New Poll Highlights Americans’ Foreign Policy Priorities – OpEd


By Kerry Boyd Anderson

Amid the US presidential campaign, protests against the Gaza war on college campuses and debates in Congress over providing support to Ukraine and Israel, it is useful to consider how the broader American public views foreign policy and US interests abroad.

In April, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey asking Americans about how they view foreign policy priorities. Overall, out of a list of 22 policy goals, 73 percent of respondents said that protecting the country from terrorist attacks should be a top priority. Other top priorities included reducing illegal drug imports into the US (64 percent) and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (63 percent).

The poll found significant partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats. The biggest partisan gap was around climate change, as 70 percent of Democrats ranked it as a top foreign policy priority, while only 15 percent of Republicans agreed. Similar to some partisan divides in Congress, supporting Ukraine was more important to Democrats (37 percent) than Republicans (12 percent), while supporting Israel was a much higher priority for Republicans (39 percent) than Democrats (8 percent).

Reflecting the political polarization over the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing the spread of infectious diseases was a top priority for many Democrats (63 percent), but less so for many Republicans, with only 41 percent of the latter placing it as a high priority. While a majority of Americans wanted to prioritize reducing the flow of illegal drugs, it was more important to Republicans (79 percent) than Democrats (51 percent). Maintaining a “US military advantage over all other countries” was also a higher priority for Republicans (68 percent) than Democrats (41 percent).

These partisan divides are real and serious. However, as the Pew report noted, “a majority of Americans say that all 22 long-range foreign policy goals … should be given at least some priority.” Americans in general agreed on many foreign policy goals but disagreed on which were the most important. The Pew report also found that significant minorities questioned whether supporting Israel or Ukraine or promoting democracy should be priorities at all.

Last month’s survey was the third such poll conducted by Pew, following similar ones in 2018 and 2021, which allows for some comparison over time. Over the last six years, limiting China’s power increased as a priority for Americans — up by 17 percentage points. Limiting Russia’s power also rose in importance — up by 8 points since 2021, which likely reflects Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps due to the war in Gaza, Americans in April were more likely to see a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top priority, increasing by 11 points since 2018. Meanwhile, strengthening the UN and aiding refugees each dropped by 8 points since 2018.

In order to understand these views and their potential impact on US foreign policy, it is crucial to keep in mind that foreign policy is typically a lower priority for most Americans than domestic issues. The Pew findings reinforced this trend: 83 percent of respondents said that domestic policy should be a higher priority for the president than foreign policy. The complexity of global issues, combined with the generally low prioritization of foreign policy for most Americans, means that governing elites in Congress and the executive branch have disproportionate influence over foreign policy.

However, public attitudes toward foreign policy issues are not irrelevant and politicians often respond when their constituents have particularly strong feelings. For example, President Joe Biden has adjusted his rhetoric — if not his policies — about the war in Gaza in response to Democratic voters’ concerns. Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric reflects his supporters’ priorities and worldview.

Surveys such as the Pew poll offer an opportunity to consider whether governing elites’ foreign policy priorities are aligned with voters’ views. Ideally, the American president and Congress should take all Americans’ views into consideration but, in reality, the partisan divides matter more. So, do Biden’s policies align with Democratic voters’ priorities and do Trump’s align with Republicans’?

The Pew results suggest that the top priorities for Democratic voters include addressing climate change, combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction and infectious disease, protecting the US against terrorism and limiting Russia’s power. These priorities generally align with the Biden administration’s priorities, although Biden appears to put more emphasis on supporting Ukraine and promoting democracy abroad than many Democrats would.

The poll supports other evidence that Biden is clearly out of step with Democratic voters in his determined support for Israel, as only 8 percent of Democrats in the poll said that supporting Israel should be a top priority. Other polls also have found declining Democratic support for unconditional support for Israel. A Politico-Morning Consult poll conducted around the same time as the Pew poll found that 33 percent of Democratic voters said that Biden is “not tough enough on Israel” in response to the war in Gaza.

Among Republican voters, top priorities include reducing the flow of illegal drugs, maintaining a military advantage over other countries, limiting China’s power and getting other countries to bear more of the cost of maintaining the global order. These priorities align well with Trump’s approach.

Stopping the flow of illegal drugs fits into Republicans’ broader concerns about the southern border and immigration, which is a major focus of Trump’s rhetoric. Trump emphasizes power over other countries, particularly China, while downplaying threats from Russia, which aligns with Republican priorities in the survey. The America First rhetoric also seeks to reduce the spending of US resources abroad and demands that allies and partners do more.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch

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