Everything That is Wrong with America’s Foreign Policy Discourse in One Chart

Political elites too often focus on issues that divide Americans, rather than on ones that unite them

Pew is out with another fantastic public opinion study examining the contours of American attitudes about foreign policy at the start of the Biden administration. The new study contains rich findings throughout. But what is striking to us is how the two issues that most divide Democrats and Republicans in terms of priorities—climate change and immigration, respectively—are the main focus of political discussions in elite circles these days rather than the issues that most unite people—protecting American jobs and protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks, along with steps to stop pandemics.  

Three-quarters of Americans overall, including 85 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats, view the protection of American jobs as a top priority for long-range foreign policy. Likewise, more than 7 in 10 American adults see steps to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks as a top long-range priority, including 8 in 10 Republicans and 6 in 10 Democrats. A similar proportion of Americans want U.S. foreign policy to focus on reducing the spread of infectious diseases, including 80 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans.

These findings are remarkably stable over time. A study we conducted in 2019 found almost identical top priorities for American voters—protecting the homeland and ensuring U.S. workers have good jobs and wages.  

But are these the foreign policy priorities that the two political parties and leaders in government mainly stress in their policy agendas and communications with Americans? Not really.

Looking further down the chart, you see the two issues with the widest partisan differences in terms of priorities—climate change and immigration. Seventy percent of Democrats view global climate change as top priority for U.S. foreign policy, compared to only 14 percent of Republicans. Conversely, 64 percent of Republicans say that reducing illegal immigration to the U.S. should be a top long-range priority versus a scant 16 percent of Democrats. 

Not much agreement here, unfortunately. Democrats and Republicans often spend a lot of time on issues that are off the radar screen for most voters and often squander opportunities to work together on issues where there is more consensus like jobs and protecting the American people.

Obviously, the parties have their pet issues that they’ll fight over and think matter the most. At a minimum, elites would be wise to focus a majority of their time speaking about the basic priorities of jobs, terrorism, and pandemics if they want to be relevant to the desires of actual Americans. Democrats and Republicans could also spend more time explaining to Americans how issues of climate change and immigration matter directly to voters in terms of their jobs, homeland security, and public health. Show voters how global developments shape America’s national economic development and our ability to compete with China.

Americans are united on foreign policy priorities. It’s our political leadership that continues to focus on matters that drive divisions between people. Biden and his foreign policy team have a real chance to correct this going forward.