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Partisan Gaps on Military Use, Immigration, Climate

A recent survey indicates that the gap between Democrats and Republicans on U.S. international engagement and military use is as wide as it has been at any time in the recent past.

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Achieving bipartisan consensus on major foreign policy issues and threats—indeed, on the U.S. role in the world—looks increasingly unlikely, according to the latest survey released Tuesday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

What to do about climate change, attitudes toward immigration, and opinions about the role of the military in pursuing U.S. foreign policy goals are among the biggest differences between Democrats and Republicans, according to the Council’s 2015 Survey of American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy.

Democrats, for example, see climate change as one of the top five most critical threats facing the U.S. while Republicans ranked it last out of 20 possible threats cited by the interviewers. And while 56% of Democrats said they believe climate change requires immediate action, 44% of Republicans questioned whether it was really a problem.

The survey, which queried 2,034 adult respondents, was conducted between May 25 and June 17. Its results thus would not necessarily reflect key recent developments, including, for example, the successful conclusion of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran and the congressional debate and heavy anti-deal advertising campaign that have followed it.

This latest report, appropriately titled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy,” strongly suggests that the gaps on a number of foreign policy issues between Democrats and Republicans have grown as wide as at any time in the recent past.

It pointed out, for example, that 66% of Republicans believe that controlling and reducing illegal immigration should be considered a “very important” goal of U.S. foreign policy. Only 36% of Democrats agreed. And Republicans today are 34 percentage points more likely than Democrats to consider the issue a “critical threat” to the United States. Those gaps contrast rather dramatically with the mere five percentage point gap that separated respondents of the two major parties on both questions in the Council’s 2002 survey.

The new survey did find bipartisan agreement on a number of issues, including U.S. international engagement. When asked whether they thought it “best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs,” 69% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats opted for an “active” role. (Independents were less enthusiastic with only 57% favoring an active role.)

Although the “internationalist” establishment could take some comfort in those numbers (across-the-board increases from last year’s survey when there was a lot of commentary about resurgent “isolationism”), there seemed to be less agreement on the preferred nature of Washington’s engagement with the world, with Republicans, like their presidential candidates, expressing substantially more faith in military power as an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy than Democrats.

Half of Republican respondents in the survey said that they considered the maintenance of US military superiority “very effective,” while only 37% of Democrats (and 34% of independents) agreed.

Republicans were thus more likely to support sending U.S. troops to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons (81% of Republicans vs. 64% of Democrats), to fight Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria (66%-58%), and to defend Israel if it came under attack by its neighbors (67%-49%). Republicans also favored retaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 (68%-51%).

Democrats, on the other hand, were far more likely than Republicans to see diplomacy as effective. For example, 81% of Democrats considered the negotiation of international treaties to be either very or somewhat effective, while only 59% of Republicans took that position. Similarly, 78% of Democrats said that they saw “strengthening the United Nations” as effective; only 45% of Republicans agreed.

Regarding the effectiveness of diplomacy, however, Obama has apparently made some headway since his 2008 presidential campaign in persuading Republicans that talking with hostile nations or groups was a good idea. In the Council’s 2010 Survey, for example, 36% of Republicans said that the U.S. should be “ready to meet and talk with leaders of the Taliban.” That has since risen to 48%. Republican support for talking with Iran’s leaders has risen from 54% in 2010 to 64%; with Hamas, from 39% to 48%; and with Cuba, from 63% to 69%.

Regarding yet another facet of diplomacy, substantially more Democrats (77%) said that they thought signing free trade agreements with other countries served as an effective tool of U.S. foreign policy, compared to only 57% of Republicans, who have historically been more supportive of trade deals than Democrats.

Republicans also tended to be more comfortable with Washington’s global primacy than Democrats. While nearly four out of ten Republicans (38%) said that they believed the U.S. should be “the dominant world leader,” only 21% of Democrats shared that view. Majorities in both parties said that they believed Washington should “play a shared leadership role,” but there was a 15-percentage-point gap between them (72% of Democrats versus 57% of Republicans).

On more specific issues, the survey found a substantial difference on a question regarding Israel’s impact on the Middle East. Asked whether it played a “positive” or “negative” role in the region, 61% of Republicans opted for positive, but only 41% of Democrats agreed. Interestingly, the stronger the respondent identified as a Republican, the more positive he was about Israel’s role (65%). Conversely, respondents who identified strongly as Democrats were less likely to see Israel as playing a positive role (38%).

One remarkable related finding highlighting the growing polarization between the two parties dealt with support for an independent Palestinian state. In the Council’s 2002 Survey, 39% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats said that they favored such a state. Now, just 13 years later, a huge gap regarding the issue has opened up. Only 29% of Republicans now support a Palestinian state, while 61% of Democrats favor it—a 32-point difference.

Indeed, the biggest gaps between the two parties were centered on Middle East issues, climate change, immigration, and the most effective ways Washington should use the military to achieve its foreign policy goals. And the new survey also found that the more strongly respondents identified with their party, the larger the gaps would be.

The survey also found significant differences related to development issues. Thus, asked to select what should be a “very important foreign policy goal of the United States,” from a list of 14 goals, Republicans showed significantly less interest in “improving access to clear water supplies (10thpriority for Republicans),” combating world hunger (11th GOP priority),” and “reducing economic inequality in the world (14th priority GOP priority)” as well as “limiting climate change (13th priority).” Interestingly, “promoting and defending human rights in other countries appears to have fallen out of favor in both parties. Republicans ranked it 12th and Democrats 14th.

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