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Country Report: American Polarization and Foreign Policy

Written by Olivia Oseroff


According to Pew Research Center, in the last twenty years, the unfavorability rates of the U.S.' political parties have grown exponentially, poisoning and polarizing American politics. The U.S. has two major political parties: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Challenged by new ideologies and third parties, these parties have evolved considerably since the inception of the American two-party system. Since 1994, Democrats have viewed Republicans at an unfavorability rate of 38%, and 43% for Republicans view of Democrats. Today 26% of Americans identify as Republican, and 26% identify as Democrats, with 44% identifying as Independent. Over the past two decades, the growth in the division has heavily influenced the U.S. hegemonic status and foreign policy agenda.

The American Political Landscape and Gridlock

Domestic political attitudes heavily influence U.S. national security and foreign policy. Not only does infighting present a fractured front to both our enemies and allies, but it also hinders congressional and executive processes at which policy is drafted, approved, and enacted. There are multiple byproducts and theories of internal polarization. In an article published by Foreign Policy, Michael Desch argued that when a country is pressured and affected by foreign attacks or influence, they are more likely to unite. If there is no threat to their domestic life, leaders in the same country utilize the opportunity to cause internal divisions domestically. After the Soviet Union fell, the United States entered a relatively "peaceful" period. This was an opportunity for politicians to promote "their own brand" at the cost of others rather than continue standing behind a unifying sense of patriotism.

The increased polarization leaves the U.S. "more vulnerable to outside interference." This includes foreign influence in American elections, like the alleged Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 Presidential election. Lastly, the increased polarization blocks and slows congressional processes necessary to draft, approve, and enact foreign policy, forcing presidents to rely on executive action with expiration dates. This forced reliance furthers the split appearance of American politics to allies and enemies alike, presenting a weaker face, and compromising American presence on the world stage.

The Priorities of U.S. Foreign Policy

For the two main political parties, the priorities differ. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey compiled voter preferences regarding a range of foreign policy issues. Their survey found that Republicans' and Democrats' priorities and opinions differ on the top foreign policy priorities. For example, 68% of Republicans assert that reducing illegal immigration into the U.S. should be a top priority, compared to 20% percent of Democrats. 64% of Democrats stand for dealing with climate change instead of only 22% of Republicans. Lastly, 70% of Republicans prefer maintaining a U.S. military advantage over all other countries instead of only 34% of Democrats. The political parties coincide in approval of preventing the spread of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) with only a 4% difference and only a 3% difference in whether the U.S. should be attracting skilled workers from other countries.

Both main political parties agree non-proliferation is a priority of U.S. foreign policy but disagree about what approach to take. With different approaches to non-proliferation, both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump took action. Obama spearheaded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1. The JCPOA focused on monitoring Iran's stockpiles and limiting their development through IAEA inspections. The deal attempted to achieve peace through cooperation and trust. Trump withdrew from the agreement in May of 2018, arguing that the JCPOA did not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because they could work around the inspection protocols and the agreement only limited their access to nuclear material for a maximum of fifteen years. Trump argued the best way to prohibit Iran from acquiring WMDs was through stabilizing the region and building alliances and military strength of those allies in the region.

What’s Happening Now?

In the last five years, polarization has grown beyond expectation. The influence of the internet, social networking apps, and mainstream media has erupted, creating today's unique political environment. This unexpected and exponential growth of the internet has heavily influenced today's polarized society. The 2016 election was the beginning of this five-year rise in the division. Unorthodox candidates filled this election looking to make a splash in the American political game. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, pushing American democratic socialism alongside now-former President Trump, seemed to be the most divisive and polarizing candidates. Trump's unorthodox and straightforward approach resulted in internal divisions of America's political parties.

International business moguls require a different face than the President of the United States and leader of the free world sourcing Donald Trump's unorthodox debut in American politics. His appeal as a political outsider with a brash and impossible-to-ignore personality only made him a more attractive candidate to a faction of American citizens that felt unheard and unrepresented. In the 2016 Presidential election, limiting reliance on China and leveling the economic playing field was one of Trump's prominent ideas. Though the unfavorability of China is higher among Republicans and Republican-leaning citizens, since 2018, the overall unfavorability of China among U.S. citizens' has risen from 47% to 73% in the summer of 2020. This increase is most likely attributed to their handling and global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump's "hedgehog approach" included increased military posturing and escalations in our trade producing a less confident China. Other Trump initiatives included border security, 'America First' foreign policy, and promoting U.S. energy independence. While his policies aligned with the Republican party's base, former President Trump's unconventional approach allowed him to appeal to various voter bases across the American political spectrum.

A downside of the American two-party system is that it eventually results in the evolution or division of existing parties or the creation of a new party. When a party splits or evolves, usually it's a result of a significant event. In this instance, the 2016 Presidential election led the way with more divisive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The 2016 election kicked off arguably the most extreme "conflict" between the two parties' main values and policies in modern times. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this five-year period. The division of either party is an advantage for the other. In other words, if the Democratic party splits, it benefits the unification of the Republican party and vice versa.

In addition to Democrats' rising opposition to Donald Trump and his base and Republicans' growing "culture war" against the far-left, the parties are internally dividing, only deepening the level of polarization nationwide. The internal divisions were driven by introducing candidates with new approaches and more extreme stances on mainstream ideals within each party. Democrats are faced with the difference between a moderate, center-left Joe Biden or a democratic socialist and leftist like Bernie Sanders. With the Trump presidency over, conservatives either are pro-Trump or want to move on from the Trump era, with some even supporting the formation of a new party. If either party splits, this further exacerbates the United States' weakening position as the global hegemon presenting a divided face to the world.

The Domestic Effects and International Influence of Biden’s Build Back Better Plan

President Biden promoted his Build Back Better (BBB) plan leading up to the 2020 Presidential election. The plan comprises domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Domestically, the program focuses on responses to climate change, affordable housing, healthcare for low-income Americans, and building the economic stability of the American middle class. In July 2021, Biden and the G7 discussed the global aspect of the BBB initiative, which includes focusing on the development of lower and middle-income countries and combating Chinese expansionism in Asia and Africa.

As part of the project, the over $1 trillion infrastructure bill was passed and signed in November 2021 to improve transportation, broadband, utilities, social safety, and climate policy. The infrastructure bill is only one-third of the entire Build Back Better plan, which because of polarization and party divisions, will be stalled indefinitely. In December 2021, Senator Joe Machin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, voted against the Build Back Better Act, effectively killing the legislation’s chance to pass. Both these instances demonstrate the extent to which polarization has extended between and within the two political parties.

The COVID-19 pandemic left countries in every corner of the globe in economic peril, highlighting countries’ urgent infrastructure gaps. Africa is a region that analysts argue should receive major boosts in infrastructure development from the U.S.’s G7-backed Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative for clean and green global infrastructure growth. At the G7 summit in July 2021 at Carbis Bay, President Biden gained commitments from many countries to contribute $80 billion to Africa’s economy over the next five years. However, little information about the global infrastructure initiative has emerged since the summit. Several analysts see the initiative as a possible balance against Chinese influence and infrastructure development in Africa.


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