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

US Role in the World

Altruism, the Global Interest, and the National Interest

A large majority of Americans feel that US foreign policy should at times serve altruistic purposes independent of US national interests. Americans also feel that US foreign policy should be oriented to the global interest not just the national interest and are highly responsive to arguments that serving the global interest ultimately serves the national interest. Americans show substantial concern for global conditions in a wide range of areas.


It is often assumed that most Americans feel US foreign policy should be tied closely to the national interest, narrowly defined, and are opposed to the idea of making sacrifices based on altruistic purposes. Polling data reveal quite a different picture. In numerous cases Americans show support for altruism in US foreign policy independent of any impact it might have on US interests.

In January 2000 Beldon and Russonello asked respondents to rate a list of reasons "for the US to be active in world affairs" on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning "it is not at all an important reason" and 10 meaning "it is an extremely important reason to you personally." Altruistic reasons scored quite well.[1]

Generosity is part of Americans' national self-image. Asked in a September 2006 Public Agenda poll whether "people in other countries see the United States as generous towards other countries," two-thirds (66%) said they do, while just 29% said they do not. [2]

Giving Aid: Numerous poll results show that large majorities find convincing the argument that the US has a moral responsibility to provide aid to the needy. For example, in December 2001 Greenberg et al. presented a number of arguments in support of foreign aid. Seventy percent found convincing the argument, "The United States is the only remaining superpower and the world's wealthiest nation. We have a moral responsibility to help those who need it the most. America has always stood for justice, freedom, and opportunity for all people--a responsibility that has only grown since September 11th." [3] Other examples abound.[4]

A September 2006 Public Agenda poll asked "How important to our foreign policy should each of the following be?" and then gave a list of foreign policy activities. Altruistic functions received some of the highest ratings including "helping other countries when they are struck by natural disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia" (97% saying that it is important), "assisting countries with developing clean water supplies" (95%), and "helping people in poor countries to get an education" (89%).[5]

Americans have roundly rejected the argument, made by some legislators, that the US should only give aid when it also serves the US national interest. Asked to choose between two statements in a November 2000 PIPA poll, just 34% chose the statement "We should only send aid to parts of the world where the US has security interests," while 63% chose the statement "When hunger is a major problem in some part of the world, we should send aid whether or not the US has a security interest in that region."[6] When PIPA, in 1995, posed the argument in favor of the principle of limiting aid to security-related countries by itself, the percentage rejecting it was even higher-77%.[7]

Although Africa is a region that Americans tend to see as relatively less significant to US national interests, support for giving aid to Africa is markedly higher than it is for any other region.[see Africa: Aid to Africa]

Altruistic concern also prompts Americans to give poor countries preferential trade treatment. Americans have shown concern that poor countries do not get a net benefit from international trade.[see Globalization: Trading With Poor Countries]

Military Intervention: A majority of Americans also show a readiness to intervene militarily abroad for altruistic purposes, even if it is not directly tied to the national interest.

For example, in September 1999 Mark Penn asked:

Which is closer to your view of the proper role of the US in the world?...The US sometimes needs to get involved in regional conflicts that do not directly threaten US interests, because we are often the only country able to maintain world peace and prevent humanitarian disasters such as Kosovo and East Timor, OR The US should only act to protect our own national interests because it is not our responsibility to keep peace around the world. 40%.[8]

Fifty-six percent chose the humanitarian response and 40% chose the counterargument.

Numerous polls show a majority feels that the US has a moral obligation to intervene in the event of genocide. Most recently, a July 2005 Pew poll found that 69% agreed that "the US and other Western powers have a moral obligation to use military force if necessary, to prevent one group of people from committing genocide against another," nearly the same level found when the question was asked in March 2001.[9]

In PIPA's April 1995 poll, 66% agreed that "When innocent civilians are suffering or being killed, and a UN peace operation is organized to try to address the problem, in most cases the US should be willing to contribute some troops, whether or not it serves the national interest." [9a]

Pew in 1999, with three different samples, posed a question about the moral obligation to use military force to stop genocide in different regions. Majorities said that the US does have such an obligation to intervene in Europe (60%), Asia (58%), and Africa (58%). It is interesting that number affirming the responsibility to intervene in Europe (arguably more tied to US national interests), was not significantly higher than it was for Asia or Africa.[10]

Numerous polls have found majority support for the idea that the US had a moral obligation to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo.[11] Even a strongly stated argument rejecting intervention in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo on the basis of its marginal relevance to US national interests and playing on the concern for fatalities did not garner majority agreement. In an April 1998 PIPA poll only 35% agreed with the argument: "Bosnia is far from the US, and we have no real interests there. Therefore, it would be wrong to risk the lives of American troops in a NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia" (62% disagreed). This was virtually unchanged since 1994 when 37% agreed and 61% disagreed in a question using a UN peacekeeping operation. In a July 1994 PIPA poll that applied this argument against sending troops to Rwanda, the same low number, 37%, found this argument convincing, while 62% found it unconvincing.[12]

When a December 1995 CBS/New York Times poll presented four different reasons to send US troops to Bosnia, the one found to be a good reason by the largest number (64%) was based on "stopping more people from being killed in this war." Various PIPA polls on sending US troops to Bosnia also found strong support for moral arguments.[13]

Interestingly, support for using military force for such altruistic purposes can be as high or even higher than for purposes more directly related to traditional national interest concerns. In the Chicago Council July 2006 and June 2004 polls, respondents were given a list of possible purposes for using military of force. Altruistic reasons, such as "to deal with humanitarian crises" were endorsed by 66% in 2006 (72% in 2004). This was higher than some more self-interested purposes, such as "to ensure the oil supply," which was favored by 45% in 2006 (in 2004: 54%). Americans responded similarly in the Chicago Council's 2002 study.[14]

Serving Global Interests

Americans believe that US foreign policymakers should not only think about what is best for the US national interest but should think in terms of what is best for the global interest.

Respondents in the October 2006 WPO/KN poll were asked to choose between two principles for how the US should use its power. Only 16% endorsed the view that "the United States should use its power to make the world be the way that best serves US interests and values." Seventy-nine percent opted for the view that "the US should coordinate its power together with other countries according to shared ideas of what is best for the world as a whole." PIPA found similar responses in 2004.[15]

In the same October 2006 poll, 75% said that "sometimes the US should be willing to make some sacrifices if this will help the world as a whole," while only 22 percent say the United States should not make such sacrifices. In July 1994 84% favored making such sacrifices. [16]

Even just shortly after September 11, when Americans might have been particularly prone to think in terms of America's own interests, a majority showed a continued readiness to think in more collective terms. Asked "How should the US determine its policy with regard to the war on terrorism?" just 30% said it should "be based mostly on the national interests of the US," while 59% said it should "strongly take into account the interests of its allies" (Pew, October 2001).[17][see Multilateral Cooperation and International Institutions]

The Global Interest and the National Interest

Americans are very quick to move out of a dialectical concept of the relation between the national interest and the global interest. Very large majorities of Americans readily endorse arguments that make a bridge between the national and the global interest by saying that serving the global interest ultimately serves the national interest.

In a November 2006 WPO/KN poll a large majority agreed with the statement (71%) "The United States should look beyond its own self-interest and do what's best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the US," while just one in four (25%) disagreed.[18]

In the October 2006 WPO/KN poll only 16% said the United States "should not worry about what others think, but just think in terms of what is best for the U.S., because the world is a rough place." Rather 79% said "the United States should think in terms of being a good neighbor with other countries, because cooperative relationships are ultimately in the best interests of the United States."[19]

Underlying the support for a US foreign policy that does not adhere to a narrow definition of US national interests is a widespread perception that the world has become highly interdependent. This perception leads Americans to be quite responsive to arguments that make a bridge between national values and global values, especially in a long-term framework. For example in PIPA's October 1999 survey, an overwhelming 78% agreed with the following:

Because the world is so interconnected today, the US should participate in efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights, and promote economic development. Such efforts serve US interests because they help to create a more stable world that is less apt to have wars and is better for the growth of trade and other US goals.

Counter-arguments that try to devalue the potential links between such efforts and national interests fare poorly. Only 39% agreed (58% disagreed) with the argument: It is nice to think that joining in international efforts makes a more stable world. But in fact, the world is so big and complex that such efforts only make a minimal difference with little benefit to the US. Therefore, it is not really in the US interest to participate in them.[20]

Bridging arguments have been very popular when applied specifically to UN peacekeeping. In a July 1994 PIPA poll, 75% agreed with the statement, "When thinking about things like UN peacekeeping, whenever it can, the US should look beyond its own self-interest and do what's best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the US."

In the June 1996 PIPA poll, 78% agreed (50% strongly) that the US should contribute to UN peacekeeping because: "if we allow things like genocide or the mass killings of civilians to go unaddressed, it is more apt to spread and create more instability in the world so that eventually our interests would be affected." When such arguments were used, support for sending US troops to Bosnia was quite robust.[21]

Perhaps the strongest bridging argument related to security concerns is based on the classical principle of collective security. Most Americans strongly embrace the idea that the US should play its part in a system that guarantees that members will defend one another against aggression. While a specific instance may not be directly vital to US national interests, Americans seem to agree that it is necessary to uphold the collective security system that deters aggression in general, believing that such a system helps to maintain the kind of peaceful world that is conducive to US interests.[See above discussion of Collective Security in Multilateral Cooperation and International Institutions]

Bridging arguments have also been popular in support of foreign aid. In the November 2000 PIPA poll, 65% agreed that the US should give some foreign aid because "in the long run, helping Third World countries develop is in the economic interest of the US." In support of a program to reduce hunger in the world 64% found convincing the argument, "Because the world is so interconnected today, reducing hunger in the world ultimately serves US interests. It creates more political stability, and by promoting economic growth helps create more markets for US exports."[22]A majority also rejects the counter-arguments that giving foreign aid is not a good idea because it does not serve US interests.[23]

A large majority also favors giving aid to fight terrorism. A February 2007 Third Way poll found that 69 percent supported providing “economic assistance to poor countries to prevent them from becoming terrorist havens,” with 29 percent saying they strongly supported this approach as a thing that “American could do to fight global terrorism.”[24]

In March 2003, a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll asked how important “increasing development assistance and humanitarian aid to nations in need” was “for protecting America and its people.” Eighty-seven percent said it was important (16% extremely important, 26% very important).[25]

Majorities support increasing the emphasis on “soft power” approaches to foreign policy in an effort to improve US and global security. In an October 2006 WPO/KN poll, respondents were presented a list of 17 approaches for improving US and global security and asked whether they would like to see their member of Congress place more or less emphasis on each approach. Majorities wanted to place greater emphasis on efforts to address humanitarian problems and promote economic development, including fighting the global spread of HIV/AIDS (68%), programs to stabilize countries at risk of conflict by helping them develop economically (58%), and building goodwill toward the US by providing food and medical assistance to people in poor countries (57%).[26]

Global Concerns and the Globalization of Values

There are strong indications that Americans' values operate in a highly global context -- that their sphere of concern extends well beyond national boundaries. Most Americans regard themselves as citizens of the world as well as the US and show nearly as much concern for suffering outside the US as inside the US. [Globalization: Globalization of Values] In a variety of ways these values influence Americans’ orientation to US foreign policy.

A key example is the strong concern for human rights in a global context. There is very strong support for the principles of universal human rights and for the international human rights movement [see Human Rights: Human Rights in General] and for the effort to protect human rights through the UN system [see United Nations: The Power of the UN Security Council to Authorize Military Force] Perhaps most significant there is strong support for making the promotion of human rights in the world a priority in US foreign policy [see Human Rights: Promoting International Human Rights].

Increasing economic interconnectedness with the world also appears to create an enhanced sense of responsibility for workers in other parts of the world. In the January 2004 PIPA study of attitudes on globalization, 74% took the position that "if people in other countries are making products that we use, this creates a moral obligation for us to make efforts to ensure that they do not have to work in harsh or unsafe conditions" while 20% took the position that "it is not for us to judge what the working conditions should be in another country." Seventy-three percent took the position that “as we become more involved economically with another country that we should be more concerned about the human rights in that country.” [27]

Correspondingly, Americans show a strong concern for maintaining international labor standards. An overwhelming majority favors the US requiring compliance with international labor standards as part of international trade agreements. This is prompted by concern that low labor standards in other countries create unfair competition for US labor as well as a sense of moral obligation to foreign workers as well as. An overwhelming majority also feels that the United States should not allow products to be imported when they have been made under conditions in violation of international labor standards and a strong majority indicates a readiness to pay higher prices for products to ensure that they are not manufactured in substandard conditions.[See International Trade: International Labor Standards]

Americans also show a high level of concern about the impact of their growing global economic activities on the international environment. Here too an overwhelming majority supports incorporating environmental standards into trade agreements. A very strong majority rejects the WTO's current position that countries should not be able to restrict imports based on the environmental effects of their production. [See International Trade: Trade and the Environment] More broadly, a strong majority thinks there should be international agreements on environmental standards, and that the US should abide by them. [See Globalization: International Environmental Agreements]

One of the strongest indications of the globalization of values is the expectations that Americans have of American businesses operating overseas. Applying a new kind of 'golden rule', overwhelming majorities feel US companies operating outside the US should be expected to abide by US laws on working conditions, even though they recognize this would likely lead to higher prices. [See Globalization: Abiding By US Labor Laws When Operating Outside US]. Also, overwhelming majorities feel US companies operating outside the US should be expected to abide by US laws on the environment, even though they recognize this would likely lead to higher prices. [See Globalization: Abiding By US Environmental Laws When Operating Outside US.]




Report Contents