3 Things Americans Think about U.S. Foreign Policy
Despite sharp partisan divisions on some key issues, most Americans see a direct connection between their daily lives and what’s happening in the world.
A new poll I was involved with offers some fresh insights on American voters’ views on a range of issues in the early stages of the Biden administration. This builds on work done before the pandemic that explored voter attitudes on a range of foreign policy issues conducted in two parts (part 1 and part 2) before the pandemic.
Here are three key findings on foreign policy:
1. Most voters want to see their leaders link domestic policy and foreign policy.
Two-thirds of Americans want to hear more about how our country is working to make the connection between what we do at home and in the world.
As a practical matter, there is little popular support for isolationism or retrenchment because most Americans see a direct link between their daily lives and jobs and what’s going on in the world. That makes sense given the past year of the pandemic.
This finding presents an opening for leaders to make clearer arguments for investments at home needed to compete in the world, and how U.S. engagement in the world can benefit ALL Americans, not just people of certain socioeconomic classes or particular groups.
2. Partisan divisions are sharpest on immigration and climate change.
Consistent with Pew polling earlier this year, this latest study finds some sharp partisan divides on the top foreign policy priorities. Democratic voters name combating global climate change as their top foreign policy priority, and Republicans say reducing illegal immigration is their top foreign policy priority.
Some other findings along the edges of the partisan splits of overall foreign policy priorities:
Democrats show more concern about Russian interference in U.S. government and politics than Republican voters do.
Republican voters place taking on China and terrorism as higher priorities than their Democratic counterparts.
Speaking of terrorism, it has dropped significantly as a top foreign policy concern compared to 2019, when “protecting against terrorist threats from groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda” was the single most important priority. Now it ranks sixth.
Protecting jobs for American workers is the one point of general consensus across parties when it comes to foreign policy priorities.
3. Most American voters don’t put a high priority on many of the issues getting a lot of attention from think tanks and the media.
Trade, fighting global poverty, and promoting human rights get a lot of attention in expert policy circles, but these issues rank lower for most voters in relation to other top priorities.
Interestingly, dealing with nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea comes in as a fairly lower priority relative to other issues, even though entire competing elite echo chambers have existed for years on the Iran nuclear issue and experts have sounded the alarm on North Korea’s nuclear threat for a long time. (Keep this in mind the next time you see one of those epic fights break out on social media between Iran or non-proliferation experts: they are mostly talking to themselves in a corner, disconnected from what most Americans are focused on, at least for the moment.)
“Promoting democratic rights and freedoms abroad” comes in dead last in the rank order of foreign policy priorities, representing a potential communications challenge to political leaders seeking to make democracy abroad a leading part of the frame for U.S. engagement in the world.
This doesn’t mean that these issues are unimportant in the real world. It just means that there is evidence that some of these themes lack broader resonance with American voters.