional ground troops. Neither did they like the idea of taking refugees from Syria; more than half said they believed to do so would affect the security of the United States.
Nor are there any simple responses to the rising challenges of Russia and China, both reasserting themselves in the neighborhood.
When it comes to an ascendant China, Americans clearly believe there is also a lot to worry about. Roughly half of all those surveyed by Pew said they were seriously concerned about Beijing’s growing military power, environmental and human rights record, trade deficit with the United States and the potential for cyber attacks. An even greater number—more than 60 percent—was worried about the loss of jobs and the amount of money ($1.2 trillion) Washington now owes the Chinese government.
Like many in the rest of the world, Americans have a largely negative view of Russian leader Vladimir Putin—albeit one that is tempered by a grudging respect verging on fear. Polling this year shows a majority of Americans—56 percent—say they believe the U.S. should back its NATO allies militarily in the event of an attack by Moscow.
As one might expect, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say Washington must back its regional partners by force if necessary—only a minority of Democrats believe in the use of force to protect NATO allies in Europe. This year’s candidates, however, take exactly the opposite positions—Clinton has voiced strong support for NATO while the more isolationist Trump has gone on record saying a poor U.S. command can no longer afford to underwrite European security in the way it has for decades.
It’s a reminder that these differences may increasingly cross party lines. In this election, Democrat Clinton is clearly the more internationalist—as befits a former secretary of state. In future campaigns, however, it’s entirely possible to imagine a leftist, isolationist Democrat in the Bernie Sanders mode facing off against a more hawkish Republican.
Indeed, the situation is already pretty complex. Trump might want relatively indiscriminate military action, even torture, when it comes to fighting militants but he is opposed to large-scale, Iraq-style nation-building. Across the board, Republicans favor heightened military spending but simultaneously want to use it less.
Historically, these tensions have always been there. From the beginning, America’s founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were keen to avoid “foreign entanglements.” The nation came late to both world wars. Only after 1945 did it show any enthusiasm for becoming the “global policeman”—and even then, it has often been a very reluctant role.
If this election so far has shown everything, it is that domestic politics in the United States are as polarized as at any point in living memory. Somehow, America must manage them while dealing with what seems an equally complicated world. Given events so far, it’s not quite clear how well that will work out.
Peter Apps is Reuters’ global affairs columnist