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What Does the Right Think? GOP Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Daron Shaw

In the summer of 2022, as “Top Gun: Maverick” dominates the cinematic universe and an unrepentant Vladimir Putin prosecutes a Russian war against Ukraine, it is tempting to assume that conservatives are the bedrock of support for a strong national defense and an assertive U.S. foreign policy. Such an assumption simply draws on the tendency—reinforced, if not established, during the Reagan years—for a core part of conservative ideology to be based on the belief in a preeminent military and the concomitant need to stand up to the aggression of totalitarian actors abroad.

In this essay, I argue that the reality of public opinion among conservatives today is slightly more complicated.  With an eye towards updating and perhaps gently correcting the conventional wisdom, I offer four broad observations (take-away points) about conservatives and their foreign policy attitudes. First, conservatives and liberals are less distinct on foreign policy than on domestic issues. Second, conservatives are less likely to support a robust foreign policy when there is a Democratic president. Third, younger conservatives are much more supportive than their older counterparts of “soft” power and diplomacy. Fourth and finally, conservatism remains an ideology with foreign policy implications, but education, age, and political engagement also affect public opinion on these issues. 

Take Away Point #1: Ideological and partisan differences on foreign policy issues exist but are not as large as they are on domestic issues.

Barrels of ink (or terabytes of bandwidth) have been spent chronicling the “sorting” of the American political parties in recent decades. The short version of this story is that conservative Democrats moved away from the party after Democratic leaders staked out more liberal positions on social and civil rights issues in the mid-1960s. This tendency was particularly pronounced in the southern states. Meanwhile, liberal Republicans moved away from their party, particularly in the New England and Pacific coast states. This created more substantively consistent and coherent parties, but it also eroded the need for compromise in the name of coalitional maintenance. The result is the uncompromising, polarized politics of the 2020s.

This story is correct insofar as it suggests that Democrats today are more consistently committed to liberal positions on domestic and social policies than they were in the 1950s, while Republicans are more consistently committed to conservative positions. But this substantive polarization can be overstated on defense and foreign policy questions circa the 2020s, as ideologues of all stripes value the U.S. military and believe substantial resources ought to be committed to defending American interests abroad. For example, since 1972 respondents to the American National Election Study (ANES) survey have been asked to rate the military on a 0-100 scale, with 100 meaning you feel extremely “warm” towards the group and 0 meaning you feel extremely “cold” towards them. In the chart below, we see that conservatives are favorable towards the military—but so are liberals. So, while conservatives typically rate the military 10 to 15 points higher than liberals, the lowest average liberal rating of the military is 55 (in 1972 and again in 1980). In 2012, the last year the item was asked by ANES, liberals rated the military at 71.

Source: ANES Cumulative File

More contemporary debates reveal similar results. For example, when asked about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, conservatives (and liberals) look like everyone else:

  • about four in five are concerned about the conflict;
  • about four in five think it matters to the United States;
  • about seven in ten think Ukraine will remain a free country;
  • about three in five approve of Ukrainian president Zelensky’s handling of the invasion.


Acknowledging that the foreign policy distinctiveness of conservatives tends to be overstated, there are a few consequential differences between conservatives and liberals on national defense and foreign policy. Perhaps most notably, when it comes to spending on defense, conservatives have consistently supported increasing spending, while liberals typically want to keep spending levels where they are or even decrease them. In other words, liberals see defense as less worthy of federal government investment than economic and social programs. The chart below demonstrates the consistency of this difference over time.

Conservatives are also much more supportive of spending on defense systems, whereas liberals oppose these in favor of increased pay and benefits for the troops.

Beyond differences in their willingness to spend on defense and security, a broader philosophical divide exists. On one hand, conservatives tend to prioritize “inward” foreign policy agenda items. On the other hand, liberals place a greater emphasis on “outward” foreign policy goals. The figure below shows party (Republican-Democrat) differences, but the larger point holds for conservatives and liberals: those on the right see foreign policy as a means of defending American interests and reducing threats to the United States, while those on the left are more likely to prioritize global interests and values. However, as my colleague Collin Dueck correctly observes, conservatives are at least as supportive as liberals of “outward” goals when these are perceived to serve vital U.S. commitments and interests.

These broader differences are further manifest in the chart below, which seeks to ascertain partisan/ideological differences on (a) what U.S. foreign policy should be focused on, and (b) how we should achieve our foreign policy goals. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to favor pursuing a balance between national interests and the interests of allies in order to insure peace. Conservatives are also more likely than liberals to cite military strength—rather than diplomacy—as the best way to achieve peace. Note the callback to President Reagan’s philosophy in these findings: first, the interests of the United States are synonymous with peace, and, second, peace is attainable through strength.

Take-Away Point #2: Foreign policy opinions of conservatives shift depending upon who is in charge.

Voters tend to be more sympathetic to the policies and actions of a co-partisan. Hence, liberals are more willing to give President Biden the benefit of the doubt on foreign policy matters than conservatives, just as conservatives were more generous towards President Trump. It is also the case that when a co-partisan is in charge, policy debates are framed in a way that party voters pick-up. Perhaps the classic example is how partisan ideologues responded to Richard Nixon’s foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and China in the early 1970s. In the 1960s, conservatives consistently judged Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as insufficiently hardline towards the communist regimes in Moscow and Beijing. Subsequently, they were supportive of Nixon’s efforts to open China. Nixon was not only a co-partisan with impeccable credentials as an anti-communist, but he also framed his outreach to China as a way to bring pressure to bear on the Russians. Similarly, President Reagan’s negotiations with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev 15 years later were viewed positively by conservatives and skeptically by liberals, each of whom would have undoubtedly had different views had Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton been president.

What does this mean for 2022? Liberals have been more open to President Biden’s policies, such as withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and re-entering the Iranian nuclear deal and climate change accords (such as the 2015 Paris Agreement). Conservatives not only oppose these policies but are relatively less open to them than they were just three years ago under Trump. Moreover, conservatives are quicker to place blame on the incumbent administration for any perceived foreign policy setbacks. Although liberals judged last summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan critically, they were considerably less harsh than were conservatives. Similarly, when asked in the March 2022 Fox News Poll about Biden’s handling of Putin, 69 percent of conservatives said Biden was not tough enough on the Russian president whereas only 39 percent of liberals said this.

In short, context always matters, and it especially matters for foreign policy attitudes, where knowledge is scarce and predispositions are shallow.

Take-Away Point #3: There is an age divide among conservatives on foreign policy. 

This is something Republican pollster Kristen Solis-Anderson pointed out in a previous Reagan Institute Strategy Group essay: younger voters are less hawkish, more skeptical of defense spending, and more receptive to multilateral negotiations and alliances. This is not only true for the general population but also holds within ideological categories. The chart below shows that younger Republicans are roughly twice as likely as older Republicans to say that diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, or that it would be acceptable for another country to become as militarily powerful as the U.S. Younger Republicans are also more likely than older ones—by about 17 points—to say the U.S. should consider the interests of allies even if it means compromising with them.

It is less clear whether this age divide is the result of a generational shift, or a life-cycle difference. If it is the former, U.S. attitudes may soon approximate those seen in Europe and Japan, where there is little stomach for tougher security and defense policies. If it is the latter, we may see a right-ward swing of Generation Z opinions as they move into their 30s and 40s.

Take-Away Point #4: When it comes to foreign policy attitudes, ideology is not as important as education and engagement. 

Consistent with the discussion above, the final take-away point is that while ideology is correlated with foreign policy and defense attitudes, other factors are comparably important (and not just age). Most notably, political engagement and education are powerful forces behind the belief that America should be a world leader. Americans who have a college degree, or who follow politics, are much more likely than others to prefer a more engaged, internationalist foreign policy. Conversely, less well-educated and less engaged citizens prefer a more isolationist approach. Importantly, those claiming an ideological orientation—both conservatives and liberals—score relatively high on the education and engagement scales and, as a result, are relatively more supportive of American engagement and leadership on the world stage.  

This is evidenced by the data below, which show that both conservatives and liberals are more likely than moderates and others to believe the U.S. should concern itself with what is going on in the rest of the world. Ideologues on both sides of the spectrum are more engaged and informed, and (therefore) more likely to see the connections between involvement abroad and events here in the United States.


Conservatives do have distinctive opinions on foreign policy issues. They are more likely than liberals to say that defense and security policies should focus on concrete American interests. They are skeptical of alliances, treaties, and general internationalism—if the benefit to the U.S. is not obvious, or if America is not in charge of decision-making, conservatives are skeptical. They are, however, very supportive of the U.S. military and prioritize remaining the world’s preeminent superpower.

But conservative foreign policy attitudes are not a monolith. In particular, younger conservatives are more open to alliances and internationalism than are older conservatives.

Moreover, ideological differences on foreign policy are perhaps less important than other factors. Although conservatives are somewhat skeptical about alliances and internationalism than liberals, both are more supportive than are less educated and less engaged Americans.

In short, defense and foreign policy issues are usually less relevant to Americans than, say, gas prices or crime rates. This means that people who follow politics (who can make connections between foreign policy debates and self-interest) are more likely to have different opinions than “regular” Americans (who do not see these connections). This also “brings together” conservatives and liberals and distinguishes them from moderates and non-ideologues.

One final note is that when U.S. troops are committed to a foreign conflict, both engagement and ideological differences typically disappear: the “hypothetical” nature of foreign policy is gone, American interests are tangible, and support for engagement is close to universal. This is known as the “rally-around-the-flag” effect, and it remains a consistent and important feature of American foreign policy opinion.