By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
Michigan Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s famous axiom that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge has always been more an expression of hope than a description of reality. Since he uttered his famous dictum in the 1940s, Americans have disagreed along ideological lines about a range of international issues: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, trade with Japan, the Iraq War, relations with China and climate change. With national debates looming next year over Iran, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, trade and China, continued partisan discord is probably unavoidable. What may be different this time is the shear depth of that partisan divide.
Americans differ in their judgment of the trajectory of the United States on the world stage. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans and 86 percent of those who agree with the Tea Party (among Republicans and Independents who lean toward the Republican Party) say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to 10 years ago. Just 33 percent of Democrats agree, according to a new public opinion survey, “America’s Place in the World,” undertaken by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations.
And this partisan view of an America in decline reflects an even harsher partisan assessment of President Obama’s handling of U.S. foreign policy. Roughly eight-in-ten of Republicans and 93 percent of Tea Party adherents disapprove of Obama’s handling of the nation’s foreign policy. Only 24 percent of Democrats disapprove.
Such ideological differences inhibit bipartisanship on a range of international challenges. In the Pew Research survey, the difference in GOP and Democratic approval of Obama’s handling of these issues averages 41 percentage points.
Republicans and Tea Party sympathizers are more likely than Democrats to cite Iran as the greatest danger to the United States, while just 17 percent of the GOP and 6 percent of Tea Partyites agree with President Obama’s handling of Iran, compared with 62 percent of Democrats.
In contrast, three-quarters of Democrats approve of the way the president has dealt with international terrorism, while only a third of Republicans and 17 percent of Tea Party sympathizers agree.
Such differences extend to the issue of climate change, with 59 percent of the members of the president’s party supporting his handling of this contentious issue, compared with just 18 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of those who align with the Tea Party sharing that support.
A conference brokered by the United States to try to end the Syrian civil war begins in January in Geneva. But on the eve of that event there is no bipartisan support for Obama’s Syria policy. Just 13 percent of Republicans and half that percentage of Tea Party sympathizers back the White House’s handling of the issue, compared with roughly half of Democrats.
Similarly, the United States faces an increasingly contentious relationship with China that is strongly divided along partisan lines. American antipathy toward China is on the rise, underscored by the fact that two-thirds of the GOP have an unfavorable view of China, as do three-quarters of Tea party supporters. And while about half of Democrats* approve of the president’s handling of China policy, only 13 percent of Republicans and 7 percent of Tea Party adherents do.
Notably, the public generally agrees on the preferable U.S. posture toward the rest of the world: they want a more inward looking America. They say, without significant partisan difference, that the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own. And they agree that President Obama should focus on domestic policy not foreign policy.
But once the public focuses on discreet international issues, strong partisanship emerges. Vandenberg’s hope is far from Obama’s reality.
*The article originally stated that half of Americans approve of the president’s handling of China policy, but has been corrected to note that this number actually applies to the share of Democrats.