Americans’ attitudes toward Russia today are affected by whether they identify as Republican or Democrat. Polling data from the Pew Research Center going back several years showed that the parties’ views of Russia were fairly closely aligned; for years, Republicans were more likely to view Russia as a threat to the US, but the gap between Republicans and Democrats was not large. Today, the parties’ views have swapped, and the divide has grown significantly. Pew polling data from late October shows that 61 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans view Russia as a “major threat.” This is a stunning shift in views from the years prior to 2016.
Polling data by Pew and others traces this sudden switch directly to the 2016 presidential election and accusations that Russia interfered in support of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. A report by Shibley Telhami at the Brookings Institution, using data from early November, found deep partisan divides over whether Russian interference affected the outcome of the presidential election, with 74 percent of Democrats saying that Russia interfered and its interference affected the outcome — compared to only 8 percent of Republicans who agreed. Interestingly, most Americans believe that Russia interfered in the election; the biggest point of disagreement is regarding whether Moscow’s actions actually helped Trump win. While only 23 percent of Republicans said that Russia did not interfere, 59 percent of Republicans said Russia did interfere but it probably did not affect the election’s outcome.
In both the Pew and Brookings reports, Americans’ views on whether Russia interfered and whether it helped or hurt their party’s candidate are directly related to the shift in whether Republicans or Democrats view Russia as a major threat. The Brookings study found that 55 percent of Democrats view Russia as a foe and only 29 percent of Republicans do — a significant decline from traditional Republican hawkish views of Russia. However, most Republicans have not shifted to viewing Russia as an ally but rather as neither an enemy nor a friend (56 percent). The Brookings report also found that many Democrats and Republicans are willing to work with Russia on areas of mutual interest, such as fighting Daesh.
Another area of US foreign policy that has seen a shift in partisan views is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, both US political parties were very supportive of Israel, but in recent years Americans identifying as Democrats have shifted away from a strongly pro-Israel perspective while Republicans have increasingly embraced pro-Israel positions. Multiple factors have led to this shift, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s clear alignment with the Republicans and the growing influence of pro-Israel evangelical Christians in the Republican party.
This trend has led to wide partisan gaps on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For example, the Brookings report finds that 81 percent of Democrats opposed moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, while a plurality of 49 percent of Republicans supported the move. While members of both parties believe that the Trump administration leans in favor of Israel, they disagree on whether this is a good thing — with a majority of Republicans preferring a pro-Israel approach and a large majority of Democrats saying they prefer a balanced approach that does not favor either side.
Growing partisan divide on key issues is likely to lead to greater swings in US foreign policy based on which party controls the White House.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Despite large and growing partisan gaps on multiple foreign policy issues, there are some areas of agreement. The recent Pew poll found that 71 percent of Americans take the nuclear threat from North Korea “very seriously” — more so than any other threat in the survey. There is very little partisan difference on that point and related issues, such as whether North Korea’s leadership is willing to use a nuclear weapon against the US. However, when it comes to Americans’ confidence “in Trump’s ability to handle the situation in North Korea,” once again there is a wide partisan divide, with 80 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans expressing some or a lot of confidence in Trump, while only 9 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans feel the same.
The growing partisan divide on key issues is likely to lead to greater swings in foreign policy based on which party controls the White House. For example, while one US administration might be pro-Russia and pro-Israel, the next might be anti-Russia and less likely to automatically support Israel. Foreign leaders that closely align themselves with one party or the other could benefit when that party is in charge but lose when the other wins. Wise foreign leaders taking long-term perspectives will try to build relationships within both Republican and Democratic parties to try to insulate their interests from future sharp shifts in US policy.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch