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The reputational consequences of polarization for American foreign policy: evidence from the US-UK bilateral relationship

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Abstract

How does partisan polarization in the United States affect foreign perceptions of its security commitments and global leadership? In a survey experiment fielded to 2000 adults in the United Kingdom, I demonstrate that priming respondents to think about US polarization negatively impacts their evaluations of the US-UK bilateral relationship. These impacts are stronger for the long-term, reputational consequences of polarization than for immediate security concerns. While foreign allies do not expect the United States to renege on existing security commitments, perceptions of extreme polarization make them less willing to engage in future partnerships with the United States and more skeptical of its global leadership. I find that these negative reputational consequences of polarization are driven by perceptions of preference-based, ideological polarization rather than identity-based, affective polarization. The results suggest that American allies anticipate that increasing divergence between the Republican and Democratic Party will create future uncertainty around US foreign policy.

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Notes

  1. Public opinion polls showed that 92 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election (Pew Research Center 2018).

  2. For the purposes of this study, I refer to this form of polarization as preference polarization because it is framed to UK respondents in the survey as increasing divergence in policy preferences rather than increasing ideological coherence. I use the term ‘preference’ to avoid introducing ideological labels in the survey like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ which have different connotations in British politics relative to American politics.

  3. See Kertzer (2021) for a discussion of this trend and an overview of recent research.

  4. An online appendix provides the full survey questionnaire.

  5. A Cronbach’s alpha of 0.7 or higher is generally considered internally consistent in the social sciences.

  6. ‘Speeding’ here is measured before the treatment so that dropping respondents from the analysis does not bias the results.

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Correspondence to Rachel Myrick.

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This paper benefited from feedback from Gordon Friedrichs, Sarah Maxey, Kenneth Schultz, Jordan Tama, Michael Tomz, and participants in the November 2020 “Domestic Polarization and US Foreign Policy” Workshop hosted by Heidelberg University and American University. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2019 International Studies Association Conference in Toronto, Canada.

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Myrick, R. The reputational consequences of polarization for American foreign policy: evidence from the US-UK bilateral relationship. Int Polit 59, 1004–1027 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-022-00382-z

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