Mind the Gap: The Foreign Policy Disconnect between Washington and America

During the Cold War, Washington’s foreign policy establishment operated comfortable in the knowledge that sizeable majorities supported vigorous American global leadership in the struggle with the Soviet Union. More recently, however, many observers have started worrying about the growing disconnect between the Washington’s elites and the public. The scholar Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece that the most important question in world politics today is “Will U.S. public opinion continue to support an active and strategically focused foreign policy? 

The answer is a qualified yes. Americans on balance remain committed to international engagement but advocates of the status quo are right to worry because Americans increasingly disagree with Washington about how to engage the world.

Americans are not isolationists. As the 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed, 70% of Americans want the United States to take an “active part” in world affairs. But the more important question is what does an “active part” really mean? A recent study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, for example, found that 47% of elites subscribe to the “indispensable nation” vision for foreign policy, which calls on the United States to maintain overwhelming military superiority and continue intensive efforts to manage world order, while just 9% supported a more restrained vision of foreign policy. The same study, however, found public preferences to be the reverse of elites: 44% supported a more restrained approach to foreign policy and just 10% supported the indispensable nation approach.

Looking deeper, despite all the nostalgia for the Cold War consensus, there have always been important differences between the public and elites when it comes to foreign affairs. Academic analysis of decades of survey data has identified a stable set of attitude gaps between the public and their leaders. Moreover, while many of the gaps are quite large – often in the range of 30 percentage points or more – the gaps between Republican and Democratic leaders on the key issues are quite small – typically just a few percentage points.

Elites are far more likely to view globalization and international trade positively, for example, while the public is are more likely to express support for focusing on domestic affairs over foreign affairs. A 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs study found that 90% of Republican leaders and 94% of Democratic leaders believe globalization and trade are “mostly good” for the United States, while the figures hover around 60% for the public.

The same study shows that the public, on the other hand, is more sensitive than elites to perceived threats to the economy and to the homeland. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans and 74% of Democrats think protecting American jobs should be a “very important” foreign policy goal, compared to just 25% of Republican leaders and 37% of Democratic leaders. Meanwhile 27% of Democrats, 40% of Independents, and 67% of Republicans view “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the U.S.” as a critical threat in the next 10 years, compared to just 5% of Democratic leaders and 19% of Republican leaders.

Finally, though it depends on the scenario, the public has always been more hesitant about the use of military force abroad than elites. In the Eurasia Group Foundation study, for example, 95% of foreign policy experts would support using military force if Russia invaded Estonia, a NATO ally, compared to just 54.2% of the public. The 2017 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey similarly found that 64% of Democratic leaders and 71% of Republican leaders think that defending allies’ security should be a very important foreign policy goal for the United States compared to 36% of Republicans and 37% of Democrats generally.

But despite the size and stability of the gaps between elites and the public, Washington has not budged. Defenders of the status quo tend to view the public as too inattentive and too ignorant to form meaningful opinions about foreign policy. From this view, public support might be important from a political perspective, but the content of people’s actual opinions is not. The task for Washington today, according to this camp, is to reframe existing foreign policy in a manner that shores up public support for the elite consensus.

This obstinance might be defensible were the United States not a democracy or if the American track record on foreign policy were more glorious. As it happens, the track record of American foreign policy is far from glorious and recent surveys thus reveal entirely sensible reactions to our failures. Instead of wringing its collective hands about the fragility of public support, Washington needs to wake up and start taking public opinion seriously. No one will confuse the average American with a foreign policy expert, but given America’s history and current situation, public preferences are stable, clear, and prudent. The American public wants a less ambitious and less aggressive foreign policy than the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War, and especially over the past 18 years. The task for Washington today is to embrace these attitudes and create a new foreign policy worthy of public support.