Survey Shows Partisan Leaders and Public United on Foreign Policy Goals, Divided on Issues such as Iran, Climate Change, Multilateralism

June 2, 2015
Across party lines the U.S. public and U.S. 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 U.S. troops abroad and U.S. participation in some international treaties may present significant challenges to addressing today’s foreign policy concerns.
“While many surveys are done of American public opinion, it is critical also to know how foreign policy opinion leaders — both Republican and Democrat — approach key challenges,” said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “With Congress stymied on so many issues, from Iran to immigration, knowing where there is convergence may be helpful to figuring out how we can move forward as a nation.”
In “United in Goals, Divided on Means,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs analyses its survey of nearly 700 opinion leaders — including those in Congress and executive branch agencies; leaders of NGOs; academics; and leaders of labor unions, religious organizations and multinational corporations, among others. 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 U.S. international engagement and U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. troops for potential peacekeeping in Syria or Israel-Palestine, and are more concerned about climate change than are Republicans. Democratic leaders oppose the 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 U.S. military force, though Independent leaders are closer to Republicans in prioritizing U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a “very important goal.” But these are among the leading priorities for the U.S. 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.
“It is not surprising that partisan leaders would hold stronger views than the U.S. public on some issues,” said Dina Smeltz, senior fellow for public opinion at The Chicago Council and a designer of the survey. “The policy issues that polarize us today — Iran, climate change, the role of the U.N. — will be very difficult to resolve given entrenched partisan mindsets. Yet it’s also clear there are many examples of agreement, which will be noteworthy to watch as we enter the 2016 political season.”
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.