Measuring Up

How Elites and the Public See U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 27, 2010.  Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Many observers of U.S. foreign policy have long been concerned about the gap between the policy preferences of the public and the actions of the country’s leaders. Over time, this disconnect may undermine Washington’s ability to project power and confidence internationally, while creating democratic accountability issues at home. As Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton warned in The Foreign Policy Disconnect, a “lack of public support for official foreign policy can send bad signals to international adversaries, constrain policy choices, upset policy continuity, and destabilize political leadership.” Two recent surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shed new light on the potential gap in foreign policy attitudes between the elite and the public. The first polled average U.S. citizens, and the second surveyed foreign policy leaders from government, academic institutions, media organizations, think tanks, and interest groups. The ambitious project marks the first major survey of its kind in over a decade.

These surveys reveal significant overlap and differences in the foreign policy opinion of these two groups. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public’s overall support for an active U.S. role in global affairs has weakened even as U.S. foreign policy elites continue to prefer active international engagement. At the same time, there remain important areas of agreement that could help build a sustainable global role for the United States in the future.


Although many headlines this past year argued that the United States is in decline, U.S. public and foreign policy leaders agree that the nation is still the most influential in the world today, and that strong U.S. leadership in the world is at least somewhat desirable. The public rated the United States an 8.6 out of 10 in terms of its influence, compared to a 9.1 out of 10 among foreign policy leaders. Both groups also agreed on the most important goals for U.S. foreign policy: to prevent the spread of

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