For many observers of American politics, the fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense is indicative of growing partisan acrimony in the conduct of US foreign policy. However, concerns about intensifying partisanship in foreign affairs are not new. A number of scholars including Shapiro and Bloch-Elkon, Trubowitz and Mellow, and Bafumi and Parent have warned that, in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, partisanship in foreign policy has been on the rise. According to this narrative, US foreign policy since the end of World War II was underpinned by broad, bipartisan support for an international strategy based on both projecting military power internationally and a commitment to multilateral institutions and agreements. Many of these same scholars, including Kupchan and Trubowitz, now warn that the bipartisan consensus in favor of this strategy – commonly referred to as “liberal internationalism” – is now unraveling. These scholars cite a number of explanations driving this trend, such as the end of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, ideological polarization among the parties, and generational change. From this point of view, the Bush administration’s embrace of unilateralism after September 11th was not an aberration, but rather reflected a long-running and irreversible trend.
About five years ago, we asked ourselves what evidence we could bring to bear on assessing this claim. We looked at a variety of data: Congressional voting, party electoral platforms, Presidential State of the Union speeches, public opinion data (including survey data collected by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs), and information on the educational and biographical backgrounds of individuals serving in high-level foreign policy positions. If the claim that support for liberal internationalism was in decline were accurate, we would expect to see evidence of this decreasing support in each of these areas. Instead, as we demonstrated in a 2008 piece in Perspectives on Politics and a subsequent 2012 piece in Political Science Quarterly, we found a more mixed picture than what the conventional wisdom suggests. Continue reading