Global Security Forum 2021

Softening Sharp Divides: Foreign Policy in an Era of Domestic Division

This report examines the state of U.S. domestic divides, discusses their influence on foreign policymaking, and explores several scenarios where the intersection of a foreign policy crisis and a skeptical public is put to the test. It shows that domestic divides extend beyond partisan politics and that U.S. citizens see foreign policy through lenses that differ greatly depending on socio-economic status, age, rural versus urban location, and race. It also shows that there is nonetheless plenty of common ground among Americans when it comes to foreign policy, especially when considering short-term responses to crises, and among foreign policy professionals from across the political spectrum.

Today, no single foreign policy issue unites or divides Americans as the 9/11 attacks or the Vietnam War once did. Instead, domestic divisions have created an opportunity for U.S. adversaries. China has used its own brand of “whataboutism” to claim its “democracy” is just as good as the U.S. version.


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Russia has used the last three election cycles to attempt to deepen rifts within U.S. society. Both assess that a weakened, inwardly focused United States is less likely to engage on the world stage. After a half-century of U.S. leadership, both hope that inward bent could mean weakened alliances, a gutted rules-based international order, and an unwillingness to push back on Chinese economic dominance or Russian expansionism.

A dirge for U.S. leadership is likely premature, however, for Americans are united in at least one opinion: the United States should lead. A February 2021 Pew Research Center survey showed that 87 percent of Americans think it is important for the United States to be respected abroad.1 CSIS’s own public survey showed similarly strong bipartisan support for U.S. global engagement, including 56 percent of people identifying as “Extremely Liberal/Progressive” and 57 percent of those identifying as “Extremely Conservative.”

Digging deeper into these polls, Americans disagree on how to lead and the appropriate priorities of that leadership. For example, divides exist on whether a robust military advantage is a necessary component of leading; 68 percent of Republicans say yes, but only 30 percent of Democrats agree. Similarly, a large majority of Republicans but a minority of Democrats believe the United States should attempt to limit the power and influence of China, even though an overall bipartisan majority supports defending Taiwan against Chinese interference.2 Republican and Democratic respondents also disagree on which issues are the top priorities. The September 2020 Chicago Council survey demonstrated few areas of priority overlap: whereas Democrats consider Covid-19, climate change, and racial inequality to be top threats, Republicans prioritize China, terrorism, and immigration.3

In addition to taking a hard look at divisions and unity on foreign policy, this report seeks to understand to what extent these divisions do and should affect foreign policy decisionmaking. The U.S. public has limited channels to exert day-to-day control over policy, yet today’s engaged citizen still has an unprecedented set of opportunities to express opinions. Social media gives any person a voice, and algorithms designed to grab attention highlight the most extreme versions of those opinions. Politicians, who always have an eye on the next election cycle, are keenly aware of their constituencies’ views.

The balance, then, for elected leaders is between faithfully executing on the solemn duty to represent the will of the people and making unpopular decisions that are nonetheless necessary for the safety of the nation. Once that difficult decision is made, they must also ask the American people for support, even sacrifice, to accomplish the requirement to provide for the common defense.

In order to explore how policymakers might go about both making that decision and asking the U.S. public for support, U.S. foreign policy professionals participated in hypothetical future scenarios about Taiwan, an immigration crisis on the southern border, and a blockade on a major shipping route near the Suez Canal. The discussions centered on two questions. First, could experts across the political spectrum agree on a recommended course of action during a foreign policy crisis? Second, how would those experts convey to the American public the necessity of the planned steps? These scenario exercises, along with historical research and expert discussions, answered the question about how domestic divides might constrain freedom of movement for policymakers in defining the U.S. role in the world.

This report is made possible by the generous support of Leonardo DRS.

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Erol Yayboke
Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
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Emily Harding
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
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Sierra Ballard

Sierra Ballard

Former Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda