Obama 2 and Foreign Policy Partisanship: Results of a New Survey of Congressional Staff

29 January 2013, 1101 EST

Last May, Jon Monten, Will Inboden and I published on Foreignaffairs.com the results of a survey of about 40 U.S. foreign policy professionals, split equally among Republicans and Democrats with nearly all of them having served in some capacity in the Executive Branch. As I discussed here on the Duck, we found some surprising sources of strength for bipartisan support for certain aspects of international cooperation, namely for Bretton Woods institutions, NATO, and on international trade.

toeinWe wondered if Executive Branch folks were somehow different from their peers who served in a similar capacity in support of members of Congress. Congress is seen as having more deep-seated partisan attachments, and we among others have documented the trend of increasing partisan purists as the two parties have become less heterogeneous.

In the lead up to the 2012 elections, the three of us, joined by Jordan Tama, carried out another survey of nearly 90 Congressional staff with responsibility for foreign affairs and national security. With the Obama second term in its early days, Foreignaffairs.com has once again published our write-up of the results of that survey (and applied their own provocative title!). What did we find?

First, as before, we found a reservoir of bipartisan support for some aspects of multilateralism, including support for the IMF, NATO, the WTO, and the need to address the challenges of nuclear nonproliferation and international trade through international cooperation. That said, there are still some pretty strong partisan differences over issues like climate change and Israel. Indeed, as before, we find Democrats much more supportive of the importance of legitimacy with Republicans more concerned about protecting U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action (though Democrats share these concerns as well).

For space reasons, there are a number of other items that we just didn’t get a chance to talk about in the Foreign Affairs piece, namely differences between this survey and our previous one as well as interesting intra-party differences (see the link to the following Table for some interesting comparisons both between the parties but also within them).


Bold means statistically significant partisan difference within a survey

Comparing Executive Branch and Congressional staffers. A joint examination of this Congressional staff survey and our previous Executive Branch survey also revealed some interesting comparisons. In terms of demographic characteristics, we not surprisingly found that the average age of Congressional respondents was nearly a decade younger than the average age of Executive Branch respondents – late 30s compared to late 40s.  Most of the respondents in both branches had advanced degrees, while 25% of Congressional respondents had served in the military, compared to only 15% of Executive Branch respondents.

In terms of substance, Executive Branch respondents appeared somewhat more supportive of international institutions than Congressional respondents, but these differences were rather small on most issues. For instance, 55% of Executive Branch respondents and 48% of Congressional respondents had favorable views of the UN, and 75% of executive officials and 81% of Congressional staff thought multilateral cooperation was necessary to address terrorism. But on a few issues, these gaps were much larger. For example, Executive Branch officials had much more positive views of the International Criminal Court, NAFTA, and the WTO than did their Congressional counterparts.

Intra-Party Differences. The two surveys reveal some interesting intra-party differences between the two Branches. Republicans in the Executive Branch had a more favorable view than Congressional Republicans of global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF, and were more likely to support the principle that abiding by unfavorable WTO rulings was in our long-term interest. Executive Branch Republicans also had more favorable views of the U.S. relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan.


Bold means statistically significant partisan difference within a survey, Blue means Dem difference between surveys, Red means Rep difference between surveys, Bold and Red/Blue means both inter-branch partisan differences and intra-party differences

At the same time, both groups of Republicans strongly supported the idea that trade, non-proliferation, and terrorism were important issues that could be addressed multilaterally.

Among Democrats, a significantly greater percentage of Executive Branch officials considered climate change to be a very important issue, but most Democrats in both branches said multilateral cooperation on climate change and every other issue that we asked about was important, and Democrats in Congress and the Executive Branch shared favorable views of most international institutions.

Do these results mean that bipartisanship is possible and a good thing? Just because there is scope for bipartisanship does not mean it will happen. If the opening days of the second Obama administration are any indication, Republicans angling to reclaim the mantle of foreign policy leadership may not be able to resist making a partisan issue of relatively minor issues like the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi. That said, despite all the bluster, even controversial appointees like Chuck Hagel are likely to be confirmed.

Sometimes bipartisanship is discussed as if it is unalloyed good, but we have to recall that bipartisanship, if it means groupthink or bipartisan acquiescence to bad ideas (i.e. the invasion of Iraq), can be deeply problematic.

Should we trust these results? This survey had all of the limitations of a relatively small sample of convenience. Ever since the Chicago Council on Global Affairs discontinued their elite surveys in 2004, it has become increasingly difficult to take stock of the attitudes of elite U.S. foreign policymakers. The Atlantic has run a series of polls about salient foreign policy issues of the day (indeed, the strength of those topical surveys is perhaps our weakness since we didn’t ask about potentially divisive issues like war with Iran). Nonetheless, it is very difficult to use those surveys to get at deeper seated principles and philosophies of our foreign policy elite. Moreover, those surveys don’t lend themselves to deeper analysis.

We carried out these two surveys as a proof of concept that a bigger, more resourced and sustained effort might be extremely useful.  As I hope we have demonstrated, a continuing series that would allow scholars to track changes in elite foreign policy attitudes and compare results with the mass public would fill a huge void. Indeed, perhaps such a vehicle could be used to carry out experimental work. (Note to our friends in the foundation world: we would be more than happy to help design such a survey…)

Where do partisan foreign policy differences come from? While we did not have the space to speculate about the sources of these differences, fellow Duck Brian Rathbun has a new book that suggests a psychological mechanism at work in the sources of American partisan preferences over multilateralism. In brief, Brian argues that liberals tend to be more trusting of international cooperation while conservatives are more inclined to be concerned about cheating in international relations, leading to some pretty strong partisan preferences about multilateralism (I hope to do justice to Brian’s book in a subsequent post).

The Research Road Ahead. Jon and I originally started this line of research because we wanted to test the proposition that bipartisan support for liberal internationalism had irrevocably frayed. We expanded that search along the way to examine the conventional wisdom that Republicans in particular were drifting away from support for multilateral approaches to foreign policy. As these surveys demonstrate, that narrative doesn’t capture the complexity and ambiguity in Republican elite foreign policy thought.

Indeed, and this is something we would like to write more about, I think that an internal battle among Republicans over foreign policy has been an important part of the story with different factions seizing control over the direction of the party’s foreign policy at different points in time. During the George W. Bush administration, the strong, what I call a “liberal nationalist” position or what people think of as “neoconservatives” displaced old-line establishment types from the Scowcroft, Powell, and Kissinger school of thought. The pendulum started to swing back during Bush’s second administration. That said, as the recent discussions about the future of Republican foreign policy show (see hereherehere), that internal struggle over the party’s direction looks like it will continue for some time. We should have something more to say about that.