Across party lines the US public and US opinion leaders largely agree on the general direction of American foreign policy, says a new report from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, though there are large partisan disagreements on several key issues. These significant differences of opinion on Iran, the use of US troops abroad and US participation in some international treaties may present significant challenges to addressing today’s foreign policy concerns.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveyed nearly 700 opinion leaders — including those in Congress and executive branch agencies; think tank fellows; leaders of NGOs; academics; and leaders of labor unions, religious organizations. and multinational corporations. This sampling was then compared to a broader survey of Americans. While disagreements among leaders often are wider than among the public, the findings show opinion leaders and the American public agree on many issues of foreign policy. Both the public and leaders emphasize the importance of American leadership abroad, see common goals and threats and support globalization and free trade.
The survey shows agreement in the following areas:
- Whether they describe themselves as Democrats, Republicans or Independents, foreign policy leaders and the public generally agree on the most critical foreign policy threats, including cyberattacks, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
- Both groups also see preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, combatting international terrorism and securing adequate supplies of energy as top foreign policy priorities.
- Leaders and the public both endorse continued US international engagement and US military presence abroad.
Republicans, Democrats and Independents diverge in a few key areas, namely whether the best approach to address foreign policy issues is through the projection of military strength or multilateralism:
- Republican leaders and Republicans among the public emphasize US military superiority and favor use of ground troops to attack terrorist training camps, support maintaining long-term military bases in Guantanamo Bay and support military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
- Democratic leaders and public are more supportive of multilateral approaches, including working through the United Nations and using US troops for potential peacekeeping in Syria or Israel-Palestine, and are more concerned about climate change than are Republicans. Democratic leaders oppose use of force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while Democratic members of the public support the use of force for this purpose.
- Independents generally prefer to avoid the use of US military force, though Independent leaders are closer to Republicans in prioritizing US military superiority while the Independent public is closer to the Democrats.
Aside from partisan differences, The Chicago Council data reveals a few cases where opinion leaders’ views do not align with public concerns. In general, more foreign policy leaders express support for US international involvement than the public. In addition:
- Among leaders, no more than 4 in 10 consider protecting American jobs a “very important” foreign policy goal, and at most half of leaders say that reducing US dependence on foreign oil is a “very important goal.” But these are among the leading priorities for the US public, with between 7 and 8 out of 10 Americans emphasizing these concerns.
- Leaders, regardless of party, do not consider reducing illegal immigration a “very important” foreign policy goal, in contrast to a majority of the Republican public who do.
- In many cases the partisan gaps are wider among policy leaders than among the public, including on issues concerning Iran, climate change, military bases and international treaties.
The 2014 Chicago Council Survey was made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation and the personal support of Lester Crown and the Crown family.
The full dataset for the public survey is currently available, and the opinion leaders survey dataset will be available shortly.