WPO Home | A&W Home | About Americans & the World | Search | Join our ListServ | Contact Us

US Role in the World

Concerns US is Doing Disproportionate Amount Internationally

Support for US international engagement is dampened and obscured by widespread feelings that the US is doing more than its fair share in efforts to address international problems relative to other countries, and spending too much on international programs relative to domestic programs. However, in many cases this attitude seems to rest on substantial overestimations of the levels of US contributions relative to other countries and international spending as a portion of the federal budget. Asked to set their own preferred levels for foreign aid, most Americans usually set them higher than the actual levels.

While an abundance of data suggests that the majority of Americans is supportive of international engagement, there is also some data that suggest the contrary. First, as discussed above [see US Role: Rejection of Hegemonic Role], a strong majority of Americans rejects the role of dominant world leader for the US. Closely related is the view that the US is doing more than its fair share internationally.

Most recently, a September 2006 Public Agenda poll offered two statements about how the US should approach helping other countries. A majority (57%) agreed with the statement "With all the problems we have, we're already doing more than our share to help less fortunate countries." Only 37% chose the statement with the more altruistic viewpoint, saying "our country is so well-off that we really should be doing more to help countries that are less fortunate."[1]

This perception of the US doing more than its "share" internationally has persisted in American public opinion for some time. For example, in a June 2000 PIPA poll respondents were asked, "In recent efforts to solve world problems, as compared to other countries, do you think the US has generally done more than its fair share, its fair share, or less than it's fair share?" Seventy-one percent said that the US has generally done more than its fair share, 24% said it has done its fair share and only 3% said it has done less.[2]

A February-April 1998 PIPA poll also found widespread feeling that the US does more than its fair share relative to European countries. Eighty-one percent said the US does more than its fair share in maintaining peace in the world and 78% felt that way about maintaining peace in Europe. Sixty-seven percent said Europe was doing less than its fair share in the NATO operation in Bosnia. [3]

Polls have found 60% feeling the US pays more than it fair share for "UN activities"(June 1995, Times Mirror); 50% feeling the US is paying more than its fair share for UN dues (June 1996, PIPA); and 60% saying the US contributes more than its fair share of troops to UN peacekeeping (April 1995, PIPA).[4]

But these judgments of unfairness seem to rest on major misperceptions, as respondents dramatically overestimate the US share of international efforts, and when asked what the appropriate share for the US would be, often propose a proportion that is as much or greater than the amount the US is in fact contributing.

One of the areas with the greatest misperception of US contributions lies in foreign aid. The most recent OECD estimate for US overseas development assistance as percent of national income for 2006 is projected to be at 0.17%, the lowest of all countries. In 2005 it was at 0.22% GNI, above only Portugal and Greece, and at 0.17% GNI in 2004, above only Italy (for more information see http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/14/5/38354517.pdf and http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/0/41/35842562.pdf). However, Americans have historically overestimated foreign aid as a portion of the US budget by nearly more than 100 times the actual amount. As recently as June 2005, Gallup International asked Americans "what share of national incomes the United States actually gives in foreign aid to help development/poverty alleviation in other countries," with only 9% correctly estimating the amount at "higher than .1-.2 of a percentage point." 18% believed it to range from 5 to more than 25%, while another 11% thought it to range between 1-2%. Ironically, when asked to say what percentage of gross national income the US should give in foreign aid, a plurality (44%) preferred to give at least 1% and in general significantly more (see footnote for more detailed results). [5]

Eighty-one percent have also believed, mistakenly, that the US gives more aid as a percentage of GDP than the other industrialized countries give (PIPA, January 1995).[6]

In the February-April 1998 PIPA poll respondents were asked to estimate the ratio of US spending as compared to European spending in a number of areas and then to propose the appropriate amount. While Americans were quite accurate at estimating the ratio of US and European defense spending and development aid, they greatly overestimated the US share of troops in Bosnia and UN dues, and they proposed a US share that was as much or more than the actual share.

When asked what percentage of all the troops in Bosnia at the time were American, the mean estimate was 53% when in fact the US was contributing about 25%. When asked about contributing US troops to the extended NATO mission in Bosnia with the following question, "If our European allies and some other countries would provide 75% of the troops for this extended mission, should the US be willing or should the US not be willing to contribute 25%?", an overwhelming 78% of respondents said the US should be willing, while only 18% said it should not.[7]

Asked about the US share of combined US-EU contributions to the United Nations, the median estimate was 50%, far higher than the 40% actually given.[8]

When asked to estimate what percentage the US gives of all US-EU aid to help poor countries develop their economies, the median response was similar to the actual ratio -- the US does give 60% (mean estimate: 58%). The suggested appropriate share was 40%.[9]

However, in a similar question about the US share "of all the aid given by wealthy countries to poor countries to help them develop their economies," the public also overestimated US contributions yet suggested a proportion higher than that actually given. Americans estimated that the US gave 37% of all development aid from rich countries and proposed a more reasonable percentage would be 26% (November 2000). In fact, according to recent OECD figures, the US gives just 12% of the total amount of official development assistance.[10]

When Americans are given correct information about the actual levels of US contributions relative to other countries, criticism falls off sharply. For example, after hearing in June 1996 that, in fact, the US contributes 25% of UN dues because the US economy is 25% of the world economy, 56% found it fair, while just 37% found it unfair.[11]

The belief that the US is contributing more than its fair share can also obscure support for US engagement in unpredictable ways. For example, despite fairly strong support for the general principle of contributing US troops to peacekeeping operations, in 1996 most polls have showed the public divided on contributing troops to the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. In a January 1996 Pew poll respondents were asked whether they "approve or disapprove of President Clinton's decision to send 20,000 US troops to Bosnia as part of an international peacekeeping force," without stating that other countries would be supplying the majority of the troops. Forty-eight percent said they approved, while 49% said they disapproved. The same question was repeated with half the sample in the June 1996 PIPA poll and produced a similar result -- 51% approve, 44% disapprove. However in the PIPA poll the other half sample was asked the question in another way. They were asked to specify what percentage of the troops they would like to see the US contributing, with "none" being a clearly stated option. In this context, 68% said the US should contribute some troops, while only 30% said that the US should contribute none. Thus, it appears that some respondents in the standard 'approve-disapprove' question refrain from expressing their support for the operation because they disapprove of the level of US participation they assume, while not necessarily opposing participation in the operation per se. This interpretation is confirmed by the finding that the median respondent estimated that the US was contributing 40% of the troops for the operation, while among those who favored contributing some troops the median preferred level was 25%.[12]



Report Contents