The Politics of American Foreign Policy
How Ideology Divides Liberals and Conservatives over Foreign Affairs
Peter Hays Gries


Introduction: Ideology and American Foreign Policy

“Vietnam . . . cleaves us still. But . . . a new breeze is blowing, and the old bipartisanship must be made new again.” 1

—Republican President George H.W. Bush, 1989

“I do hope that the new Congress respects the time-honored tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge.” 2

—Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2010

Foreign policy has been a partisan issue ever since the United States of America won its independence. In his “Farewell Address,” President George Washington counseled a foreign economic policy of free trade but a diplomatic policy of nonintervention: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”3 Against Washington and the Hamiltonian Federalists, Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans cautioned against even economic internationalism. Instead, they advocated greater isolationism in jealous defense of America’s hard won and fragile democracy at home.

And yet it was under the Republicans that the United States first fought against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli (1801–5) under Jefferson, and then declared war against Britain in 1812 under James Madison. After four days of heated debate, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 and the Senate 19 to 13 in favor of war, the first and closest vote to formally declare war in U.S. history. All thirty-nine of the Federalists in Congress voted against war.

Nearly a century later, American foreign policy was at the heart of the 1900 presidential contest between Republican president William McKinley and his Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan. The United States had won Cuba from Spain during the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) was underway. McKinley and his vice presidential running mate, Theodore Roosevelt, a war hero, claimed that the United States had liberated Cuba from Spanish tyranny. Bryan countered that American rule over Cuba and the Philippines was no less cruel and imperialist than Spanish rule had been.

The debate over the U.S. annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii played out in the popular press as well. “We do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem,” Mark Twain argued in the New York Herald. “And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”4 Twain later became vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League.

FIG. 0.1. Democrat William Jennings Bryan and the Anti-Imperialist League lament Republican president William McKinley’s expansionist foreign policy, 1899.

Source: Clifford Berryman, Washington Post, September 14, 1899. Image courtesy of the National Archives. ARC 6010331.

The debate over imperialism is captured visually in an editorial cartoon from an 1899 edition of the Washington Post (Figure 0.1). Clifford Berryman depicts President McKinley as a rotund Uncle Sam, contentedly smoking a cigar after having completed a three-course meal. An “Expansionist Menu” discarded on the floor describes the feast as one of “Hawaiian Soup,” “Porto Rican Rum,” and “Philippine Pudding.” Bryan and a group of “anti-expansionists” watch from the door in dismay.

But McKinley had his popular supporters as well. Figure 0.2, from a 1900 issue of Judge magazine, depicts President McKinley in a patriotic light, raising the U.S. flag over the Philippines. “Old Glory” is already flying over Cuba and Puerto Rico in the background. A treasonous Bryan, meanwhile, seeks to chop the flagpole down. Uncle Sam, back on American soil, convinces an American voter to support McKinley over Bryan in the 1900 presidential election: McKinley, Victor Gillam writes, will uphold American “dignity,” while Bryan will “make us the laughing-stock of the world.” McKinley won reelection in a landslide.

FIG. 0.2. Uncle Sam convinces an American voter to support a patriotic McKinley against a treasonous Bryan, 1900.

Source: F. Victor Gillam, Judge, May 12, 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. LC-USZC4-5392.

Pearl Harbor, in the words of Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, “ended isolationism,” and the first two decades of the Cold War are often remembered for having a bipartisan foreign policy. What bipartisanship there was, however, largely dissipated with the Vietnam War.5 The 1972 presidential campaign witnessed liberals decrying Vietnam as “Nixon’s War,” while conservatives lambasted the Democratic challenger, George McGovern, as soft on defense and communism.6 During the Watergate scandal the next year, a majority Democratic Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, overriding President Nixon’s veto. The resolution required congressional approval of American military involvements overseas.

Over a quarter century later, during a January 2012 Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina, the conservative audience became animated during an exchange between Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul over foreign policy. After Paul decried American militarism, Gingrich declared, “Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.” The audience exploded in cheers. Ron Paul responded on a more sober note: “Maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want to have them do to us.” The audience interrupted Paul with boos and jeers. But he was later applauded when he decried “warmongering” against Iran: “This country doesn’t need another war. We need to quit the ones we’re in. We need to save the money and bring our troops home.”7

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was seeing her 2010 hopes for a bipartisan foreign policy, cited in the epigraph, dashed. Politics was not left at water’s edge during her May 2012 push for the U.S. Senate to finally ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which she argued was necessary to protect U.S. security and advance American economic interests. She lamented that “I am well aware that this treaty does have determined . . . vociferous . . . opposition based in ideology and mythology, not in facts, evidence, or the consequences of our continuing failure to accede to the treaty.”8 Indeed, Republican senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, in a letter cosigned by twenty-six of his Senate Republican colleagues, wrote to Democratic majority leader Harry Reid that “We are particularly concerned that United States sovereignty could be subjugated in many areas to a supranational government.”9 Despite the support of Big Oil and many business and security conservatives, thirty-four Republican senators successfully blocked UNCLOS ratification.


What best explains this persistent pattern of partisan discord over American foreign policy?

Foreign policy partisanship may sometimes be the product of clashing material interests, with American political parties representing distinct interest groups. For instance, the highly partisan debate over the War of 1812 was driven in part by opposing regional economic interests. Based in a New England whose economy was more dependent upon international trade, Federalists opposed a war against Britain; Republican “War Hawks,” for their part, may have viewed war as an opportunity to annex Canadian territory from Britain. Similarly, as the Democratic Party came to represent Big Labor, and the Republican Party, Big Business, these opposed economic interests were later reflected in partisan disagreements over foreign policy issues like international trade.

Another explanation focuses on pure partisanship itself: politicians want their team to win the next election, so they attack both the domestic and foreign policies of their party rivals—regardless of substance or consequences. In October 2010, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R–Kentucky) famously declared that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” By refusing to cooperate with the president and causing gridlock, Republicans could later blame the Democrats for failing to accomplish anything. For instance, Republican opposition to UNCLOS in 2012 could be seen as part of a partisan strategy of obstructionism.

These arguments are not wrong. Conflicting interest groups do shape American foreign policy. And politicians do often act out of pure partisanship, motivated by the simple desire that one’s own party wins and the other loses.

This book argues, however, that purely material explanations for foreign policy partisanship are incomplete, and that arguments based on partisan gamesmanship alone usually only touch the surface of the issue. Instead, partisanship over American domestic and foreign policy alike usually has its deeper roots in disparate American ideologies—widely shared and systematic beliefs about how the world does and should work. For instance, when thirty-four Republican senators voted against UNCLOS in 2012, they were expressing a deeply held conservative distrust of international institutions, one widely shared by the Republican primary voters who elected them. Based primarily upon an April 2011 survey of a representative national sample of one thousand American adults, this study argues that liberals and conservatives feel and think about foreign countries and American foreign policy in consistently different ways, and explores the psychological sources and foreign policy consequences of these ideological differences.

A number of recent books explore what Americans should think about the world. For instance, Charles Kupchan argues that America should stop seeking to export Western values and accommodate itself to working with the Chinese model of state capitalism.10 Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that Americans should view the rise of China and the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India) as a wakeup call to inspire national renewal.11 By contrast, this book explores what Americans actually think about the world. More descriptive than prescriptive, it explores what and how American liberals and conservatives really feel and think about foreign countries and global affairs.

FIG. 0.3. American feelings towards foreign countries and international organizations.

Note: Temperatures are weighted mean scores for the full sample, in ascending order. Data source: OU Institute for US-China Issues, 2011.

Our survey asked all participants to rate a list of seventeen countries and three international organizations on a 0° (“very cold, unfavorable”) to 100° (“very warm, favorable”) feeling thermometer. Figure 0.3 displays the average score for each country and international organization for the full U.S. sample.12 As might be expected, Americans felt the warmest towards the United States (83°) itself, followed by its closest allies, England (69°), Japan (60°), Israel (58°), and Germany (57°). They felt the coolest towards North Korea (19°) and Iran (20°), followed by Pakistan (29°) and China (34°).

These findings are consistent with other national surveys. Our sequence exactly replicates that of four-point “favorable” to “unfavorable” and “ally” to “enemy” assessments on nine of these same countries in a CNN telephone poll conducted in May 2011, less than a month after our own survey. England and Israel were CNN’s top two (it did not include Japan), and Iran and North Korea tied at the bottom, as they did in our survey.13 Our sequence also replicates that of a Chicago Council for Global Affairs Internet survey conducted less than a year earlier in June 2010.14 Replication across independent samples using different survey methods increases confidence in the generalizability of findings from our survey.

Averages can be deceiving when they hide differences among significant subgroups within a population. Figure 0.4 displays the gap between liberal and conservative feelings for each country or international organization within our sample. Remarkably, there were statistically significant ideological differences on all seventeen countries and all three international organizations measured. These differences were small for England (5°), South Korea (6°), and Taiwan (6°), but large for Russia (20°), China (21°), Haiti (22°), Brazil (22°), the World Bank (24°), and Israel (−25°), and truly massive for the United Nations (49°), European Union (37°), Mexico (30°), and France (27°).15 Note that other than the United States itself, Israel is the only country that conservatives feel more warmly towards than liberals do, topics we will take up in Chapters 4 and 9. Figure 0.4 thus reveals a consistent and substantial pattern of ideological differences in the international attitudes of the American people. This pattern of ideological differences, furthermore, is again replicated in other contemporaneous surveys, such as the 2010 Chicago Council survey,16 and the U.S. data from the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Attitudes Project.17

FIG. 0.4. The ideological gap: Liberals feel warmer towards foreign countries and international organizations than conservatives do, with the sole exceptions of Israel and the United States itself.

Note: Bars represent weighted mean scores for liberals minus conservatives, in ascending order. Data source: OU Institute for US-China Issues, 2011.

The predominant argument among public opinion researchers today, however, is that partisanship and ideology do not shape the international attitudes of the American people. The Chicago Council claimed in 2012 that “Democrats and Republicans are very similar in their views on foreign policy.”18 Political scientist Benjamin Page and pollster Andrew Kohut have similarly dismissed the influence of partisanship and ideology in separate 2006 books based upon earlier Chicago Council and Pew surveys, the two major sources of representative national survey data on the global views of the American people.19 Writing in 2012 for Foreign Affairs, a group of younger political scientists went so far as to declare in their title that “American Foreign Policy Is Already Post-Partisan: Why Politics Does Stop at the Water’s Edge.”20

These public opinion scholars and pollsters have misinterpreted the existing survey data. For instance, to explore the impact of partisanship on foreign policy preferences, the Chicago Council first sorted all of its 2012 survey respondents by whether they lived in majority red or blue House districts. Statistical analysis, it reports, revealed that the two groups differed on “only four of the eighty-five” policy questions in its survey. It therefore concludes that the foreign policy views of Democrats and Republicans are “remarkably similar.”21

Whether one lives in a red or blue House district, however, is an extremely indirect and poor proxy for partisanship. A majority of Americans are either Democrats or independents living in districts represented by a Republican, or Republicans or independents living in districts represented by a Democrat. Little wonder there were few differences between these two groups in their international attitudes.

The Chicago Council’s decision to create an indirect proxy measure for partisanship is particularly galling given that its 2012 survey included a direct measure of partisanship: “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what?” Responses to this question allow for a straightforward comparison of the over 1,200 self-identified Democrats and Republicans in their 2012 sample, revealing substantial partisan differences over foreign affairs. For instance, the survey asked all respondents to assess whether nine possible “threats to the vital interests of the United States” were “critical,” “important but not critical,” or “not an important threat.” Self-identified Democrats and Republicans differed on all nine items, an extremely large overall difference.22 The survey also asked participants to assess whether they thought eleven listed “U.S. foreign policy goals” were “very,” “somewhat,” or “not” important. Democrats and Republicans differed on nine of the eleven goals.23 This was again an extremely large overall partisan difference.24

To claim that partisanship does not shape American foreign policy preferences is a consequential mistake. What do foreign policy makers like Hillary Clinton think when they read assertions that American foreign policy is “post-partisan”? When political scientists and pollsters make claims that do not pass a reality check, they marginalize themselves from the policy world. More importantly, because the United States is a democracy, the polarizing impact of ideology on the international attitudes of the American people shapes American foreign policy. Given that the United States is a superpower whose foreign policy will have a major impact on the prospects for war and peace in the twenty-first century, a better understanding of the polarizing role of ideology on its foreign policy is urgently needed.

[End of Excerpt]


1. George H.W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1989.

2. Quoted in Mark Landler, “Clinton Acts as Emissary to Congress,” New York Times, November 17, 2010.

3. Washington 1796.

4. Mark Twain, “Anti-Imperialism,” New York Herald, October 15, 1900.

5. McCormick and Wittkopf 1990; McCormick, Wittkopf, and Danna 1997: 134.

6. Aldrich et al. 2006: 489.




10. Kupchan 2012.

11. Friedman and Mandelbaum 2011.

12. Taiwan is not formally an independent country.

13. CNN/ORC Poll: “Opinion of Foreign Countries,” May 24–26, 2011, at Roper Center.

14. The Chicago Council’s mean scores tend to be about 5° warmer than ours, however, likely because they ask about feelings towards “countries and people,” while we ask only about “countries.”

15. ANCOVA control for seven standard demographics: age, gender, education, income, region, race, and ethnicity. All p’s < .001, with the exception of England, South Korea, and Taiwan, which were p = .004, .014, and .009, respectively. Effect sizes ranged from a small ηp2 = .014 for South Korea to a massive ηp2 = .50 for the United Nations.

16. The Chicago Council’s 2010 data revealed no statistically significant difference between liberals and conservatives on Great Britain (−2°) and South Korea (2°), our two smallest, followed by North Korea (4°), Germany (4°), and Japan (5°), our next smallest group. And as with our data, it found the largest ideological differences on Mexico (19°), France (13°), and Israel (−14°). Each ANCOVA controlled for age, gender, education, income, and being from the South.

17. Substantial partisan differences emerged on “favorability” towards the European Union and Muslims, and small but statistically significant differences emerged on Iran, China, and Mexico. In each case, Democrats were more favorable than Republicans. E.U.: F(1, 406) = 20.64, p < .001, ηp2 = .048; Muslims: F(1, 420) = 18.78, p < .001, ηp2 = .043; Iran: F(1, 448) = 4.68, p = .031, ηp2 = .01; China: F(1, 445) = 4.26, p = .04, ηp2 = .009; Mexico: F(1, 438) = 3.86, p = .05, ηp2 = .009. The only exception was Russia, on which no partisan differences emerged: F(1, 428) = .036, p = .85. This is likely due to greater measurement error in the Pew survey, which was conducted by telephone and used a rating scale that varied less than ours. All Pew ANCOVA controlled for age, gender, education, and income.

18. Chicago Council 2012: 41.

19. Page with Bouton 2006: 95–96; Kohut and Stokes 2006: 218.

20. Busby, Monten, and Inboden 2012.

21. Chicago Council 2012: 42.

22. Chicago Council 2012, Question 5. Wilks’ Lambda: F(9, 1114) = 45.42, p < .001, ηp2 = .27, controlling for age, gender, education, income, and being black, Hispanic, or from the U.S. South.

23. One of the nine—“Promoting and defending human rights in other countries”—was only marginally significant. The largest partisan differences were on the goals of “Controlling and reducing illegal immigration,” a topic we will explore in detail in Chapter 6’s discussion of Mexico, and “Limiting climate change,” a topic we will briefly touch on in Chapter 10. Immigration: F(1, 1148) = 135.10, p < .001, ηp2 = .11; climate change: F(1, 1148) = 166.70, p < .001, ηp2 = .13. Both ANCOVA controlled for seven demographics listed above.

24. Chicago Council 2012, Question 7. Wilks’ Lambda: F(11, 1129) = 37.70, p < .001, ηp2 = .27, controlling for seven demographics listed above.