June 11, 2001

Modest Support for Missile Defense, No Panic on China

Commentary by Morton H. Halperin, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Commentary by Morton H. Halperin, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Moderate Public Views Give Officials Great Latitude

Policy analysts and politicians generally believe that elections are not won or lost on foreign policy issues any more. Interest groups of one kind or another ­- economic, ethnic, ideological -­ may have strong feelings on particular issues, but the general public usually does not. When there is strong presidential leadership the public follows; when there is no such leadership the public is usually indifferent.

The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center, conducted in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, focused on two foreign policy issues which have generally been considered, and for many years almost certainly were, exceptions to this rule. On both national missile defense and China there is a long, if episodic, history of intense partisan debate and at least the perception of strongly held positions by the public.

The results of this poll suggest that, whatever may have been true in the past, these two issues are not now of intense concern to the public. This means that the Bush administration and its critics, particularly in the new, Democratically-controlled Senate, may be free to stake out positions with less fear of retribution at the polls.

Conflicting Positions on National Missile Defense

The political pressure to deploy a national missile defense began in the mid-1960s as the Soviets’ missile deployments increased and China began to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads. By 1968, Lyndon Johnson decided that he would not go into a presidential election open to the charge that he was leaving the United States unprotected and therefore announced the deployment of a modest anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Three decades later, with still no missile defense of the United States and a Nixon administration-negotiated ABM Treaty prohibiting national missile defenses in force, the same calculations led President Clinton to move close to announcing a deployment. Congressional Democrats, also fearful of retribution at the polls, voted for resolutions calling for missile defense deployments as soon as the technology permitted. In the end, President Clinton put off a decision on deployment, citing failed tests. Despite the focus which candidate Bush tried to put on the issue, it did not play a significant role in the campaign. This survey may help to explain why.

Since the Reagan administration national missile defense has been and remains a partisan issue. For reasons that no one has ever satisfactorily explained, almost all Republican politicians and foreign policy analysts are passionate supporters of national missile defense and this view is reflected in the public as well. While, on balance, the American public supports missile defense deployment (by 51%-38%), more than six-in-ten Republicans (63%) and 70% of conservative Republicans favor it. Only a slim plurality of Democrats and independents agree.

However, closer examination of the data suggests that even some Republican support is relatively soft. The public is not following the issue closely and is not familiar with most of the arguments for or against deployment. Paradoxically, Americans are more familiar with the arguments against deployment, but are more persuaded by the arguments for. Exposure to arguments for and against the program produces little change in opinion, the survey found.

Ultimately, Americans are much more concerned about the possibility of a terrorist group bringing weapons of mass destruction into the United States than they are about a possible missile attack by an unfriendly nation (77%-10%). This suggests that there is support for the argument Democrats are beginning to make that priority should be given to improving the capacity of the nation to prevent the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction into the country and to respond effectively should such an attack occur. The Bush administration is actively considering proposals to reorganize governmental agencies to better deal with terrorist threats and this may soon become the center of the security debate, diverting attention from national missile defense and fully reflecting public concerns.

When confronted with the either-or choice between national missile defense and arms control treaties that limit the arms race, Americans, on balance, favor treaties. Roughly half the public (53%) says the nation is best protected by such treaties, while about a third (34%) opts for building missile defenses. Nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) support national missile defense while at the same time expressing the belief that treaties are a better way to protect our security. This suggests that their support is for a national missile defense that is consistent with maintaining existing treaties.

President Clinton always conditioned his support for national missile defense with the caveat that it could not be deployed in a way that destroyed the ABM Treaty, which he described as the cornerstone of international security. President Bush came into office committed to withdrawing from the ABM Treaty if necessary and the administration has not said anything favorable about the treaty. Nonetheless, those in the administration who were pressing for an early withdrawal from the treaty have at least for the moment been held at bay, reflecting not only allied opposition but also an understanding of the views of the American people.

In contrast to the pressure from congressional Republicans the past four years to begin deploying a national missile defense immediately so that a system would be in place by 2004, the Bush administration has not set any deadlines and has not expressed an urgency about beginning a deployment. The survey data show that a majority of Americans support this position, but only 29% say “we have a pressing need for this system now.”

Thus, congressional Democrats, who are arguing that the deployment decision should be delayed, may find significant support for their position even as a majority of Americans reject most arguments against deployment in the long run. Congressional Republicans can point to majority backing for missile defense in principle, but that support is qualified by the public’s preference for arms control treaties and its strong belief that terrorism presents a far greater threat to the nation than missile strikes by unfriendly nations.

China Policy No Longer a Partisan Issue

In contrast to national missile defense, China policy is not now a deeply partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats hold similar views. That was not always the case.

Indeed, for many years in the period after World War II, China policy was deeply divisive and stood in marked contrast to the efforts to develop and maintain a bipartisan foreign policy. Republicans bitterly accused the Truman Administration of having “lost” China to the Communists and no administration, Republican or Democratic, could do anything but seek to isolate “Red” China ­ as the People’s Republic of China was then called by all American politicians ­ while at the same time supporting the Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Lyndon Johnson was haunted by the image of what the Republican Party was able to do with the “who-lost-China” issue and many believe his Vietnam policy was guided by the fear that his opponents would accuse him of losing Vietnam.

It is not an accident that doing a “Nixon to China” has entered the American political vocabulary. What Nixon did seemed to go against the basic tenets of Republican policy. However, it reflected the changing mood of the American people.

The survey shows that this transformation is almost complete. There is remarkably little partisan difference. A majority of both Republicans (51%) and Democrats (53%) say that China is a “serious problem” rejecting both the view that it is not a problem or that it is an adversary. To be sure, more Republicans (23%) than Democrats (16%) think of China as an adversary. Nor is there any significant difference on the question of what is more important — maintaining good relations with China or promoting democracy. Again a majority of both Republicans (58%) and Democrats (60%) take the same position, giving priority to maintaining good relations. Interestingly, the alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in the Congress that supports greater attention to promoting democracy is not reflected in the public. Conservative Republicans are no more likely to take this position than are moderate Republicans, and liberal Democrats are only somewhat more likely to give priority to the development of democracy than are more moderate Democrats.

Responses to other questions reinforce the view that the president is likely to meet with significant skepticism from the public if he adopts the advice of some of his advisers and paints China as the primary enemy of the United States. While a majority of Americans say that the emergence of China as a world power poses a major threat to the United States, more Americans identify many other threats, both traditional and new, as major threats, including Saddam Hussein’s continued rule in Iraq, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, new missile threats, international terrorism, global environmental problems, and the rapid spread of infectious diseases.

What is perhaps most surprising is that there is little change in these numbers from previous surveys. Despite the fact that the poll was taken in a period in which some conservatives, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, were suggesting that China might well be the main enemy of the United States, and soon after the so-called spy plane incident in which an American reconnaissance airplane flying in international waters was harassed by a Chinese fighter jet and forced to make a crash landing, slightly fewer Americans describe China as a major threat now than did so in July 1999.

More Americans recognize that relations are getting worse, but this has not altered their view of the threat nor of how trade-offs should be made among objectives.

One of the most important and most controversial shifts in China policy came when President Bush indicated that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. Despite the general tendency of the public to support the president, only slightly more than one-quarter of Americans (26%) express approval of this approach compared to 64% who think such a commitment should not be made. While more Republicans than Democrats follow the president’s lead, a majority in both parties did not.

The American people express support for President Bush’s China policy as they do for his overall conduct of American foreign policy, rejecting the view of many critics that he was being too tough. The public also give Republicans an edge over Democrats in dealing with China. However, it remains to be seen how much support the president can count on if he chooses greater confrontation with China.