The Great Convergence of American Foreign Policy Beliefs

Yesterday the Pew Research Center and Council on Foreign Relations released their America's Place in the World survey of mass public and elite  attitudes about American foreign policy.  The headlines and the press coverage are unsurprising for anyone who's paid attention to this sort of thing over the past five years or so.  Most Americans think the U.S. is less powerful than it was a decade ago; that China is now more powerful than the United States; that the U.S. should "mind it's own business internationally," and so forth.  About the only thing that counts as a surprise is the resilient enthusiasm for economic globalization in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  The CFR analysis points out that these findings do not equal a newfound enthusiasm for isolationism, which is true as far as it goes, but you'd expect the CFR analysts to push this line. 

What I think is interesting, however, is the growing convergence between mass attitudes and elite attitudes about American foreign policy.  A recurring theme among those who study public opinion has been that there's a foreign policy disconnect between Washington elites and the rest of the country -- the former is far more enthusiastic about liberal internationalism than the latter

Comparing the responses of CFR members to the broader survey, however, this disconnect seems... narrower than it used to be.  Consider these snippets from Pew

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations, like the general public, believe that the U.S. global power has declined; 62% say the United States plays a less powerful and important role than it did a decade ago....

Nearly three years after start of the Arab Spring, most members of the Council on Foreign Relations prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say stable governments are more important, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 32% say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.

In this regard, the opinions of CFR members are similar to those of the public: 63% of the public views stable governments as more important in the Middle East, while just 28% say democratic governments are more important.

So is there total convergence?  Not exactly: 

In essence, CFR members are much less concerned with the perceived negative externalities of economic globalization and more concerned about climate change as a policy problem.  That said, there's a pretty robust correlation of other priorities.  Counterterrorism and counter-proliferation remain top priorities, the promotion of human rights and democracy does not [I'll note with bemusement that the American public is much more enthusiastic about strengthening the United Nations and move on.]

What's driving this convergence of views?  I'd suggest that the hangover of Iraq, the curdling of the Arab Spring, the Great Recession, and the evaporation of the neoconservative wing of the GOP foreign policy apparatus all have something to do with it (see here for more).  Furthermore, in policy terms the convergence has been even more concentrated:  President's Obama's policies towards Syria and Iran mirror public attitudes much more closely than elite attitudes. 

It is possible that some of these trends might get reversed over time. A resurgent economy could cause CFR members to get friskier about projecting power overseas.  A hawkish GOP nominee could cause a partisan shift -- though as of now I'd put money on the 2016 GOP presidential nominee having less hawkish views than either John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Still, analysts who used to complain about a divergence between the American public and the foreign policy community over foreign affairs need to stop complaining -- because the trend is now one of convergence. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

The End of Multilateral Trade?

The World Trade Organization is set to meet in Bali starting today in the latest last-ditch effort to salvage something from the Doha round, which means there's a round of news stories about the significance of the meetings.  The Wall Street Journal's Ben Otto files the exemplar of this kind of story, which is worth mulling over a bit: 

The World Trade Organization this week makes what could be a final effort to keep long-sputtering trade talks alive amid mounting signs that many of its 159 members have given up on a global agreement.

After 12 years of missed deadlines—and the failure last week to agree on even a scaled-back package of measures ahead of the four-day meeting in Bali—the negotiations appear all but dead, barring a last-minute breakthrough.

Countries including the U.S. have turned instead in recent years to smaller bilateral and regional trade deals, bypassing the WTO. Just Monday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called for a free trade deal between the European Union and China.

The WTO as a negotiating forum for trade liberalization has "become irrelevant," said Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a professor at IMD, a Switzerland-based business school.

Even the WTO's other main function—as an arbiter of trade disputes between members—could be at risk if trade talks break down in acrimony, Mr. Lehmann cautioned. Over the long term, the dispute-resolution mechanism risks losing legitimacy, which could result in more trade wars.

"Dispute settlement only works if there is consensus," he said. "The WTO has no army."....

The growing economic weight of developing nations like China, Brazil and India has added to the cacophony of voices, agendas and friction. Four ministerial conferences failed to make much progress, including in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, Hong Kong in 2005, and Geneva in 2009 and 2011.

Some observers say the WTO has become less important as the nature of global trade has changed.

Scott Miller, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out that half of global trade is in components, meaning products are rarely made in one country.

Countries in those supply chains are increasingly carving out regional trade agreements. "My view is that Doha has been dead since 2008," Mr. Miller said (emphasis added).

This kind of story is both overly optimistic and overly pessimistic about the state of the WTO.  It's overly optimistic in assuming that, even if something is negotiated in Bali (and the odds aren't great of that happening), it's unlikely that the WTO will ever be the focal point for comprehensive trade talks ever again. Even getting agreement on the "easy" parts of Doha has been super-hard. There's very little upside to making the WTO the focal point of new talks, especially given that most of the regional and bilateral trade talks have been of the "open regionalism" variety. 

On the other hand, the "slippery slope" argument of the WTO losing relevance is also way overplayed.  Such a statement omits two very important facts.  First, even if there's no further WTO-guided liberalization, the rounds negotiated to date constitute far more liberalization than what can be achieved in the future.  In other words, the WTO rules still govern a lot of trade, and further liberalization won't erode the WTO's bailiwick that much. 

Second, the WTO's Dispute Settlement Understanding remains the ne plus ultra of enforcement arrangements in global governance.  Contrary to the WSJ story, there is zero evidence that WTO enforcement has weakened as Doha bogged down or as protectionism increased after 2008.  That part of the trade system is still working pretty well. 

For decades, trade commentary has implicitly embraced the "bicycle theory" - the belief that unless multilateral trade liberalization moves ahead, the entire global trade regime will collapse because of a lack of forward momentum.  The last decade -- and particularly the post-2008 period -- suggests that there are limits to that rule of thumb.  It is possible for the WTO to matter less on jump-starting multilateral trade negotiations while still mattering a great deal in enforcing the rules of the game. 

So Bali might represent the end of multilateral trade negotiations -- but it's not the end of multilateral trade.