United in Goals, Divided on Means: Opinion Leaders Chicago Council Survey Results 2014

June 2, 2015

By: Dina Smeltz, Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy; Craig Kafura, Research Associate; Joshua Busby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas Austin; Gregory Holyk, Research Analyst, Langer Research; Jonathan Monten, Lecturer in Political Science, University College London; And other participants

Partisan disputes among US policymakers seem to be growing by the week, whether on negotiations with Iran, immigration reform, or climate change. To what extent are these divisions unique to foreign policy leaders? How much do they also reflect polarization among the American public?

To examine these questions, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs revived its tradition of conducting tandem surveys of the US public and foreign policy opinion leaders in its May-July 2014 survey. Across party lines, the results reveal that the US public and leaders largely agree on the general direction of US foreign policy. But entrenched partisan mindsets and polarization present significant challenges to addressing today’s major foreign policy issues. The results underscore several common foreign policy goals across party lines that are bound to get lost once the divisive 2016 campaign begins. Policymakers should set a higher bar and advance shared priorities while working to bridge their differences.
  • 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.
  • Leaders and the public both endorse continued US international engagement and support the US military presence abroad.
  • Both groups see preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, combating international terrorism, and securing adequate supplies of energy as top foreign policy priorities.
  • Majorities favor drone strikes, assassination of individual terrorist leaders, and air strikes against terrorist training camps and facilities.
  • Majorities among the public and leaders say that globalization is mostly good and favor free trade.
     
This consensus may be surprising given current headlines. But the survey results also underscore clear partisan differences among leaders and the public on how to achieve foreign policy goals.
  • Republican leaders and Republicans among the public emphasize US military superiority and strength as key elements of foreign policy. For example, majorities of Republicans among both groups consider US military superiority to be a very important goal compared to fewer than half of Democrats.
    • Republicans alone favor the use of ground troops to attack terrorist training camps and support maintaining long-term military bases in Guantanamo Bay.
    • Majorities of both Republican leaders and the Republican public support military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
  • Democrats, by contrast, are more supportive of multilateral approaches.
    • Majorities of Democrats, compared to minorities of Republicans, favor working through the United Nations and using US troops for hypothetical peacekeeping enforcement in Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians.
    • While Democratic leaders oppose the use of force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the Democratic public supports the use of force in this case.
    • Democrats are also more concerned than others about climate change.
  • Independents, like Democrats, generally prefer to avoid the use of military force in most situations.
    • As with Democratic leaders, climate change is also one of the leading goals among Independent leaders.
    • Independent leaders are closer to Republicans in prioritizing US military superiority, while the Independent public is closer to Democrats.
    • On multilateral approaches, Independents fall in between the views of Democrats and Republicans.
 

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