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NPR/Ipsos Poll: Americans Aren't So Hot On 'America First'

President Trump raises his fist as he leaves after speaking at a rally in Kentucky in March.
John Minchillo
President Trump raises his fist as he leaves after speaking at a rally in Kentucky in March.

As President Trump begins his first overseas trip, Americans have widely differing views of his approach to foreign policy. But a majority of both Republicans and Democrats want the U.S. to continue its robust engagement with the rest of the world.

More than half the people surveyed in a new NPR/Ipsos poll said America's foreign policy should focus on maintaining the current global order — with the U.S. at the center. Less than a quarter said the country's foreign policy should look out for Americans, even if it harms people in other countries.

"Overall, Americans believe the U.S. should be and is a force for good in the world," said pollster Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs. But there are partisan differences in how the country should exercise that leadership."

Most Americans (70 percent) believe the U.S. should be the moral leader of the world. But there's a 10-point drop when people are asked if the U.S. is that moral leader. The change is due to Democrats and independents. With Trump as president, Democrats drop off 14 points, independents 17.

"Democrats see the role of the U.S. in the world in more aspirational terms," Young said. "Republicans see it much more in transactional terms."

As a result, Democrats are more likely to say foreign policy should focus on promoting democracy and human rights in other countries, while Republicans tend to prefer policies that focus on enriching America and Americans.

Survey respondents were mixed about the foreign-policy implications of Trump's campaign slogan, "America First." When asked to describe the phrase in their own words, some said it simply means taking "care of business at home before taking care of others," and "putting the welfare and focus on our people."

But others were more hotly critical of the slogan, calling it "short-sighted" or "xenophobic."

While the phrase "America First" was used in the 1940s by isolationists and anti-Semites, Trump's national security adviser says it shouldn't have that connotation today.

"President Trump understands that 'America First' does not mean America alone," H.R. McMaster told reporters last week. "To the contrary, prioritizing American interests means strengthening alliances and partnerships that help us extend our influence and improve the security of the American people."

Majorities in both parties say America should provide humanitarian aid to foreign countries. But large numbers of Republicans and Democrats are wary of intervening in foreign conflicts to bring peace.

"It's the word intervention," Young said. "We want to help countries, but we don't want to be stuck in their conflicts forever."

Republicans in the survey were much more hawkish about using military power, with 69 percent saying the U.S. should not hesitate to do so. Only 40 percent of Democrats felt that way.

"Republicans are much more in favor of using hard power over soft power," Young said.

Americans view the U.S. and China as by far the world's leading economic powers with the U.S. narrowly edging out China.

Despite the president's frequent criticism of international trade deals, the survey found large and bipartisan support for using trade as a tool of American diplomacy. Nearly eight-out-of-10 Democrats and Republicans agreed with that policy. Support was only slightly lower among self-described independents.

Trump's trip includes meetings with both NATO allies and leaders of the other G7 countries.

"I will strengthen old friendships and will seek new partners," the president said. "But partners who also help us — not partners who take and take and take."

Trump has complained that only a handful of NATO countries are making the necessary investments in their own defense, forcing the U.S. to spend more.

In the survey, more than a third of respondents overestimated what the U.S. spends on international institutions like the United Nations. Only 15 percent answered correctly that the U.S. contributes about a fifth of the UN's regular budget.

Many people also mistakenly believed that American defense aid to Israel declined during the Obama administration. In fact, it increased.

Pollster Young was not surprised that many survey respondents were mistaken about such details.

"These are not necessarily bread and butter issues," Young said. "They're not living and breathing it every day."

Survey Methodology

Survey results come from a Ipsos online survey of 1,009 U.S. adults conducted May 15-16. The poll has a credibility interval of +/- 3.5 percentage points for all respondents; +/- 5.9 percentage points for Democrats and Republicans; and +/- 8.4 percentage points for Independents.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.