February 10, 2020 | By Eliza Posner

Republicans, Democrats Growing Apart on Foreign Policy Approaches

When it comes to achieving US foreign policy goals, Americans embrace a wide variety of policy prescriptions. Of the eight approaches to achieving US foreign policy goals the Council asked about in our January poll, a majority of Americans rated all eight as either very or somewhat effective. However, while there is broad cross-partisan agreement on the net efficacy of many approaches, a closer look at the percentage of partisans who say these approaches are very effective reveals large and increasing polarization.

A large majority of Americans (87%) say that maintaining US military superiority is a very or somewhat effective approach to achieving US foreign policy goals. There is cross-partisan agreement on this topic—majorities of Republicans (99%), Democrats (81%) and Independents (85%) rate maintaining military superiority as effective. There has also been little historical variation on this point—in 2012, 80 percent of Americans (including 89% of Republicans and 88% of Democrats) said the approach was effective.

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However, this overall stability masks a notable shift among Republicans. In 2012, 50 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats said that maintaining US military superiority was a very effective means of achieving US foreign policy goals. In January 2020, 80 percent of Republicans said the approach was very effective, an increase of thirty percentage points in eight years.

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The same is true of drone strikes, an issue highlighted by the recent killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. While majorities of both parties say drone strikes against suspected terrorists in other countries is effective (93% of Republicans, 60% of Democrats), only 17 percent of Democrats say the approach is very effective, compared to 63 percent of Republicans. In 2015, the parties were much less polarized—large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats (73% and 76% respectively) said the approach was net effective and there was only 1 percentage point difference between the percent of Republicans and Democrats who rated the approach as very effective (26% and 25% respectively).

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This increasing polarization on foreign policy approaches has been primarily driven by changes in Republicans’ opinions since 2016. In January 2020, 80 percent of Republicans said maintaining US military superiority was very effective, a 19-percentage point increase from 2016. In contrast, the percent of Democrats who said this approach was very effective decreased 3 points in the same timeframe. Similarly, the percent of Republicans who rated placing sanctions on other countries as very effective increased by 20 points since 2016, while the percent of Democrats who said the approach was very effective decreased by 1 point. Given that President Trump has stressed the importance of both approaches, the increased polarization on the question of their efficacy could reflect growing partisan polarization in the country overall.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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