Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-rbzxz Total loading time: 0.292 Render date: 2022-05-21T12:08:58.932Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2021

Get access


A common explanation for the increasing polarization in contemporary American foreign policy is the absence of external threat. I identify two mechanisms through which threats could reduce polarization: by revealing information about an adversary that elicits a bipartisan response from policymakers (information mechanism) and by heightening the salience of national relative to partisan identity (identity mechanism). To evaluate the information mechanism, study 1 uses computational text analysis of congressional speeches to explore whether security threats reduce partisanship in attitudes toward foreign adversaries. To evaluate the identity mechanism, study 2 uses public opinion polls to assess whether threats reduce affective polarization among the public. Study 3 tests both mechanisms in a survey experiment that heightens a security threat from China. I find that the external threat hypothesis has limited ability to explain either polarization in US foreign policy or affective polarization among the American public. Instead, responses to external threats reflect the domestic political environment in which they are introduced. The findings cast doubt on predictions that new foreign threats will inherently create partisan unity.

Research Article
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2021

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abramowitz, Alan I., and Saunders, Kyle L.. 1998. Ideological Realignment in the US Electorate. Journal of Politics 60 (3):634–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Abramowitz, Alan I., and Saunders, Kyle L.. 2008. Is Polarization a Myth? Journal of Politics 70 (2):542–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Albertson, Bethany, and Gadarian, Shana Kushner. 2015. Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Aldrich, John H., Gelpi, Christopher, Feaver, Peter D., Reifler, Jason, and Sharp, Kristin Thompson. 2006. Foreign Policy and the Electoral Connection. Annual Review of Political Science 9:477502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Aldrich, John H., Sullivan, John L., and Borgida, Eugene. 1989. Foreign Affairs and Issue Voting: Do Presidential Candidates “Waltz Before a Blind Audience?” American Political Science Review 83 (1):123–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alesina, Alberto. 1988. Credibility and Policy Convergence in a Two-Party System with Rational Voters. American Economic Review 78 (4):796805.Google Scholar
Allcott, Hunt, Boxell, Levi, Conway, Jacob, Gentzkow, Matthew, Thaler, Michael, and Yang, David. 2020. Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing During the Coronavirus Pandemic. NBER Working Paper no. 26946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bafumi, Joseph, and Parent, Joseph M.. 2012. International Polarity and America's Polarization. International Politics 49 (1):135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bak, Daehee, Chavez, Kerry, and Rider, Toby. 2020. Domestic Political Consequences of International Rivalry. Journal of Conflict Resolution 64 (4):703–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baum, Matthew A. 2002. The Constituent Foundations of the Rally-Round-the-Flag Phenomenon. International Studies Quarterly 46 (2):263–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baum, Matthew A., and Potter, Philip B.K.. 2015. War and Democratic Constraint: How the Public Influences Foreign Policy. Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Berinsky, Adam J. 2009. In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq. University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brands, Hal. 2018. China's Master Plan: Exporting an Ideology. Bloomberg, 11 June.Google Scholar
Brecher, Michael. 1979. State Behavior in International Crisis: A Model. Journal of Conflict Resolution 23 (3):446–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brecher, Michael, Wilkenfeld, Jonathan, Beardsley, Kyle, James, Patrick, and Quinn, David. 2017. International Crisis Behavior Data, Version 12. <>..>Google Scholar
Brody, Richard A. 1991. Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support. Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Brody, Richard A., and Shapiro, Catherine R.. 1989a. A Reconsideration of the Rally Phenomenon in Public Opinion. In Political Behavior Annual, Vol. 2, edited by Long, Samuel, 77102. Westview.Google Scholar
Brody, Richard A., and Shapiro, Catherine R.. 1989b. Policy Failure and Public Support: The Iran-Contra Affair and Public Assessment of President Reagan. Political Behavior 11 (4):353–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Busby, Joshua W., and Monten, Jonathan. 2008. Without Heirs? Assessing the Decline of Establishment Internationalism in US' Foreign Policy. Perspectives on Politics 6 (3):451–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E., and Stokes, Donald E.. 1960. The American Voter. University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Canes-Wrone, Brandice, Howell, William G., and Lewis, David E.. 2008. Toward a Broader Understanding of Presidential Power: A Reevaluation of the Two Presidencies Thesis. Journal of Politics 70 (1):116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chandra, Kanchan. 2006. What Is Ethnic Identity and Does It Matter? Annual Review of Political Science 9:397424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chaudoin, Stephen, Milner, Helen V., and Tingley, Dustin H.. 2010. The Center Still Holds: Liberal Internationalism Survives. International Security 35 (1):7594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chicago Council on Global Affairs. 2020. Divided We Stand: Democrats and Republicans Diverge on US Foreign Policy. <>..>Google Scholar
Coats, Daniel R. 2018. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.Google Scholar
Colaresi, Michael. 2007. The Benefit of the Doubt: Testing an Informational Theory of the Rally Effect. International Organization 61 (1):99143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Colaresi, Michael. 2014. Democracy Declassified: The Secrecy Dilemma in National Security. Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Colaresi, Michael, Rasler, Karen, and Thompson, William R.. 2008. Strategic Rivalries in World Politics: Position, Space, and Conflict Escalation. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Coser, Lewis A. 1956. The Functions of Social Conflict. Free Press.Google Scholar
Cox, Gary W., and McCubbins, Matthew D.. 1993. Legislative Leviathan: Party Government in the House. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Cox, Gary W., and McCubbins, Matthew D.. 2005. Setting the Agenda: Responsible Party Government in the US House of Representatives. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Desch, Michael C. 1998. War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States? International Organization 50 (2):237–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 2019a. Civilian Unemployment Rate by Month. Accessed from FRED Economic Data. <>..>Google Scholar
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. 2019b. Real Disposable Personal Income. Accessed from FRED Economic Data. <>..>Google Scholar
Fiorina, Morris P. 2017. Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate. Hoover Institution Press.Google Scholar
Fordham, Benjamin O. 1998. Economic Interests, Party and Ideology in Early Cold War Era US Foreign Policy. International Organization 52 (2):359–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gaertner, Samuel, and Dovidio, John. 2000. Reducing Intergroup Bias: The Common Ingroup Identity Model. Psychology Press.Google Scholar
Garrett, Kristin N., and Bankert, Alexa. 2020. The Moral Roots of Partisan Division: How Moral Conviction Heightens Affective Polarization. British Journal of Political Science 50 (2):621–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gelpi, Christopher, Feaver, Peter D., and Reifler, Jason. 2009. Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts. Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gentzkow, Matthew, Shapiro, Jesse M., and Taddy, Matt. 2018. Congressional Record for the 43rd–114th Congresses: Parsed Speeches and Phrase Counts. Stanford Libraries.Google Scholar
Gibler, Douglas M. 2010. Outside-In: The Effects of External Threat on State Consolidation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 54 (4):519–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gillion, Daniel Q., Ladd, Jonathan M., and Meredith, Marc. 2020. Party Polarization, Ideological Sorting, and the Emergence of the US Partisan Gender Gap. British Journal of Political Science 50 (4):1217–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goet, Niels D. 2019. Measuring Polarization with Text Analysis: Evidence from the UK House of Commons, 1811–2015. Political Analysis 27 (4):518–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gourevitch, Peter. 1978. The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics. International Organization 32 (4):881912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gourevitch, Peter. 2002. Reinventing the American State: Political Dynamics in the Post-Cold War Era. In Shaped by War and Trade: International Influences on American Political Development, edited by Katznelson, Ira and Shefter, Martin, 301–30. Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gowa, Joanne. 1998. Politics at the Water's Edge: Parties, Voters, and the Use of Force Abroad. International Organization 52 (2):307–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Green, Donald, Palmquist, Bradley, and Schickler, Eric. 2002. Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social Identities of Voters. Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Grieco, Joseph M., Gelpi, Christopher, Reifler, Jason, and Feaver, Peter D.. 2011. Let's Get a Second Opinion: International Institutions and American Public Support for War. International Studies Quarterly 55 (2):563–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Guisinger, Alexandra, and Saunders, Elizabeth N.. 2017. Mapping the Boundaries of Elite Cues: How Elites Shape Mass Opinion Across International Issues. International Studies Quarterly 61 (2):425–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hare, Christopher, and Poole, Keith T.. 2014. The Polarization of Contemporary American Politics. Polity 46 (3):411–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howell, William G., and Pevehouse, Jon C.. 2007. While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers. Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Huddy, Leonie, and Khatib, Nadia. 2007. American Patriotism, National Identity, and Political Involvement. American Journal of Political Science 51 (1):6377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Huntington, Samuel P. 1997. The Erosion of American National Interests. Foreign Affairs 76 (5):2849.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Iyengar, Shanto, Lelkes, Yphtach, Levendusky, Matthew, Malhotra, Neil, and Westwood, Sean J.. 2019. The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science 22 (7):129–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Iyengar, Shanto, Sood, Gaurav, and Lelkes, Yphtach. 2012. Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3):405–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jentleson, Bruce W. 1992. The Pretty Prudent Public: Post Post-Vietnam American Opinion and the Use of Military Force. International Studies Quarterly 36 (1):4974.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jeong, Gyung-Ho, and Quirk, Paul J.. 2019. Division at the Water's Edge: The Polarization of Foreign Policy. American Politics Research 47 (1):5887.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kertzer, Joshua D., Brooks, Deborah Jordan, and Brooks, Stephen G.. Forthcoming. Do Partisan Types Stop at the Water's Edge? Journal of Politics.Google Scholar
Kupchan, Charles A., and Trubowitz, Peter L.. 2007. Dead Center: The Demise of Liberal Internationalism in the United States. International Security 32 (2):744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Layman, Geoffrey C., and Carsey, Thomas M.. 2002. Party Polarization and “Conflict Extension” in the American Electorate. American Journal of Political Science 46 (4):786802.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Layman, Geoffrey C., Carsey, Thomas M., Green, John C., Herrera, Richard, and Cooperman, Rosalyn. 2010. Activists and Conflict Extension in American Party Politics. American Political Science Review 104 (2):324–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Layne, Christopher. 2004. China's Role in American Grand Strategy: Partner, Regional Power, or Great Power Rival? In The Asia-Pacific: A Region in Transition, edited by Rolfe, Jim, 5480. Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.Google Scholar
Lee, Frances E. 2009. Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles, and Partisanship in the US Senate. University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lelkes, Yphtach, Sood, Gaurav, and Iyengar, Shanton. 2015. The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband Internet on Partisan Affect. American Journal of Political Science 61 (1):520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levendusky, Matthew. 2009. The Partisan Sort. University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levendusky, Matthew. 2017. Americans, Not Partisans: Can Priming American National Identity Reduce Affective Polarization? Journal of Politics 80 (1):5970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levendusky, Matthew S., and Horowitz, Michael C.. 2012. When Backing Down Is the Right Decision: Partisanship, New Information, and Audience Costs. Journal of Politics 74 (2):323–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lewis, Jeffrey B., Poole, Keith, Rosenthal, Howard, Rudkin, Aaron, and Sonnet, Luke. 2019. Voteview: Congressional Roll-Call Votes Database. <>..>Google Scholar
Lindsay, James M. 2000. The New Apathy: How an Uninterested Public Is Reshaping Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs 79 (5):28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mason, Lilliana. 2015. “I Disrespectfully Agree”: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization. American Journal of Political Science 59 (1):128–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McCarty, Nolan, Poole, Keith T., and Rosenthal, Howard. 2006. Polarized America: The Dance of Political Ideology and Unequal Riches. MIT Press.Google Scholar
Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, and Moore, Will H.. 2002. Presidential Uses of Force During the Cold War: Aggregation, Truncation, and Temporal Dynamics. American Journal of Political Science 46 (2):438–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, and Prins, Brandon C.. 2004. Rivalry and Diversionary Uses of Force. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):937–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mueller, John E. 1970. Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson. American Political Science Review 64 (1):1834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mueller, John E. 1973. War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. Wiley.Google Scholar
Musgrave, Paul. 2019. International Hegemony Meets Domestic Politics: Why Liberals Can Be Pessimists. Security Studies 28 (3):451–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Myrick, Rachel. 2018. Towards the Extremes: The Impact of Partisan Polarization on International Cooperation. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Peace Science Society, Austin, Texas on 9–11 November.Google Scholar
Myrick, Rachel. 2019. The Reputational Consequences of Polarization for American Foreign Policy: Evidence from the US–UK Bilateral Relationship. Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Studies Association, Toronto, 14–18 March.Google Scholar
Nivola, Pietro S. 2003. Can the Government Be Serious? Brookings Review 21 (1):411.Google Scholar
Oneal, John R., and Bryan, Anna Lillian. 1995. The Rally ’Round the Flag Effect in US Foreign Policy Crises, 1950–1985. Political Behavior 17 (4):379401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ostrom, Charles W., and Job, Brian L.. 1986. The President and the Political Use of Force. American Political Science Review 80 (2):541–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Peake, Jeffrey S., Krutz, Glen S., and Hughes, Tyler. 2012. President Obama, the Senate, and the Polarized Politics of Treaty Making. Social Science Quarterly 93 (5):1295–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Peterson, Andrew, and Spirling, Arthur. 2018. Classification Accuracy as a Substantive Quantity of Interest: Measuring Polarization in Westminster Systems. Political Analysis 26 (1):120–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pew Research Center. 2018. Partisan Divides in Views of Many Countries—but Not North Korea. <>..>Google Scholar
Pew Research Center. 2020. Republicans, Democrats Move Even Further Apart in Coronavirus Concerns. <>..>Google Scholar
Poole, Keith T., and Rosenthal, Howard. 1997. Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Porter, Bruce D. 1993. Can American Democracy Survive? Commentary Magazine (November). <>..>Google Scholar
Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rathbun, Brian C. 2007. Hierarchy and Community at Home and Abroad: Evidence of a Common Structure of Domestic and Foreign Policy Beliefs in American Elites. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (3):379407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ripberger, Joseph T., Jenkins-Smith, Hank C., and Herron, Kerry G.. 2011. How Cultural Orientations Create Shifting National Security Coalitions on Nuclear Weapons and Terrorist Threats in the American Public. PS: Political Science and Politics 44 (4):715–19.Google Scholar
Roberts, Jason M., and Smith, Steven S.. 2003. Procedural Contexts, Party Strategy, and Conditional Party Voting in the US House of Representatives, 1971–2000. American Journal of Political Science 47 (2):305–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schultz, Kenneth A. 2018. Perils of Polarization for US Foreign Policy. Washington Quarterly 40 (4):728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sekulic, Dusko. 1997. The Creation and Dissolution of the Multinational State: The Case of Yugoslavia. Nations and Nationalism 3 (2):165–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Simmel, Georg. 1955. Conflict and the Web of Group-Affiliations. Free Press.Google Scholar
Stein, Arthur A. 1976. Conflict and Cohesion: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Conflict Resolution 20 (1):143–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sumner, William Graham. 1906. Folkways. Ginn.Google Scholar
Theriault, Sean M. 2008. Party Polarization in Congress. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tomz, Michael, and Weeks, Jessica L.P.. 2020. Public Opinion and Foreign Electoral Intervention. American Political Science Review 114 (3):856–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

Myrick supplementary material

Myrick supplementary material

Download Myrick supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 444 KB
Supplementary material: Link

Myrick Dataset

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *