“In November,” the council report notes, “voters will not only decide who will become the next U.S. president, but also they will help determine the path U.S. foreign policy takes — either working in partnership with the international community or moving toward a greater degree of national self-reliance.”
The survey also shows that Democrats and Republicans have drawn wholly different lessons from the global coronavirus pandemic and the role international cooperation plays in combating it.
Trump has broken with previous presidents in his approach to foreign policy, eschewing close cooperation with traditional allies and at a times bullying them; taking a softer approach to authoritarian figures; questioning the benefits of globalism, even withdrawing the United States from international organizations and agreements while adopting a harder line on trade.
The latest survey by the council, a think tank that has tracked opinions on world affairs for more than four decades, illustrates the degree to which his presidency has influenced members of his party and at the same time created a backlash among Democrats.
Among the most significant differences between the two parties are on perceptions of American exceptionalism. For years, a higher percentage of Republicans have said that the United States has “a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” but the gap has widened dramatically since Trump was elected.
In 2012, 85 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats said the United States was the greatest nation. Today, 80 percent of Republicans still say that, but among Democrats, it has fallen to 35 percent, down 21 percentage points since 2017, Trump’s first year in office. More than 3 in 5 Democrats (64 percent) now say the United States is no greater than other countries.
An assessment of future threats to U.S. vital interests — and therefore policy priorities — also highlights the deep differences between Republicans and Democrats. Not one of the top five threats identified by Democrats makes the top five identified by Republicans. Democrats see threats both internally and externally, while Republicans see the threats mostly coming from outside U.S. borders.
For Republicans, the top five threats to vital U.S. interests are the development of China as a world power, international terrorism, large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the country, domestic violent extremism and Iran’s nuclear program.
Less than a quarter of Republicans say income inequality or racial inequality represent threats to vital U.S. interests. While 87 percent of Democrats say the coronavirus represents a threat to those vital interests — and 60 percent of independents agree — 48 percent of Republicans say the same. A majority of Republicans say the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic has been effective, although more say it has been “somewhat effective” than “very effective.” They ranked the pandemic ninth in importance out of 15 potential threats.
Republicans and Democrats agree on the sixth-leading threat, a global economic downturn, but then part company on the seventh, with 53 percent of Republicans citing North Korea’s nuclear program and 59 percent of Democrats naming political polarization in the United States.
The Chicago Council analysis argues that, because Democrats express “deep disappointment” with the government’s handling of the pandemic, climate change, domestic inequality and foreign interference, the percentage of them viewing the United States as the greatest country in the world has dropped sharply.
Democrats have watched the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and concluded that more cooperation and collaboration with other nations is needed to solve global issues, a view shared by 80 percent of those who identify themselves as Democrats. Republicans take the opposite view, with 58 percent saying the pandemic shows that the United States should become more self-sufficient and less reliant on other countries, and 40 percent saying the pandemic should lead to more cooperation internationally.
These differences exist even as about 2 in 3 Americans, including clear majorities across partisan lines, say the United States should play an active role in the world. But fewer than 1 in 3 overall want the United States’ role to be a dominant one. Still more — over two-thirds — prefer that the U.S. role be shared with other nations. Most Americans agree with the argument that problems such as climate change and pandemics are so large and complex that only through cooperative efforts can they be dealt with adequately.
Despite the differences of opinion between members of the two major parties, support for security alliances is at or near an all-time high, according to the survey, and this includes accepting decisions that are not necessarily the preferred approach by the United States. Most Americans see the transatlantic alliances as mutually beneficial to the United States and European allies and remain committed to NATO, which Trump has challenged and at times questioned during his presidency. But Democratic support is much higher than Republican support — 85 percent versus 65 percent.
Meanwhile, there is majority support for decreasing U.S. troop strength in Germany, as the president has called for, and a small percentage of Americans now favor pulling all troops out of that country.
Attitudes toward China have turned negative in the past few years. On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being most favorable, views of China are at 32 on average, down from 45 two years ago and from a high of 53 in 1986. A majority now see the development of China as a world power as a critical threat, and even more say the United States should build up relations with Japan and South Korea, even at the expense of relations with China, rather than prioritize China over traditional allies.
Republicans favor taking a harder line in the U.S. approach to China, with about 2 in 3 saying the United States should “actively work to limit the growth of China’s power,” limit the number of Chinese students allowed into the country and restrict scientific exchanges. An even bigger percentage of Republicans favor increased tariffs on Chinese goods and slightly more support reducing overall trade with China, even at the cost of higher prices for goods.
Large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats favor putting sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses, stopping U.S. companies from selling sensitive technology equipment to China and seeking to negotiate arms-control agreements between the two countries.
“Republicans favor a nationalist foreign policy that hinges on self-reliance and autonomy and that promotes the use of more direct, forceful means to achieve US goals,” the council report said. “These means include maintaining superior military power, economic pressure, independence in decision making, and a more confrontational approach toward China.”
The Chicago Council survey was conducted online July 2-19, 2020, among 2,111 adults nationwide. The sample was drawn through Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.