All U.S. administrations aim to conceive foreign policies that protect and enhance Americans’ safety, prosperity, and way of life. However, views now diverge considerably within and across political party lines about whether the U.S. role abroad is adequately advancing the economic well-being of the middle class at home. Today, even as the U.S. economy is growing and unemployment rates are falling, many households still struggle to sustain a middle-class standard of living. Meanwhile, America’s top earners accrue an increasing share of the nation’s income and wealth, and China and other economic competitors overseas reap increasing benefits from a global economy that U.S. security and leadership help underwrite.
Policymakers need to explore ways to make U.S. foreign policy work better for America’s middle class, even if their economic fortunes depend largely on domestic factors and policies. However, before policymakers propose big foreign policy changes, they should first test their assumptions about who the middle class is, what economic problems they face, and how different aspects of U.S. foreign policy can cause or solve them. They need to examine how much issues like trade matter to these households’ economic fortunes relative to other foreign and domestic policies. They should acknowledge the trade-offs arising from policy changes that benefit some communities at the expense of others. And they should reach beyond the foreign policy establishment to hear from those in the nation’s heartland who have critical perspectives to offer, especially state and local officials, economic developers, small business owners, local labor representatives, community leaders, and working families.
Ahmed, Salman, et al., U.S. Foreign Policy for the Middle Class: Perspectives from Ohio. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December.