Beyond the Water's Edge

September 26, 2018

Measuring the Internationalism of Congress

The populist politics that emerged in the 2016 presidential election raised new questions at home and abroad about the durability of the U.S. commitment to global leadership and support for the liberal world order. The election popularized the narrative of rising public isolationism, culminating with the election of a president who was willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of U.S. foreign policy. As the political institution with the most direct line of communication to the people of the United States, how does Congress reflect this national discourse?

Scholarship and punditry abound on the formation and nature of contemporary public and presidential foreign policy views. Yet there is remarkably little new research on Congress’s foreign policy views and motivations. On the surface, the rise of vocal deficit hawks seeking to curtail foreign policy and defense spending—or the seeming broad aversion to new trade agreements—support the view of a Congress retreating from internationalism. Yet members of Congress inhabit an unprecedentedly globalized world where classical notions of isolationism seem implausible. The terms traditionally used to describe congressional views on foreign policy—internationalist or isolationist; hawk or dove—can fail to capture members’ complex and diverse perspectives on the U.S. role in the world.

This report aims to help close the gap in our understanding of Congress’s foreign policy views. CSIS reviewed existing literature, assessed major recent foreign policy debates, and measured the views of a carefully selected group of 50 members in the 115th Congress. The resulting analysis provides insights on the core motivations of today’s Congress and characterizes major streams of observed foreign policy views within the institution. This study team also recommends opportunities for strengthening bipartisan cooperation and congressional foreign policy leadership.

Congressional Perspectives and Archetypes

We assessed congressional views on a range of foreign policy issues and highlighted areas of bipartisanship. The 50 members studied fell into archetypes that may be suggestive of more enduring patterns.

Opportunities for Bipartisan Cooperation and Strengthening the Institution

1. Bipartisan Alignment

Bipartisan consensus prevailed in several foreign policy issues, including support for alliances and foreign aid.

A. Alliances

Analysis: Nearly all members studied were supportive of existing U.S. alliances. Strong supporters of existing alliances touted the strategic benefits provided by the networks of U.S. alliances around the world and the importance alliances play in upholding the post–World War II liberal international order. Among the few selected who were critical of existing alliances, most criticized other NATO members for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees and spending insufficiently for their own defense. Opponents also frequently targeted unfair Japanese economic practices such as currency manipulation. Rarely did members question the value of U.S. security ties with Israel.

Opportunity for Strengthening the Institution: Leading New Diplomatic Initiatives: Political gridlock may prevent Congress from ratifying treaties, but members can still play a critical role in U.S. diplomacy. Whether visiting hot spots and forgotten spots, engaging foreign governments in support of administration policies, or establishing independent channels of communication, entrepreneurial members can affect policy beyond U.S. shores. Areas ripe for congressional diplomatic initiative include development in Africa, multilateralism in the Arctic, and support for democracy promotion programs.

B. Foreign Aid

Analysis: On the whole, congressional views on U.S. security assistance were bipartisan. Since few members were vocal on security assistance in general, we assessed the member’s views of security assistance provided to major aid recipients such as Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Those who supported security assistance hailed it as valuable for cultivating and sustaining strong political ties with nations. They also found it a powerful tool for building defense partnerships that could reduce the strain on the U.S. military. Opponents questioned the utility of security assistance in shaping other nations’ actions and behavior and expressed substantial skepticism about the durability of gains to U.S. security.

Analysis: Support for other foreign aid programs was also strongly bipartisan. Most members from both parties supported current levels or expanding foreign aid funding for humanitarian, development, and global health missions. Since relatively few votes have been taken in recent years solely on the question of foreign aid appropriations, it was difficult to ascertain the strength of congressional convictions. We primarily examined member support for discrete foreign aid programs and votes in support of foreign aid authorizing legislation in recent congresses. We also examined public statements on recent presidential budget proposals like the Trump administration’s FY 2018 proposal that directed substantial cuts in the foreign aid budget.

The average level of Republican and Democratic member support on security assistance and humanitarian, development, and global health assistance was near identical.

Opportunity for Bipartisan Collaboration: Strong bipartisan support across a range of foreign assistance tools (security, development, and humanitarian) is one of the most striking findings in our research. Congress passed a series of landmark aid bills in the 114th Congress, including the Electrify Africa Act, the Global Food Security Act, and the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. This experience helped educate members more generally on the value of foreign assistance. Bipartisan resistance to dramatic foreign aid cuts in the Trump administration’s FY 2018 budget request is the latest evidence of opportunity in this space. Areas for future collaboration include reforming food aid, expanding global internet access, and updating archaic provisions of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act.

Opportunity for Strengthening the Institution: Regular State Department Authorization Bills: Just as the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the intelligence committees annually pass authorization bills, the foreign affairs and foreign relations committees should strive to pass a regular State Department authorization bill. The bill could be an effective vehicle for oversight and reform, but the process of routinely crafting it would build bipartisan trust on the committees of jurisdiction. A regular State Department authorization process would also increase congressional leverage with the executive branch on a range of foreign policy issues. Executive branch officials would have a far greater incentive to seek congressional consultation if they perceive more regular congressional scrutiny and credible avenues for congressionally mandated reforms. Adding a regular State authorization to the defense and intelligence authorization processes, while pairing it with an effective appropriations process, would create the most powerful, comprehensive, and effective regime for congressional foreign policy influence. Even absent an annual authorization bill similar to the NDAA, Congress could more routinely advance targeted legislation related to State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development activities.

2. Mixed Partisan Response

Congressional support for the use of military force and multilateral institutions evinced a more mixed response among Democrats and Republicans.

A. The Use of Force

Analysis: Republican members were more likely to support the use of military force than their Democratic counterparts, though members from both parties populated either end of the scale. Supporters’ opinions were often characterized by the perception of U.S. obligation to act in the face of atrocities, the utility of military power, and military force as a signal of U.S. credibility. Opponents highlighted the cost of military interventions in lives and financial risk, frequently expressing pessimistic assessments of recent U.S. military engagements in the Greater Middle East. The lack of substantial polarization among parties confirms a finding from case study research: members’ positions on military force tend to be flexible and often strongly correlated to party loyalty.

Opportunity for Bipartisan Collaboration: Today’s Congress is unlikely to pass a replacement to the 2001 or 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF). However, many members in both parties continue to be vocal on war powers. Finding ways to conduct effective oversight of ongoing operations is a critical mandate of Congress. Bipartisan opportunities could include commissioning independent bodies to assess and provide recommendations to improve U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Congress could also implement reporting requirements on any deployments of U.S. military forces abroad beyond those established by the War Powers Resolution. Party leadership should also educate members on U.S. military operations abroad by encouraging briefings and trips to operational theaters. These should be open to rank-and-file members not serving on the national security committees.

B. Multilateralism

Analysis: Most members in both parties were supportive of multilateralism, including most Democrats and a narrow majority of Republicans. Critics of multilateral institutions often cited fears of ceding U.S. sovereignty to international organizations and displeasure with United Nations General Assembly votes critical of Israel. One senior Republican staff member referenced support for UN treaties or international organizations as “one more arrow in the quiver” of potential hardline conservative Republican primary challengers.

3. Areas of Polarized Views

Partisan gaps were most noticeable on questions of trade policy and approaches to Iran.

A. Trade

Analysis: We found a significant partisan divide in views of free trade. Most Republicans tended to support trade liberalization, while Democrats were split. Free trade proponents hailed trade’s economic benefits and the strategic value of trade deals as a conduit to forge strong bilateral relationships and spread U.S. economic influence. Although they did not necessarily oppose free trade in the abstract, free trade skeptics railed against the economic costs of trade. They highlighted the risks of displacing U.S. workers and industries and called for additional restrictions on trade. Critics also expressed concern about some U.S. trading partners’ weak labor and environmental standards.
You can read our case study on the politics of trade, 2007-2016 here.

Opportunity for Bipartisan Collaboration: Despite fractious debates over complex multilateral deals, trade policy remains an area of potential bipartisan agreement. Support remains for work on bilateral and multilateral agreements—such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that promote high labor and environmental standards. Improving trade enforcement policy and seeking compromise on trade negotiation processes are policy areas that could break through the difficult political environment.

B. Iran Policy

Analysis: Republicans and Democrats largely agree in their threat perceptions of Iran. However, the largest partisan gap existed in preferred policy responses to Iran. Republicans and Democrats diverged significantly on the value of coercive approaches with Iran. For Democrats, support for diplomacy centered on defending the Obama administration-negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Act (JCPOA). Republicans tended to prefer a tougher Iran policy. They were critical of the deal’s ability to hem in potential Iranian nuclear proliferation and expressed a desire to counter other elements of malign Iranian influence in the Middle East.


To assess the internationalism of the 115th Congress, we focused on two primary questions: what foreign policy belief structures best describe the diversity of viewpoints in the current Congress and what motivations drive members’ opinions on foreign policy issues?

The CSIS study team process traced several cases of congressional engagement in major foreign policy issues looking for key themes or evolutions in viewpoint. The case studies were used to illuminate Congress’s role in major contemporary foreign policy and national security debates. The case studies also highlighted the continuity and change in congressional opinion over time and the factors that drove members’ positions.

Case Study Issue Areas

[Insert gif of Cardin, Duncan, King]
From left to right: Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

1. U.S.-Russia Relations

  • Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008
  • Passage of the New START Treaty in 2010
  • Permanent Normal Trade Relations/Magnitsky Act in 2012
  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine in 2014
Download the case study here.

[Insert gif of Ryan, Levin, Warren, Tiberi, Murray, Portman]
From left to right: Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

2. Trade Policy

  • Peru FTA in 2007
  • Colombia, Panama, and South Korea FTAs in 2011
  • Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2015 and 2016
Download the case study here.

[Insert gif of Kinzinger, Amash, Lee and Kaine]
Use of force: “From left to right: Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)

3. Use of Force

  • U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011
  • 2013 “redline” debate over U.S. response to the Syrian Government's use of chemical weapons in 2013
  • U.S. strikes on Syria in April 2017
Download the case study here.

[Insert gif of Granger, Leahy, Yoho]
From left to right: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX)

4. Foreign Aid

  • U.S. aid policy toward Egypt after the 2013 coup
  • Electrify Africa in 2016
  • Global Food Security Act in 2016
Download the case study here.

Second, the study team developed in-depth foreign policy profiles for a select group of 50 members of the 115th Congress. The profiles included detailed snapshots of selected members’ foreign policy motivations, opinions, and activity on foreign policy issues.

115th Congress

The research team sought to survey a reasonably representative group on Congress by balancing member selection across chambers, parties, seniority, committee membership, expressed foreign policy views, and geographic representation.

Once member profiles were completed, the team employed a coding system to rate each member’s views. The team assessed the member group for any generalizable conclusions on motivations on foreign policy. The resulting analysis suggested the presence of three broad foreign policy archetypes within the member group, each characterized by a unique combination of driving factors.


“Foreign affairs are not foreign anymore,” was a common refrain throughout discussions with congressional staff interviewed for this project. Rather than operating as an insular, parochial institution defined solely by local interests, members of Congress often hold nuanced views on the U.S. role in the world and possess a wide variety of motivations that push them to lead and engage in foreign policy. Although notable areas of disagreement endure, members of Congress tend to support robust U.S. international engagement with the world, including maintaining the liberal international order, using foreign aid to advance U.S. national interests, and countering major competitors. This bipartisan support provides a basis on which to strengthen Congress’s role in foreign policy, which can improve the coherence and effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy itself.

Access the full report here.

About the Authors

Kathleen H. Hicks

Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at CSIS. With over 50 resident staff and an extensive network of nonresident affiliates, the CSIS International Security Program undertakes one of the most ambitious research and policy agendas in the security field. Dr. Hicks is a frequent writer and lecturer on geopolitics, national security, and defense matters. She served in the Obama administration as principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy and deputy under secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and forces. She led the development of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. She also oversaw Department of Defense contingency and theater campaign planning. From 2006 to 2009, Dr. Hicks served as a senior fellow in the CSIS International Security Program. From 1993 to 2006, she served as a career civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, rising from Presidential Management Intern to the Senior Executive Service.

Full Bio Here

Louis Lauter

Vice President for Congressional and Government Affairs

Louis Lauter is vice president for congressional and government affairs at CSIS, where he manages and promotes CSIS’s interactions with Congress and the executive branch. Prior to coming to CSIS, Mr. Lauter served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Legislative of Affairs, first as the team chief for acquisition, technology, and logistics and then as the acting principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, where he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service. Before entering government service, Mr. Lauter served for seven years as CSIS’s director of congressional affairs and earlier spent seven years working on national security issues in the Washington state congressional delegation, first for Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and then for Representative Rick Larsen (D-WA). Mr. Lauter hails from the San Francisco Bay area, holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in international public policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Full Bio Here

Colin McElhinny

Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Congressional and Government Relations

Colin McElhinny is associate director and associate fellow for congressional and government relations at CSIS, where he supports the Center’s outreach to the legislative and executive branches and conducts research on Congress and foreign policy. Previously, he was the program manager and research associate for the CSIS International Security Program, working on a broad range of issues relating to U.S. defense strategy, defense reform, Congress and national security, and public opinion on foreign policy. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Betta Kappa from the University of Mary Washington with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science.

Special thanks to:

  • Contributing authors include Michael Matlaga, Simone Williams, Cassidy Chiasson, Ariel Fanger, Christian Healion and Stephanie Pillion. G.
  • G. Kim Wincup served as a senior adviser on the project.
  • For contributing vital research throughout the project, the authors thank Anthony Bell, Jess Mahoney, Andrew Linder, and Zachary Marshall.
  • Greg Sanders and Samantha Cohen provided critical support in analyzing and displaying the data collected from member ratings and constructing archetypes.
  • The authors are indebted to the support of the project’s advisory board, which assisted in case study and member selection for the project, provided valuable insights throughout the course of the study, and offered feedback on the report’s findings.
  • Advisory board members included Michael Allen, Brian Diffell, Talia Dubovi, James W. Dyer, Mieke Eoyang, Tressa Guenov, Lester Munson, Tommy Ross, Nilmini Rubin, Stephanie Sanok Kostro, Mariah Sixkiller, Dr. Charles Stevenson, and Kim Wincup.
  • Excluded from this list are advisory board members who prefer to keep their participation anonymous.

This project is made possible through the generous support of the Smith Richardson Foundation.

A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.