Daniel W. Drezner

The Great Convergence of American Foreign Policy Beliefs

The Great Convergence of American Foreign Policy Beliefs

Yesterday the Pew Research Center and Council on Foreign Relations released their America’s Place in the World survey of mass public and elite  attitudes about American foreign policy.  The headlines and the press coverage are unsurprising for anyone who’s paid attention to this sort of thing over the past five years or so.  Most Americans think the U.S. is less powerful than it was a decade ago; that China is now more powerful than the United States; that the U.S. should “mind it’s own business internationally,” and so forth.  About the only thing that counts as a surprise is the resilient enthusiasm for economic globalization in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  The CFR analysis points out that these findings do not equal a newfound enthusiasm for isolationism, which is true as far as it goes, but you’d expect the CFR analysts to push this line. 

What I think is interesting, however, is the growing convergence between mass attitudes and elite attitudes about American foreign policy.  A recurring theme among those who study public opinion has been that there’s a foreign policy disconnect between Washington elites and the rest of the country — the former is far more enthusiastic about liberal internationalism than the latter

Comparing the responses of CFR members to the broader survey, however, this disconnect seems… narrower than it used to be.  Consider these snippets from Pew

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations, like the general public, believe that the U.S. global power has declined; 62% say the United States plays a less powerful and important role than it did a decade ago….

Nearly three years after start of the Arab Spring, most members of the Council on Foreign Relations prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say stable governments are more important, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 32% say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.

In this regard, the opinions of CFR members are similar to those of the public: 63% of the public views stable governments as more important in the Middle East, while just 28% say democratic governments are more important.

So is there total convergence?  Not exactly: 

In essence, CFR members are much less concerned with the perceived negative externalities of economic globalization and more concerned about climate change as a policy problem.  That said, there’s a pretty robust correlation of other priorities.  Counterterrorism and counter-proliferation remain top priorities, the promotion of human rights and democracy does not [I’ll note with bemusement that the American public is much more enthusiastic about strengthening the United Nations and move on.]

What’s driving this convergence of views?  I’d suggest that the hangover of Iraq, the curdling of the Arab Spring, the Great Recession, and the evaporation of the neoconservative wing of the GOP foreign policy apparatus all have something to do with it (see here for more).  Furthermore, in policy terms the convergence has been even more concentrated:  President’s Obama’s policies towards Syria and Iran mirror public attitudes much more closely than elite attitudes. 

It is possible that some of these trends might get reversed over time. A resurgent economy could cause CFR members to get friskier about projecting power overseas.  A hawkish GOP nominee could cause a partisan shift — though as of now I’d put money on the 2016 GOP presidential nominee having less hawkish views than either John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Still, analysts who used to complain about a divergence between the American public and the foreign policy community over foreign affairs need to stop complaining — because the trend is now one of convergence. 

Am I missing anything?