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Seeing ‘I’ to ‘I’: British support for idealism and interest-based approaches to foreign policy

Article by Dr Catarina P. Thomson, Prof. Thomas J. Scotto, and Prof. Jason Reifler

September 8, 2020

Seeing ‘I’ to ‘I’: British support for idealism and interest-based approaches to foreign policy

In the context of recent changes to the structure of the foreign policy and international aid apparatus, and considering the upcoming Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review, here we examine how members of the public consider two key security matters. First and foremost, what foreign policy role do members of the public think the UK military should play? Second, when it comes to the UK’s overall international role, what weighs more for citizens, protection of national interests or other goals such as promoting democratisation or protecting human rights? Here we address these questions, with an eye on understanding factors that affect the public’s opinion on these matters such as political affiliation, Brexit support, and generational divides.


Roles the UK military should play

In 2018, we asked the public (n=2,565) whether or not the UK should be willing to use military force to achieve ten different goals.[1]



The main take-away point from Table 1 is that there are common consensual goals that broad sectors of the public believe the military should play. Nearly eight in ten respondents believe the military should combat global terrorist organisations, and close to three quarters of the public share the view that the military should play a role in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, as well as support and defend allies. A clear majority of respondents also support the military participating in operations associated with protecting vulnerable populations. Nearly three-quarters of the public (72 per cent) agreed the UK must be willing to participate in a military mission with a UN mandate to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, and seven in ten respondents supported using the military to stop ethnic cleansing. Preventing the rise of a hostile superpower also receives widespread support. When excluding ‘don’t know’ responses, the percentage of respondents agreeing with these statements outnumber the percentage disagreeing by a ratio of 5-1 or more. Ancillary analyses suggest relatively minor differences across respondents who identified with different political parties. The only real divide is over the intensity of agreement: Conservative and Labour party supporters’ levels of agreement are no more than ten percentage points away from each other for all items. A note of caution is warranted in interpreting these results. While the public endorses the use of the military to achieve these goals in the abstract, we can expect that support for any specific mission will be lower as additional considerations such as opportunity costs and the prospects of success will come to the fore, potentially reducing support.


If support drops when a specific deployment is proposed, then we can see the public has particularly strong opposition to using the military to help bring a democratic form of government to other nations (34 per cent) or to contain Chinese military power (36 per cent). Opposition to using the military to install a democratic form of government is likely a reaction to the use of that rationale as a reason to intervene in Iraq. We speculate that support is low for containing Chinese military power because people do not see the Chinese military as (yet) a threat worthy of response. Interestingly, while there is consensus around specific goals associated with the promotion of human rights—stopping ethnic cleansing and preventing a humanitarian catastrophe—there are higher levels of opposition to the more general goal of protecting human rights. An open question is whether the term ‘human rights’ has become politicised in recent discourse in a way that elicits the activation of thinking in terms of trade-offs as opposed to the more consensual goals discussed above. One possibility is that human rights is associated with ‘Europe’ (the European Court of Human Rights is often misunderstood to be part of the EU). Preliminary analysis suggests some support for this view – support for using the military to promote and defend human rights in other countries is approximately 20 percentage points lower for those who support Brexit.


Weighing national interests against ideals

Since consensus may break down when trade-offs are made apparent, we designed two scenarios where supporting an idealistic position has a cost—promoting a democratic leader that does not work well with the UK and putting human rights above the interest of your own nation. Understanding citizens’ views on these matters is especially salient in the context of the recent merger between the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). When the Johnson administration announced such changes in June, some argued the move ensured aid funding could be used to support wider national strategic objectives rather than being constrained by a narrow focus on poverty reduction.[2]


When asked if a dictatorship that usually supports UK interests serves as a better ally than a democracy that usually does not support UK interests, the average response is for individuals to situate themselves towards the mid-point of the scale.[3] That is, people see both idealism and interests as important guideposts for foreign policy. Political ideology plays a role here: left wing voters tend to prefer allying with democracies over interests, and right-leaning voters favour putting support for the UK’s national interests more at the forefront.[4] The Brexit-divide is also present, as members of the public who oppose Brexit lean more towards favouring alliances with fellow democracies. There is also somewhat of a generational divide, with younger voters taking a more idealistic standpoint of allying with a democracy, even if does not usually support British interests.



When the trade-off between national interests and promoting democracy and human rights is presented more generally, we find similar trends.[5] The overall mean leans more towards protecting national interests than the alliance item discussed above, but remains in the centre ground. Left wing voters are more likely to take a more idealistic stance than centrists and members of the public who identify ideologically with the right (particularly the far right, who lean more towards the national interest side of the scale here than in the item discussed above). Brexit supporters privilege national interests. We observe the same generational divide as in the item above, but the differences between younger and older generations are even more pronounced here.



The British public has clear ideas about the type of roles they believe the UK military should take on. At a time in which the national security and defence sector is being reviewed and faces the prospect of significant reforms, it is important to consider there is no public appetite for a reduction in the scope of military activities. The public sees important roles for the British military – and, at least in the abstract, these extend beyond protecting Britain and the British. Not surprisingly, there is wide-spread support for maintaining traditional defensive capacities such as combating terrorism. What may be surprising to some is that there is also support for using the military to prevent humanitarian crises or to stop ethnic cleansing. Support for idealism in foreign policy is also seen when examining survey questions that present respondents with explicit trade-offs. Relatively small portions of the public fully embrace a foreign policy based solely on interests at the expense of supporting democracy or human rights. At the same time, interests remain a powerful consideration.


The degree of consensus across the political spectrum is high enough to be considered what political scientists refer to as ‘valence’ issues. Valence issues are common consensual goals that nearly all of the public agrees with—such as a clean environment, or quality roads. However, we also find evidence that suggests such issues may become politicised in the British context and become ‘positional’ issues where different political parties or segments of the population take opposing sides. Examples include whether abortion should be legal or whether the UK’s asylum system should be more or less restrictive. Preliminary evidence suggests this might be the case when human rights are mentioned as a broad category, instead of as something more specific like acting to stop ethnic cleansing.[6]


Often, policies once considered valence issues become positional when politicians ‘fill in the blanks’ and trade-offs become visible to the public or when issues become associated with specific parties and politicians so that they are seen via a partisan lens. Centre-left candidates and parties particularly are vulnerable to this phenomena—examples include the generally pro-environmental Canadian public rejecting the Liberal Party in 2008 when it proposed to replace existing taxes with carbon taxes. [7] In the UK context, we find the public considers trade-offs when weighing pursuing the national interest against more idealistic objectives. Right-leaning and older voters in particular are more predisposed to factor the national interest when considering what foreign policy options the UK should pursue. It is possible that thinking in terms of such trade-offs might increase the likelihood of supporting aligning aid provision to broader national strategic interests (which has been suggested as being part of the rationale for DFID being subsumed by the FCO).


Dr Catarina P. Thomson is Senior Lecturer in Security and Strategic Studies in the Politics Department of the University of Exeter. Her background is in clinical psychology and international relations. Her recent work compares the foreign policy attitudes of security elites and the general public in the UK, Europe, and the United States. Her work has been funded by the American National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative, and the Economic and Social Research Council among others.

Prof Thomas J. Scotto is Dean of Learning and Teaching and Professor of Politics in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow.  His work analysing British and comparative public opinion on foreign policy matters appears in peer reviewed outlets such as International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of Political Research and Political Behaviour.

Prof Jason Reifler is Professor of Political Science at the University of Exeter. Prof Reifler has published over 40 peer-reviewed articles on topics such as public opinion about foreign policy, factual beliefs and misperceptions, and attitudes towards vaccines. He is PI on the ERC funded project DEBUNKER. He moved to the UK in 2013. He supports Tottenham Hotspur.


Image by DFID under (CC).


[1] Further information on the data can be obtained from contacting Thomas Scotto on

[2] Malcolm Chalmers, Farewell Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Welcome Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

RUSI Commentary, June 2020,

[3] The item asked was: “Some people think that in the long term, a dictatorship that usually supports UK interests serves as a better ally for the United Kingdom than a democracy that usually does not support UK interests. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” (scale ranged from 0 – “A dictator that usually supports UK interests” to 10 – “A democracy that usually does not support UK interests”).

[4] Survey respondents were told: “People sometimes use the labels ‘left’ or ‘left wing’ and ‘right’ or ‘right wing’ to describe political parties, party leaders, and political ideas. Using the 0 to 10 scale below, where the end marked 0 means left and the end marked 10 means right, where would you place yourself on this scale?” Respondents were categorised by response as follows: 0-1: “Far Left”; 2-3: “Left”; 4-6: “Centrist”; 7-8: “Right”; 9-10: “Far Right”.

[5] The item asked was: “Some people think that in making foreign policy decisions a more important priority should be protecting UK interests while others believe promoting democracy and human rights should be prioritised. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” (scale ranged from 0 – “Protecting UK interests should receive priority” to 10 – “Promoting democracy and human rights should receive priority”).

[6] For a detailed discussion of these two issue types, see Chapter 2 in Clarke, Harold D., David Sanders, Marianne C. Stewart, and Paul Whiteley. 2004. Political Choice in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] See, Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan, eds. 2009. The Canadian Federal Election of 2008. Toronto: Dundurn Press.

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