By Jason Lange
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As Donald Trump strengthens his lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, some U.S. allies are worried about an American turn toward isolationism, a shift that would reflect an electorate largely focused on domestic issues.
That was shown in polling in Iowa where Trump scored an overwhelming victory on Monday, with foreign policy the top issue for just one in 10 participants in the state’s caucus, according to a poll by Edison Research.
That compared to four in 10 who said the economy was No. 1 and three in 10 who pointed to immigration.
National polling provides a similar picture. When Americans have cited matters involving foreigners as the country’s top problem, they most often have referred to immigration and not foreign conflicts, Reuters/Ipsos polling over the last decade shows.
In a December Reuters/Ipsos poll, 6% of respondents nationwide said war and foreign conflicts were the U.S.’s most pressing problem, compared to 11% who cited immigration and 19% who pointed to the economy. Ten percent cited crime.
While domestic concerns have long dominated U.S. politics, isolationism has grown in recent years – particularly within the Republican Party – as Trump and other leaders have criticized U.S. aid to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s 2022 invasion, while Trump has warned America could become ensnarled in a world war.
Foreign diplomats in Washington are scrambling to assess the former president’s foreign plans, with Trump aides saying he would cut defense support to Europe, further shrink economic ties with China and again wield tariffs as a key tool of his foreign policy.
They have also expressed worry at congressional Republicans’ opposition to Democratic President Joe Biden’s request for more funds for Ukraine, for Israel in its conflict with Hamas and for Taiwan as it faces a more assertive China. The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in November passed an Israel aid package that would offset that spending with cuts to the federal tax-collection agency, an idea the Democratic-majority Senate has rebuffed.
“Trump has been instrumental in raising questions about our alliances and our involvement in the world that were pretty much taken for granted,” said Dina Smeltz, a public opinion expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
A Chicago Council poll in September found that 53% of Republicans thought the U.S. should “stay out of world affairs,” the first time a majority of either party backed such an isolationist stance in the council’s polls going back to 1974.
If elected to a second term following his 2017-2021 presidency, Trump is expected to install loyalists in key positions in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA whose primary allegiance would be to him, allowing him more freedom to enact isolationist policies.
Thierry Breton, a French commissioner who is responsible for the European Union’s internal market, said earlier this month that in 2020 then-president Trump told top European officials the United States would never help Europe if it came under attack, and that Washington would withdraw from its NATO military alliance with European countries and Canada.
It is not just Republican lawmakers who are skeptical about aid for allies. Republican respondents to a January Reuters/Ipsos poll showed a similar view with one in three backing sending weapons to Ukraine, and just one in five when respondents were asked whether they support providing Ukraine with both weapons and money.
Nearly half of Republicans supported sending weapons to Israel. The level of support was slightly lower for both money and weapons.
Some of those closest to the United States have also expressed concerns about the prospect of another Trump presidency, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying on Tuesday: “It wasn’t easy the first time and if there is a second time, it won’t be easy either.”
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)