Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Without Heirs? Assessing the Decline of Establishment Internationalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

Joshua W. Busbya1 and Jonathan Montena2

a1 LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. E-mail:

a2 Harvard University. E-mail:


Is establishment internationalism in decline? Conventional wisdom is becoming that structural shifts in the international environment along with generational, demographic, and cultural changes within the United States are inexorably leading to the decline of the broad, post-war internationalist consensus that dominated American foreign policy after 1945. Despite the frequent assertion that this change has taken place, very few studies have analyzed the extent to which establishment internationalism is in fact in decline. To answer this question, we first track trends in congressional foreign policy votes from the American Conservative Union (1970–2004) and Americans for Democratic Action (1948–2004). Our second set of indicators tracks the state of birth, educational profile, and formative international experience of a cross section of the U.S. foreign policy elite. Our third and fourth sets of indicators track elite attitudes as represented by presidential State of the Union addresses and major party platforms. We find support for increasing partisan polarization in Congress on foreign policy as well as increasing regional concentration of the parties. However, there is only mixed evidence to suggest that internationalism has experienced a secular decline overall. Support for international engagement and multilateral institutions remain important parts of elite foreign policy rhetoric. Moreover, we find that social backgrounds of U.S. foreign policy elites—save for military service—have not substantially changed from the height of the internationalist era.

Josh Busby is an Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin (

Jonathan Monten is a postdoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government (


The authors thank the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance (CGG) at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for its support of this research. In particular, they thank CGG's Raymond Hicks for his extensive assistance in developing the dataset of foreign policy voting patterns. Thanks also to Dustin Tingley for his assistance in coding State of the Union addresses and his comments on the piece. They also thank Matthew Baum and Thomas Wright for their helpful comments, and Jeff Legro for comments and sharing data.