Social Studies February 2007

On Foreign Policy, Shades of Agreement

America's partisans want a foreign policy that is less confrontational than the one the Bush administration has given them.
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Republicans are from Mars, Democrats from Venus. That is to say, Republicans are hawkish, Democrats dovish, and common ground is scant. In consequence, the relative bipartisanship that once marked U.S. foreign-policy debates has given way to a bitterly partisan era of which the Bush years provide but a foretaste. Future arguments over the use of force against Iran, North Korea, or other possible adversaries will make the Iraq dispute look like a dinner party.

All of the above is conventional wisdom. That doesn't make it wrong—at least, not entirely. But reality is more surprising and encouraging. Encouragement comes from the underappreciated fact that America's partisans agree on much more than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Surprise comes from what it is they agree on: They want a foreign policy that is less confrontational and more cooperative than the one the Bush administration has given them.

In January, Matthew Continetti, a thoughtful political reporter at The Weekly Standard, published an article whose strengths and weaknesses are both instructive. The headline sums up the thesis: "The Peace Party vs. the Power Party—The Real Divide in American Politics." Writes Continetti: "The Democratic Party is increasingly linked with the attitudes, tendencies, and policies of peace, whereas the Republican Party is increasingly linked with the maintenance and projection of American military power."

Continetti, like others who argue the "red hawks, blue doves" brief, makes two points that are both true and important. The first is that intense Republican and Democratic partisans have different theories of where peace comes from: Republicans tend to think peace comes from U.S. strength, Democrats, from international cooperation. Also true is that the partisan gap has widened in recent years, and that the gap grows as one moves up the political food chain from rank and file to party activists to political leaders. Congress is more polarized, on foreign policy as on almost everything else, than is either the electorate or the population.

For all their undoubted significance, however, those two facts are not the whole story. Also important, but much more commonly overlooked, is that the partisan opinion gap has in many cases not widened to the point of actual disagreement. As it happens, Continetti's article provides multiple cases in point:

  • "The 2006 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund [of the United States] found that more than 80 percent of Democrats said they agreed either 'strongly' or 'somewhat' with the idea that 'economic power is more important in world affairs than military power.' The divergence from Republicans was 18 percentage points." Correct. (Though actually 19 points.) But, of course, Republicans and Democrats agree that economic power is more important—by 62 percent and 81 percent, respectively.
  • "The partisan difference on expanding defense spending increased by 10 percentage points between 1998 and 2004." Perhaps, but according to a December 2006 poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, 61 percent of Republicans agreed with 83 percent of Democrats that defense spending should not be increased. (Those respondents said that defense spending should be cut or kept the same.)
  • The German Marshall Fund poll "asked whether, 'under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice.' Sixty-three percent of Republicans agreed 'strongly' with this sentiment, as did 30 percent of Democrats. In the peace party, war is the final, and perhaps forbidden, option." Really? Add all who agree—both "strongly" and "somewhat"—that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice, and 70 percent of Democrats concur with 93 percent of Republicans.
  • "Democrats [are] increasingly less likely to say that maintaining U.S. military power is a 'very important goal' of American foreign policy." Again, add "somewhat important" to "very important" and the disagreement vanishes: According to a summer 2006 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 89 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of Republicans agree. The partisan difference is in intensity, not basic belief.
  • If your guard is now up against the hawks-versus-doves hypothesis, you may want to spend some time examining the chart on the facing page. It collects 62 foreign-policy questions from nine 2006 opinion polls. Questions on which bipartisan majorities agree are shaded green; the darker the green, the closer the agreement.

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    Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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