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US Role in the World

General International Engagement

A very strong majority supports US engagement in the world and rejects the idea that the US should take a more isolationist stance. However strong and growing majorities show dissatisfaction with key aspects of the current US role in the world and see it as destabilizing. A majority supports US military bases on the soil of traditional US allies, though support for US military presence in the Middle East has become quite soft.

A strong and consistent majority supports the view that the US should be actively engaged internationally. This is particularly true in polls taken since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but was also true throughout the 1990s when there was a common perception that the American public was going through a phase of wanting the US to withdraw from the world in the wake of the Cold War.

Perhaps the most significant evidence is derived from poll questions that have been asked in the exact same form over many years. For example, various polling organizations have for several decades now posed the question, "Do you think the US should take an active part in world affairs or stay out of world affairs?" During the Cold War Americans rather consistently, by a two to one margin, embraced the position that the US should "take an active part." Even in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, a solid majority held this attitude (with an upward spike around the time of the Gulf War). The most recent findings show that while the percentage has come down from its historical high after September 11th, it is still at one of its highest points over the last decade.

Active Part – Stay Out
Do you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stay out of world affairs?

Active Part
Stay Out
Chicago Council
Chicago Council
GMF/EOS Gallup
Chicago Council

As a general rule, when poll respondents are presented a statement that is effectively an argument and asked whether they agree or disagree, there is a tendency to agree. Nonetheless, a majority consistently rejects trend line questions that pose arguments in favor of US disengagement from the world. Over the last decade, a large majority has rejected the argument that "Since the US is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters not worrying too much about whether other countries agree with us or not." Most recently, in a December 2006 Pew poll, a large majority of 68% disagreed, slightly lower than the 73% who held this view when in an October 2006 WPO/KN poll. This is less widespread disagreement than in the March 2004 PIPA poll, which found overwhelming opposition to the statement (79% disagreed, 20% agreed). In a March 2003 Newsweek poll -- even as the US was preparing to invade Iraq despite its failure to obtain substantial international support -- 62% rejected this argument and just 33% agreed with it. These results are consistent with findings for the previous decade. [1]

In another trend line question repeated as recently as December 2006 by Pew, a majority (53%) still disagreed with the statement “the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own," holding steady from April 2006 when nearly the same number disagreed. However, while Pew found in March 2003 that only 33% agreed with the argument, 42% agreed with it in October 2005 and December 2006. This increase in those who favor the argument may be representative of public fatigue in dealing with the war with Iraq after three years.[2]

It should be noted that in December 2006-the same month that Pew most recently asked this question, a CBS News poll showed that 52% agreed with the statement that the US should mind its own business (42% disagreed). Given that this is the only time that a majority has ever agreed with this statement, as well as the fact that another organization found quite different finding in the same month, suggests that this finding should be given limited credence.[2a]

Statements in favor of engagement, on the other hand, receive overwhelming support. Similar to the above-mentioned statements, Pew has presented the argument "It's best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs," which has elicited overwhelming agreement--most recently 90% in August 2003. There has been no significant change on this question with the end of the Cold War and after the September 11th attacks, except that there has been an increase in the percentage saying that they agree with this position "completely" (50% in 2003 and 45% in 1999).[3]

A strong majority feels the US should take a leading role trying to stop genocide. In an October 1999 Harris Interactive poll, 70% agreed with the statement that “The United States should play a leading role in developing new and better ways to prevent and react to international problems like Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and East Timor.”[4]

When Beldon and Russonello (February 2000) asked respondents to rate a number of possible reasons for the US “to be active in world affairs,” a reason that was highly rated—mean of 8.34 on a 0 to 10 scale—was: “It is a matter of pride to me as an American that the US be a respected leader.” [5] Other reasons that were rated were:

Our national security depends on our being involved. Mean = 7.73
I want a stable world in which I can travel and appreciate other cultures. Mean = 7.99
We have to protect our economic interests. Mean = 8.24 [6]

Americans overwhelmingly support the idea that the US should play a strong leadership role in the world. Asked in the June 2006 GMF poll, "How desirable is it that the U.S. exert strong leadership in world affairs?" 84% said it is desirable (43% very desirable) with only 14% saying that it undesirable, nearly the same levels of support found by GMF in May 2005 and in the June 2002 Chicago Council poll. PIPA found 85% saying that such leadership was desirable in response to the same question (April 1998).[7]

As discussed below, support for US leadership does not mean that Americans want the US to play the role of world hegemon. Most Americans reject the idea of the US playing the leading role [See US Role: Rejection of Hegemonic Role] and strongly support the US playing a shared leadership role, not be the single global leader. [See US Role: Multilateral Cooperation and International Institutions]

Americans generally see the US as playing a highly influential role and continuing to do so in the future. In July 2006 the Chicago Council asked respondents to rate US influence in the world on a scale of 0 to 10 and found 56% rating it either a 9 (21%) or a 10 (35%), with no other country even approaching this level. When asked in July 2006 to rate US influence in 10 years on the same scale, 48% gave it either a 9 (18%) or a 10 (30%), showing that a large percentage do not believe US influence in the world will change significantly during that time frame.

However, this bullishness on US influence is down a bit. In 2002 the Chicago Council found 55% rating US influence a 10--20 points higher than 2006. Also in 2002 the Chicago Council found 86% that predicted that the US would play an even greater role in the next ten years.[7a]

On the whole, few Americans see US influence in the world as declining, while many more see it increasing. Asked in July 2004 whether the US played a more or less “important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to ten years ago,” 45% said it played a more important role, with 31% saying it played just as important a role, and 20% said a less important role. In the same poll, nearly the same number (41%) thought it played a more important role “as it did in the past,” while 35% saw it playing just as important a role and just 18% said a less important role (Pew Research).[7b]

Contrary to the idea that Americans do not like to see their elected representatives devote time to international problems when there are problems at home, the majority feels they should spend a substantial portion of their time on world affairs. In a June/September 1996 PIPA poll the median respondent felt that the President should devote 30% of his time to international issues, while a Congressional representative should devote 28%.[8]

Poll questions that do elicit a seemingly isolationist response are those that ask respondents to prioritize international and domestic problems-- domestic problems are almost always assigned a higher priority. Numerous polls have asked respondents to agree or disagree with a statement that asserts the relative importance of domestic problems and invariably gets high levels of agreement. Sixty-nine percent agree that “We should not think so much in international terms, but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up strength and prosperity here at home” (Pew Research, December 2006), a preference consistent with findings from recent years. In an August 2003 Pew poll, an even higher 76% agreed that “We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate at problems here at home.” In a January 2000 Beldon and Russonello poll, 76% agreed that “The US should spend less of its resources on international issues because we have so many problems to solve here at home.” Seventy-eight percent agreed that “The U.S. should address problems at home first, rather than spending more money to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in developing countries” (Kaiser/Washington Post, June 2002). Eighty-four percent agree that “Taking care of problems at home is more important than giving aid to foreign countries” (PIPA, November 2000). In July 2004, an AP-Ipsos poll asked whether the US has a responsibility to fight HIV and AIDS abroad or whether it should focus on the problem at home: 63% said to focus on the problem at home. Similarly the Kaiser Foundation in March 2004 found 62% agreed more that the “US should address problems at home first rather than spending more money to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in developing countries.” [9]

However these findings should not be taken at face value. Though respondents place a higher priority on dealing with problems at home when asked whether they think the US should also address problems abroad they consistently say that the US should. In the Kaiser Foundation poll just mentioned 53% even said that the US should increase its spending on fighting HIV/AIDS to in developing countries.[9a]

Another example is a January 2006 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll which presented competing (though not mutually exclusive) arguments. A majority of 57% chose “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home,” and 37% chose “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.” However as discussed above, by a two-to-one margin or more Americans consistently favor playing an active role in world affairs.[10]

Dissatisfaction with Current Role

Americans demonstrate growing disapproval of the US role in the world and believe that current US policy is contributing to a greater instability that could post a threat to the United States.

In recent years, Americans have shown increasing dissatisfaction with the role the United States is playing in world affairs. In January 2007, Gallup found 56% saying they were dissatisfied with “the role the US plays in world affairs” (27% very dissatisfied), up from the 51% who held that view the previous year. As of an October 2006 WPO/KN poll, 68% also said they were dissatisfied with “the position of the United States in the world today," up significantly from a slight majority (51%) that held this view in Gallup's February 2005 poll, and a dramatic reversal from the large majorities that said they were satisfied with the US position in the world in Gallup's April 2003 (67%) and May 2000 (65%) polls. A September 2006 Public Agenda poll found 83 percent who said they worry somewhat (48%) or a lot (35%) about “the way things are going for the United States in world affairs.” [11]

Overwhelming majorities perceive the world becoming more dangerous and a large majority attributes this at least in apart to the Bush foreign policy. The September 2006 Public Agenda poll asked, “thinking about current US relations with the rest of the world, would you say that the world is becoming safer or more dangerous for the US and the American people?” with 79% saying they believe the world is becoming more dangerous (43% much more dangerous). An October 2006 WPO/KN poll showed 60% believed that as a result of the Bush policy the likelihood of terrorist attacks had increased, while only 37% believed it had decreased.[12]

Americans do not feel that superior strength insulates the United States from the negative effects of the insecurity in other parts of the world. In a November 2006 WPO/KN poll 87% said that “insecurity in other parts of the world” impacted US security a great deal (39%) or some (48%); only 13% with the counterargument that “the US is so strong that such conditions in other parts of the world have little real impact on US security” and said the US was impacted just a little (9%) or hardly at all (4%).[13]

US Global Military Presence

Americans show strong support for the US maintaining a global military presence. When asked about the “long term military bases the US has overseas,” in the 2006 Chicago Council poll about two-thirds said the US should either maintain the number it has now (53%) or increase the number (15%). Twenty-seven percent wanted fewer bases abroad. This shows a very slight increase over the findings from June 2004, when support for having fewer bases was stronger (31%) and weaker for having more bases (11%). In the period immediately after the September 11th attacks, support for military bases overseas was understandably more robust. In the June 2002 CCFR poll only 14% called for the US to have fewer long-term military bases overseas, while 57% said the US should have about as many as now, and 25% said the US should have more bases.[14]

In 2002, 2004, and 2006, the Chicago Council also presented a long list of locations for the US to have such bases. While support was higher in 2002, in 2004 and 2006 substantial majorities favored having US bases on the soil of major allies. These included Germany (57% in 2006 and 2004, 69% in 2002), Japan (57% in 2006, 52% in 2004, and 63% in 2002), and South Korea (62% in 2006 and 2004, and 67% in 2002). Asked specifically in June 2002 about the US having 100,000 troops in Western Europe, just 33% said this was too many, while 53% said it was about right, and 8% said it was too few. This showed increased support relative to an October 1996 poll that asked the same question (43% too many, 47% about right, 3% too few). In the 2002 Chicago Council poll, support for keeping 44,000 troops in Japan was more mixed, with 43% saying this was too many, 45% about right and 5% too few.

Only a slight majority of 54% also supported US bases in Guantanamo Bay. This was down from 58% in 2004 and 70% in 2002: presumably a negative reaction to reports of treatment of prisoners there.[14a]

Americans’ attitudes about bases in the Middle East are complex and seem to be going through some kind of change particularly when thinking about the future. A majority thinks that at present the US should have bases: asked in December 2006 (WPO/KN) whether they favored or opposed “the US having bases in the Middle East,” 60% said they were in favor (37% opposed). The same poll found a slight majority (53%) saying that long-term US military bases in the Middle East that have been in place “for decades” have had a positive effect on stability in the region, while 41% see it as having a negative effect.[14b]

Asked about specific bases a slight majority or plurality tends to favor them—but this support is soft and has declined significantly since 2002. The Chicago Council in July 2006 found the highest level of support for bases in Saudi Arabia with 53% in favor—down from 65% in 2002. Similarly 52% favored bases in Afghanistan (up from 47% in 2004, but down from 57% in 2002). Pluralities were supportive in Turkey (46%: down from 58% in 2002), and Pakistan (43%: up from 39% in 2004, but down from 52% in 2002).

When asked about bases in Iraq in the context of this series support is mixed—though it is difficult to interpret since bases are of course necessary for the US to conduct its current operations. In July 2006 49% favored having bases in Iraq, while 43% were opposed, showing a slight shift in preference from 2004 when 42% favored having bases there and 50% were opposed.[14c]

At present Americans have serious doubts about the value of US military presence in the region. Asked in a BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA December 2006 poll whether the US military presence in the Middle East is a “stabilizing force” or “provokes more conflict than it prevents,” a majority (53%) said that it provokes more conflict. Only 33% saw it as a stabilizing force.[14d]

Looking to the future Americans are opposed to the US maintaining bases in Iraq on an indefinite basis. In a November 2006 WPO/KN poll, 68% were opposed to having “permanent military bases in Iraq.” [14e]

Americans also show responsiveness to the preferences of the people in the region. Asked in a December 2004 Opinion Research Corporation poll if they would support a “major military presence in the Arabian peninsula…even if such a presence near Islamic holy sites may been seen as provocative to Muslims;” support was quite soft-- 44% against 39% who would be opposed. When asked in the 2004 Chicago Council poll if “a majority of people in the Middle East want the US to remove its military presence there, do you think the US should or should not remove its military presence?” a strong majority of 59% said the US should (should not: 37%). And asked by WPO/KN in November 2006 how the US should respond if the Iraqi government were to be opposed to the US having permanent bases there 85% said the US should comply with this preference.[15]

This responsiveness to local opinion appears in regard to US presence in East Asia as well. When asked “if most people in East Asia want the US to reduce its military presence there,” a majority of 55% said that the US should comply (38% should not).[16]



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