, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So many big takeaways from a new poll on U.S. and global attitudes toward China and U.S. China policy (both the economic and national security dimensions), I hardly know where to begin! But if I could only write a lede paragraph for a single news article (or blog item), here’s what I’d say: The American public is a great deal more sensible on how to deal with the People’s Republic than so-called “thought leaders.” And what I mean by “more sensible” is more “America First-y” and less globalist.

The survey was conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank not only squarely in the globalist camp, but a charter member of the globalist, bipartisan U.S. foreign policy “Blob” (which includes a sizable trade and economic sub-Blob) that exerted dominant influence over America’s course in world affairs until Donald Trump came along, and whose supposed expertise still mesmerizes the Mainstream Media.

Of special interest, CSIS sampled opinion from everyday Americans, those so-called thought leaders (whose follower-ship, as implied above, is greatly diminished), and thought leaders from countries that are U.S. allies or “partners.”

The gap between public and elites on China policy views seems widest on the economic and trade issues that President Trump has made so central to his approach towards the People’s Republic, and the CSIS survey contains decidedly good news for him and his fans in this area: The general public is much more supportive of the “go-it-alone,” unilateral sanctions and tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump to combat and/or eliminate Chinese transgressions in this area than the Blob-ers.

Although a multilateral approach (using “international agreements and rules to change China” economically) won plurality backing among the general public (34.8 percent), fully 69 percent of the U.S. thought leaders favored this route. Yet nearly a third of the U.S. public (32.8 percent) endorsed employing “U.S. government tools like sanctions and tariffs”, versus only three percent of the deep thinkers.

As I’ve written repeatedly, (e.g., here and here) a multilateral China trade strategy is bound to fail because international institutions (like the World Trade Organization) are too completely filled by countries that either rely heavily on China-style predation to compete in the global economy, and because even (or especially?) longstanding U.S. treaty allies had been doing business so profitably with the People’s Republic that the last development they wanted to see was a disruption of the pre-Trump status quo. So support for multilateralism in this case can legitimately be taken as support for do-nothing-ism – especially since the vast majority of these elites so enthusiastically pushed for the reckless U.S. expansion of commerce with China that’s lined many of their pockets, but that’s undermined American prosperity and national security.

The CSIS poll, moreover, provides some indirect evidence for this argument: Nearly as high a share of the foreign thought leaders backed a multilateral approach for dealing with China economically (65 percent) as their U.S. counterparts. And their support of U.S.-only approaches (seven percent) was only slightly higher than that of the U.S. thought leaders’ three percent. (The foreign thought leaders may be slightly more gung ho for America going it alone due to confidence that their own products will fill any gaps in the China market left by U.S. producers shut out by the trade wars. On a net basis, though, their countries are coming out losers this year.)

At the same time, one surprising (at least to me) economics-related finding emerged from the survey: Whether we’re talking about the American people generally, or thought leaders at home or abroad, just under 20 percent favor substantial decoupling from China as the best economic approach for the United States.

When it comes to messaging, however, the survey isn’t such great news for Mr. Trump – and Trumpers – on China trade issues. On the one hand, answers to the question on evaluating his performance in this area can – although with a stretch – be interpreted to show majority support for the view that his record has achieved noteworthy gains. Principally, 27.8 percent of U.S. public respondents agreed that the President’s China measures have “been effective in producing some tactical changes in Chinese economic policy” and 9.9 percent believe they have “been effective in forcing long-term changes.” Those groups add up to 37.7 percent of the sample.

Another 20.5 percent checked the box stating that Trump policies have “hurt U.S. consumers and exporters but protected important U.S. industries.” A case can be made that at least some members of this group would give these policies good grades, or that many would give them partly good grades, possibly bringing the total for positive views somewhere in the mid-40 percent neighborhood.

Much more certain, however, is that the most popular single answer (with 41.8 percent support) was that the trade war “has damaged U.S. economic interests without achieving positive change in China.”

Also signaling a Trump China messaging problem – as with much other commentary, the CSIS survey mostly measures China policy success as changing Chinese behavior. In my view, that goal is much less important – because it’s much less realistic, at least in terms of producing verifiable reform – than protecting U.S.-based producers from China’s economic predation. The relative resilience shown by domestic industry both throughout the trade war and into the CCP Virus-induced recession indicate that this goal is being achieved. But neither the President nor his economic nor his campaign team mentions it much, if at all.

CSIS’ polling also found that fully 71 percent of U.S. thought leaders gave Trump’s China economic policies the big thumbs down – and although they don’t vote, their aforementioned influence in the Mainstream Media could partly explain why broader American opinion on the Trump record seems so divided. (For the record, foreign thought leaders weren’t asked to rate the Trump strategy.)

But having established that everyday Americans have a good deal to teach the experts on China trade and economic policy, how do the two compare on China-related national security policies? As indicated above, the gap here isn’t nearly so wide, but worth exploring in some detail – as I’ll do in a forthcoming post!