The growing influence of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his notably noninterventionist foreign policy perspective has provoked concern among conservative leaders who worry about a growing strand of isolationism among Republicans. Is this noninterventionism really a new trend reshaping the Republican Party? New evidence from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey suggests that it is… but only to a point.
The survey results show that a desire for non-interventionism may indeed have gained some traction among Republicans. Since 2006, the percentage of self-described Republicans who say that it would be best for the United States to “stay out” of world affairs (rather than play an “active part”) has doubled from 20 to 40 percent. That puts Republican desire to stay out today at roughly the same level as self-described Democrats (35 percent), the first time this has happened since 1998. Additionally, the percentage of Independents who want the United States to stay out of world affairs has increased sharply in recent years, rising from 30 percent in 2006 to 48 percent. This means that for the first time, Independents are divided over whether to play an active part in world affairs (51 percent) or stay out (48 percent). When leaners are instead grouped with the relevant partisan group, the gap between Republicans (41 percent) and Democrats (34 percent) is actually wider and significant.
What explains this shift? Of course, for some Republicans the choice of staying out may be a rejection of the current administration’s policies, but the Chicago Council Survey does not include any performance measures to test this. These data do show, however, that other factors are at play, specifically, changing partisan evaluations of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the relative priority of terrorism, and views toward globalization.
Before the United States began airstrikes against the Islamic State, for which recent polls have registered majority support, many commentators had focused on the public’s war weariness. Indeed, the survey finds that seven in 10 Americans now think that neither the Iraq nor Afghan war was worth the costs of U.S. involvement.
Republicans’ preferences on international engagement are partly tied to their deteriorating perception of how these wars have gone. Republicans’ endorsement for the wars has fallen more steeply and more recently than endorsement among Democrats or Independents (which was always lower). The figures below show that, in comparable questions asked in recent Chicago Council and ABC News/Washington Post polls, both Republicans and Independents went from majority approval to a majority critical of the war in Afghanistan. Republican support plunged 51 percentage points from 2007 (85 percent) to 2014 (34 percent), while Independents dropped 32 points (55 to 23 percent). Democrats have been more consistently critical, though more so now, with support dropping from 36 to 25 percent. On the Iraq war, Republican support has dipped 31 points from a majority in 2006 to just 40 percent. Both Independents and Democrats have been critical of the war in Iraq since 2006. Democrats are now somewhat more likely to think the war was worth fighting (from 14 percent in 2006 to 22 percent).
Another factor playing into Republican preferences for engagement are their views on the importance of combating international terrorism. Republicans have traditionally considered fighting international terrorism a higher priority than Democrats. But the figure below shows that over the last decade, Republicans’ focus on terrorism has steadily declined. Now similar majorities of both Republicans and Democrats say that combating international terrorism is a “very important” goal.
For their part, Democrats’ views on engagement are more closely linked to views on globalization. Their views have changed as well, but in the opposite direction: Currently, three in four Democrats, a record high, say that globalization is a good thing (vs. six in 10 Republicans and Independents). As recently as 2008, Democrats were far less positive on globalization; since then, favorability has increased by more than 20 percentage points.
Despite these shifts, Republicans and Democrats are generally on the same side when it comes to foreign policy, though to varying degrees. Majorities in both parties share similar concerns about top threats, and they differ little in their preferred approaches toward China, Iran, Ukraine and Syria. The sharpest differences lie in attitudes toward immigration, climate change and Middle East policy.
Moreover, Republicans (and Democrats) continue to exhibit many typical patterns from past surveys. More Republicans than Democrats favor the use of force, while fewer Republicans than Democrats favor multilateralism and peacekeeping missions. This helps explain, in part, the promise and limits of Paul’s foreign policy campaigning: While the rhetoric may attract war-weary Republican supporters, their underlying attitudes on key issues have not shifted to a noninterventionist position.
It would therefore be wrong to characterize Republicans as the new doves. These trends show that those Republicans who prefer to stay out of world affairs are in large part skeptical of any gains from the protracted wars of the past decade. In this sense, their current views more closely resemble other partisans’ disappointment. While the full Chicago Council results do not signal a wholesale change in Republicans’ foreign policy outlook, these new shifts among the party’s supporters on the role of the United States in the world, the recent wars and the priority to be placed on fighting terrorism should make for a heated Republican foreign policy debate in 2016.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Craig Kafura is a senior program officer in studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.