The Difference “Difference” Makes for American National Security

Sasha Miloshevic/Shutterstock
June 1, 2023

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and New America partnered to conduct novel research on the views of Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans as part of the 2022 Chicago Council Survey. Find key findings on how non-white Americans view challenges like climate change, immigration, and the use of military force below.

In October 2022, the Biden administration released its National Security Strategy organized around twin challenges: increasing geopolitical tensions, especially with China and Russia, and shared global problems around climate change, disease, terrorism, and economic inequality. The White House strategy assumes public consensus about the security threats the country faces. But there is a disconnect between the way the policy community frames threats to security and the way that most Americans experience and view critical challenges. That divide is even more pronounced when viewed from the perspective of many Black, Latina/o, Asian, and Indigenous people in the United States.

Consider the impacts of the COVID pandemic and the climate crisis. Many in the policy community dissect the lessons of the pandemic without taking into consideration its disparate impact on vulnerable communities, particularly on people of color. Total cumulative data show Black, Latina/o, American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN), and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) people have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to white Americans. Climate change similarly disproportionately affects those who suffer from socioeconomic inequalities, including many non-white Americans. African American and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by air pollution in the United States. More than one million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities, over one million African Americans face a “cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern” due to unclean air, and more than 6.7 million African Americans live in the 91 U.S. counties with oil refineries.

Over and over again, national security elites have tried to explain to Americans and the world what their views on security should be. Inside the DC Beltway, the so-called foreign policy “Blob,” or establishment experts, tend to take as gospel the old saw that international affairs don’t factor into how Americans vote or spend or make decisions about their everyday lives. Yet, time and again—from U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, to repeated political dust-ups in Washington over U.S.-Russia relations, to the controversy over a proposed ban on TikTok, to public responses to extreme weather, and rising energy prices fueled by the war in Ukraine—we see that national security impacts millions outside the Beltway in very real ways.

All of the above suggests that it is worth taking more time to understand what Americans from all walks of life really think about what national security means and how perceived threats and challenges translate for different communities. In an increasingly diverse and integrated United States, learning more about how historically marginalized groups are thinking about America’s standing in the world and the security challenges the country faces grows more crucial by the day. Depending on where they live, how they earn a living, who they love and spend time with, most Americans have different ways of thinking about threats to their own security. Some may well be more concerned about global health or police violence when it comes to the safety and security of their families. Others might be worried about how wars in far-away countries are driving up the cost of everything from driving to work or making sure there is food on the table. Still others might be worried about how America uses its military or economic resources to exert influence around the world. The question is: What do we know about how all these concerns stack up for Americans in historically marginalized and underserved communities?

It is worth taking more time to understand what Americans from all walks of life really think about what national security means.

Luckily, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has mountains of data about American views on security, especially on foreign policy issues around the use of force. The Council has conducted polling of Americans’ foreign policy views since 1973, and as a result it has become one of the most reliable but as yet fully untapped sources of information about the meaning of security for people from all walks of life across the country. We thought the Council’s survey data would make a great jumping off point for learning more about what a more nuanced view of U.S. public opinion on foreign affairs could tell us about where perspectives on everything from terrorism to climate change converge and diverge in a rapidly diversifying America.

So we partnered with the Council on a deep dive into their data, and leveraged their 2022 survey of public opinion on foreign policy to oversample subgroups of non-white Americans. What we discovered was as surprising as it was rewarding. What the data tells us is that Washington and the world have a lot more to learn about the difference in how Americans see the planetary-level problems we all now face, and the standing of the U.S. in the world.

Digging Down into the Data to Find the Differences

Polarization and rising political violence in the United States suggest that Americans are increasingly divided. But one thing most can agree on is that race matters in America, especially when it comes to politics, values, and policy. Research is only beginning to examine how various communities in the United States might think differently about national security. We know little about whether and how Americans think differently about foreign policy issues along racial lines. We also know less about American perspectives on broader questions about how the United States represents values in the world across issues ranging from climate change and pandemics to counterterrorism campaigns that are an increasing part of the security discourse.

One reason for this knowledge gap is that it is more difficult to draw significant conclusions about groups within a population using typical polling methods. In typical nationally representative surveys, the sample size of people of color is relatively small while the margin of error is relatively large, meaning that it is often difficult to draw conclusions about whether subgroups differ from one another in a statistically significant way.

To begin to rectify this problem, New America and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs tapped into the Council’s 2022 survey of public opinion on foreign policy and collected data from an extra set of respondents to ensure we were able to capture nuances of opinion that might stem from race. This polling method of collecting more samples from smaller groups is called oversampling. Oversampling is a polling method that selects a greater number of respondents from selected groups than is representative of the entire population. Statistical weighting then brings these groups back in line with the broader population so that they are not over-represented.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, polling experts began to adopt the oversampling method as a new standard for analyzing the subtle differences that make a difference in how people view an issue. So we decided to try this method out and we also worked with the Council to design questions that would allow us examine American views on a broader array of security issues. Oversampling, as a result, has allowed us to draw conclusions about how the views of different groups of non-white Americans—specifically Black, Hispanic and Latina/o, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous people—view these questions. And, guess what? Difference makes a difference when it comes to how race informs views on national security and foreign policy too.

Sorry Washington, America Is Not a Monolith

We analyzed data from Chicago Council’s 2022 survey of public opinion on foreign policy to develop an assessment of how non-white Americans view challenges like climate change, immigration, and the use of military force. These three assessments are the first in a series of six pieces analyzing data from the 2022 survey of public opinion. We learned that while on some issues Americans have similar views across racial categories, there are important differences on many questions that are fundamental to how we understand security and America’s standing in the world. No identity is a monolith, of course, and we know that not all Americans from the same racial group think alike. Rather, this polling method is part of a broader intersectional approach to better understanding how and why people of different backgrounds, identities, communities, and life experiences may think about these policy questions differently.

These findings have significant implications for policymakers who need to know how Americans think about these questions, as well as for researchers looking to better understand the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy. Understanding how communities of color perceive national security issues can help the national security policymakers identify and counter attempts by foreign adversaries to exploit these differences in order to undermine American security. And if we are serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, then we need to better understand the perspectives of communities of color, starting with more representative data. How do Americans of different races think about security? And what do their perspectives mean for U.S. foreign policy making? Here’s what we learned.

Everyone Cares about the Climate Crisis, But They Care for Different Reasons

With global temperatures set to breach 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next five years, it is more critical than ever that policymakers have a comprehensive understanding about how different American communities think about the climate crisis. Responses to questions about the threat of climate change and the robustness of our response highlight the growing concern about climate change among Americans, particularly among racially diverse groups, and underscore the challenges of addressing the issue amid deep partisan divisions. Climate change is viewed as a critical threat by a majority of Americans, with Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Black Americans expressing the highest levels of concern. These groups are also more likely to support immediate action and believe that the United States should take a leading role in addressing climate change globally.

If we are serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, then we need to better understand the perspectives of communities of color, starting with more representative data.

Partisanship strongly influences Americans' views on climate change, with Democrats, particularly Asian American and Pacific Islander Democrats, showing the highest levels of concern and support for action. African Americans, while acknowledging the threat of climate change, are somewhat less likely to support immediate action, possibly due to concerns about the costs involved. Moreover, differences in racial and ethnic attitudes towards the U.S.’s role in reducing the negative impacts of climate change are evident, with Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Black Americans showing greater support for the country taking a leading role.

International Alliances Matter and So Does Where We Deploy the Military

Survey questions on the use of force generally and in particular regions revealed findings that maintaining alliances and U.S. military superiority are considered effective in achieving foreign policy goals by solid majorities across most racial groups. Additionally, there is significant support among all racial groups for U.S. military presence in countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Poland, although levels of support vary. This would seem to suggest that the durability of America’s military alliance factors heavily into how many in the country conceptualize security. Americans, regardless of race, view security alliances and military power as effective foreign policy approaches. While Asian and white Americans tend to be most supportive, Asian Americans also express a higher likelihood of advocating for reduced military spending. Native Americans are generally less supportive of deploying U.S. troops abroad but show slightly higher support for sending troops to Ukraine.

However, differences emerge when it comes to deploying U.S. troops abroad. Asian Americans generally display the highest support for the use of force in various scenarios, followed by white Americans. Black Americans and Native Americans exhibit less comfort with the use of force, while Hispanic Americans fall in between. Despite these differences, there is broad support across racial groups for diplomatic options such as economic and military aid, sanctions, and accepting refugees in addressing international crises.

We Are All Mixed Up on How to Sort the Immigration Challenge

Globalization's connections complicate narratives on immigration and diversity, with the U.S. becoming more racially diverse and national security becoming tied to identity. A majority of Americans (53 percent) believe that growing diversity improves the country, with Asian Americans (66 percent) and Hispanic Americans (61 percent) most likely to agree. In terms of legal immigration, Americans generally support maintaining current levels (43 percent), but Hispanic Americans (34 percent) are more inclined to favor increased legal immigration.

Partisanship plays a significant role in immigration and diversity views. Democrats, especially Asian Americans (84 percent) and white Americans (77 percent), are more likely to see diversity as positive. Conversely, white Republicans (31 percent) are the least likely to agree. White Democrats (47 percent) are most supportive of increased legal immigration, while white Republicans (48 percent) favor decreasing levels.

Concerning immigration as a threat, Native Americans (51 percent) are most likely to perceive it as critical, while Asian Americans (33 percent), Hispanic Americans (32 percent), Black Americans (29 percent), and white Americans (44 percent) show varying levels of concern. Partisan affiliation strongly influences views, particularly among white Republicans (73 percent) who perceive immigration as a critical threat, compared to only 10 percent of white Democrats.

Partisanship outweighs race in shaping attitudes toward diversity and immigration. Republicans, across racial groups, are generally more threatened by immigration than Democrats. Future research is needed to explore the concerns and benefits associated with immigration across different groups and their interactions with political party affiliations.

Divided We Fall

Over the past three decades, there have been numerous changes in how the American people and policymakers see the dangers to national security that we face, with the pace of change accelerating over the last ten years. Our 2021 analysis of several polls of the American public revealed that, even though the views of Americans had evolved since the end of the Cold War, through 2010, they continued to frequently identify “traditional” security threats as the most urgent national security threats that the United States faced. These threats included terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security. Also less frequently mentioned as a serious threat was great power competition, whether it be with China or Russia. Flash forward one year later, and we find that the Chicago Council’s 2022 general survey indicates that there is broad agreement on continued support for Ukraine and Americans view Europe as an essential security partner.

Still, polling data also demonstrates significant partisan polarization over foreign and domestic security concerns. In line with many other studies, our analysis shows that views around security concerns are different, and sometimes diametrically opposed, across party lines. On immigration, for instance, there is more alignment of opinion based on political party affiliation than there is on race. The Chicago Council’s 2022 general survey found, for instance, that Democrats are more likely to support increasing diversity and legal immigration levels, with white Democrats and Asian American Democrats being the most likely groups to do so.

On other foreign policy issues like climate change, though, we see a divide between white and non-white Americans. The data indicates people of color are more supportive than white Americans of the stance that the U.S. should take a leadership role in international efforts to curb climate change. Asian and white Americans tend to indicate more support for the use of force in various scenarios compared to Native Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanic Americans. On many questions, views among people of color are distinct but don't line up with the common assumption that historically marginalized and underserved groups share the same views as “typical” Democrats or liberal voters.

This oversampling exercise makes it abundantly evident that more work needs to be done to build an understanding of how Americans and people of color view national security policies and the apparatus that develops those policies. Follow-on research using focus groups or town halls could help better appreciate the narratives and logic driving different perspectives. We may need to adjust our survey instruments to better represent American views.

Without the right kind of data that helps us get at the nuances of how and when race informs views on the meaning of security, it will be harder to see when social frictions might amplify the negative impact of a challenge or a threat. Absent insights into how difference makes a difference on everything from pandemic response to war, U.S. national security agencies will be operating with blinders on, unaware of fissures that can be exploited by malicious actors. We saw, for instance, in the 2016 and 2018 elections how Russia tried to exploit racial divisions by flooding Black and Latina/o social media users with disinformation and by amplifying misinformation.

But the more we know about how different communities diverge on the issues, the easier it will be to identify where they converge and to build a shared understanding even in the face of increasing polarization. Any progress we make toward achieving greater social cohesion will be critical to U.S. stability long term, and to America’s global influence in the future. Awareness of various American narratives may also help determine what national security goals can be achieved in the face of a country caught up in culture wars and partisan sniping.

While the data presented offers insights into the differing opinions held by American communities on important national security issues, there is a need to examine why these differences exist and how they should be taken into account by the national security policymaking apparatus. And, judging by the Council’s polling data, race is not the only factor to consider. Age matters too. Where the Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen-Xers place more emphasis on the country’s physical security, for instance, younger Americans, Millennials, and Gen-Zers seem more concerned that the U.S. take a leadership role on wicked problems like climate change.

As we approach the 2024 election, these differences in perspectives could become more pronounced, and contrary to popular belief, it’s possible that where a candidate stands on foreign policy and national security issues could influence electoral outcomes. So, taking stock of and incorporating diverse perspectives on U.S. security challenges will be as important for political parties and coalitions as it is for candidates. After all, the future of our union may depend on it.