The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
It has become an accepted truth in recent years that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is disconnected from the broader American public. In this view, the denizens of the Washington Beltway remain committed to an expansive U.S. role on the international stage even as average Americans increasingly want the United States to mind its own business and care for its own citizens. According to Stephen M. Walt, for example, “an out-of-touch community of foreign policy VIPs” has led U.S. foreign policy astray. Republican candidate Donald Trump exploited this supposed divide during his 2016 campaign, riding to the presidency on what was said to be a popular backlash against the internationalism of Washington elites.
But is the U.S. foreign policy establishment really out of touch with the American public? To answer this question, we recently surveyed more than 800 members of the U.S. foreign policy elite, including executive branch officials, congressional staff, think tank scholars, academics, journalists, and employees of internationally oriented interest groups. Together, these foreign policy opinion leaders play a large role in foreign policy debates, shaping agendas, opinion, and, ultimately, the policy decisions of the U.S. government.
When compared with prevailing public opinion about foreign policy, the results of our survey showed little evidence of a large gap between elite and popular opinion. Large majorities of both the foreign policy elite and the public support internationalist positions on trade, immigration, and alliances such as NATO. Large majorities of both groups also subscribe to the belief that the United States should play an active global role. Curiously, elite respondents substantially underestimate public support for these positions, incorrectly imagining Americans to be more inward looking than they really are. The U.S. foreign policy establishment may be guilty of misreading the public mood, but its views are not out of step with those of most Americans.
In the latest of a series of surveys of foreign policy professionals, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs partnered with the University of Texas at Austin to poll the U.S. foreign policy community in August and September on key issues such as alliances, trade, immigration, and the United States’ global role. (Approximately one-third of our respondents reported experience in government, including in the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, intelligence community, Congress, and other service abroad.) We then compared our results with those of the July 2020 Chicago Council Survey, a nationally representative survey of the American public that asked identical questions. We also asked elite respondents to estimate the public’s answers to these questions in order to show how the establishment perceives the rest of the country.
A consistent pattern emerged in our comparison of elite and public opinion: large majorities of both groups support internationalist policies, although elites are generally more supportive. For instance, on the question of whether the United States should play an active part in world affairs—a benchmark question asked in Chicago Council surveys since 1974—97 percent of elite respondents say yes, compared with 68 percent of the public. On trade, 99 percent of opinion leaders and 74 percent of the public think international trade is good for the U.S. economy.
At the same time, relatively few members of both the foreign policy elite and the public favor stepping back from commitments to international partnerships and to openness. Just nine percent of foreign policy professionals and 24 percent of the public support reducing U.S. obligations to NATO. Only three percent of elite respondents and 27 percent of the public back decreasing legal immigration to the United States.
Contrary to the notion that the foreign policy establishment and the public are moving further apart, the gap between the two has actually narrowed during the Trump presidency. On Trump’s signature issues of trade and immigration, for example, the public has moved closer to the prevailing elite view: public support for the claim that trade is good for the U.S. economy increased by 15 percentage points between 2016 and 2020, while public support for decreasing legal immigration declined by 12 percentage points over the same period. Trump’s rhetoric deriding U.S. allies has also largely failed to significantly move the needle: the percentage of the public that wanted to withdraw from or decrease the U.S. commitment to NATO rose only modestly from 21 percent to 24 percent between 2016 and 2020.
On each of these issues, foreign policy officials and experts consistently imagine the public to be far more isolationist and hostile to internationalist policies than it actually is. Elite respondents guess that 44 percent of the public favors decreasing the U.S. commitment to NATO—the true level is only 24 percent. Elites overestimate public support for decreasing legal immigration by 22 percentage points, while underestimating public support for international trade by 21 points and for an active U.S. role in the world by 16 points. The degree of inaccuracy in elite estimates of public sentiment does not substantially vary across professional groups, political parties, or respondents in and out of government, indicating that decision-makers and opinion leaders across the board share these misperceptions.
Why does the U.S. foreign policy elite consistently mischaracterize the public’s view of the world? One possible explanation draws on political psychology: foreign policy officials and experts view members of the public as fundamentally different from them, which leads them to accept crude stereotypes about the public. The media may also be partially to blame. News stories that highlight conflicts between average Americans and an out-of-touch elite tend to attract a great deal of attention, reinforcing a narrative of greater polarization.
Dispensing with the notion of a growing divide between the views of the public and of the foreign policy establishment could have important benefits. Officials may be more willing to embrace policies that require deeper or more costly international commitments—including on climate change and fighting pandemics—if they believe the public will support those positions. Similarly, future policymakers might be more likely to roll back the immigration and trade restrictions enacted under the Trump administration if they are less afraid of a potential public backlash.
After four years in office, Trump has failed to appreciably deflate public support for trade, immigration, and military alliances. Instead, the public remains largely in sync with establishment views on these core issues. U.S. leaders should recognize that they have more political space to advance and defend internationalist positions than they seem to realize. As they prepare for the post-Trump era—whether in four months or four years—advocates of greater international engagement have an important ally in the American public.
Ending the Chronic Imbalance Between Ends and Means