June 11, 2001

Modest Support for Missile Defense, No Panic on China

Other Important Findings and Analyses

Partisan Gap on Missile Defense

Opinions on missile defense have remained fairly consistent as the debate has heated up over the past few months. The 51%-38% margin of support for the idea is similar to the results of a survey in February, when a comparable question was asked. In the current poll, nearly one-in-three Americans (29%) think the country has a pressing need for this system right now, while 19% support the idea, but say it should be put off into the future.

Attitudes toward missile defense remained largely unchanged even after respondents were asked to consider several arguments for and against the proposal. After being informed of those arguments, supporters still outnumbered opponents by a margin of 49%-41%.

Not surprisingly, given Bush’s strong support for missile defense, there is a significant partisan gap on this issue. Republicans strongly back the development of a missile shield (63% in favor vs. 27% opposed), while Democrats and independents are more evenly split.

Southerners, white evangelical Protestants and conservative Republicans are among the strongest backers of a national missile defense system. Opposition runs highest among college graduates and liberal Democrats.

Those who closely followed Bush’s announcement of support for a missile defense system favor it in greater numbers than those who did not follow this news story (62% vs. 49%, respectively). The small minority of Americans who see a possible missile attack by a rogue nation as an even greater threat than a potential terrorist attack overwhelmingly endorse the development of a missile defense system: Roughly 71% say the U.S. should put such a system into effect, and 38% say we need it right now.

Education Levels Key

As is often the case on questions involving military defense and the use of force, there is a significant gender gap on this issue. Men strongly favor putting in place a national missile defense system (56%-38%), while women are more closely divided, with many undecided on the issue (46% in favor, 38% opposed, 16% undecided).

But education is an even more important factor influencing attitudes about missile defense. Those who never attended college strongly support the development of a missile shield (53% vs. 33% who oppose it). Those who attended some college but did not graduate also support the proposal, though more narrowly (52%-40%). College graduates, on the other hand, oppose the development of a missile defense system by a margin of 51%-41%.

When gender and education are both taken into account, the gender gap among college graduates virtually disappears while the gender gap among those without a college degree is magnified. Men who did not graduate from college are among the strongest backers of a national missile defense system (61% in favor and 33% opposed). And they differ markedly from men who did graduate from college, a narrow majority of whom oppose the idea.

Public support for a missile defense system remained largely unchanged even after the major arguments for and against such a system were laid out and evaluated. The survey measured attitudes on the issue in two ways. Respondents were asked early on in the interview whether or not they thought the U.S. should put into effect a national missile defense system. Subsequently, they were asked to evaluate various arguments both for and against a missile defense system. Finally, they were asked how they felt in light of those arguments. Very few respondents changed their minds as a result of this process.

Most Aware of Cost Concerns

Arguments for and against the creation of a national missile defense system have penetrated the public’s consciousness to only a limited degree. Among all the reasons presented in favor and opposition to such a system, the claim that it would be too costly is the most widely known. Six-in-ten Americans say they have heard about this argument. But that is the only argument — pro or con — that was familiar to a majority of the public.

Nearly half have heard the contention that building this system could trigger a new arms race among countries who feel threatened by this policy (49%), or more specifically, that this system could damage U.S. relations with Russia and China (47%). Less well known are the arguments that there is no real threat that would justify building this system (37% have heard about this) or that the technology is not yet available for such a system to work (34%). Not surprisingly, those who oppose a missile defense system are somewhat more likely than those who support one to have heard these arguments, though the differences are not dramatic.

The major arguments in favor of the development of a missile defense have connected with even fewer people. Roughly four-in-ten have heard that the system could protect the U.S. against missiles that are accidently launched (44%); nearly as many (40%) were aware of the argument that current defense systems do not adequately protect against attack from smaller, unfriendly nations such as Iraq and North Korea. Even fewer (35%) have heard the argument that the system would allow us to protect our allies without fear of being attacked ourselves. As opposed to the arguments against a missile defense system, the arguments in favor are no more well known by supporters of the proposal than they are by the program’s opponents.

Advocates Make a Stronger Argument

Overall, the arguments in favor of the creation of a national missile defense system, though less well known by the public, are regarded as somewhat more compelling than the arguments against the creation of such a system. The three major arguments in support of a national missile defense system laid out in the poll are all viewed, on balance, as important reasons to support the creation of such a system. None of the arguments against a missile defense system is viewed by a majority of the public as an important reason to oppose its creation.

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say the idea that a missile defense system could protect the U.S. against missiles that are accidently launched is an important reason to favor the creation of such a system, 34% do not consider this an important reason. Roughly half of the public accepts the notion that a missile defense system would allow us to protect our allies without fear of being attacked ourselves — 51% say this is an important reason to favor the creation of a missile defense system. A similar proportion (50%) endorse the argument that our current defense systems do not adequately protect against attack by unfriendly nations.

Supporters of a missile defense system strongly endorse these arguments in favor of its creation. At least 70% of those who believe the U.S. should put such a system in place consider each of these arguments to be important reasons to favor the proposed system. But opponents do not reject these arguments out of hand. Fully one-third (34%) of those who oppose the development of a national missile defense system say the argument that such a system could protect the U.S. against accidental missile attacks is an important reason to support it. Nearly three-in-ten opponents endorse the argument that a missile defense system would allow us to safely protect our allies.

The arguments against the creation of a national missile defense system are less compelling on several levels. None of the five counter-arguments included in the poll is considered by a majority of Americans to be an important reason to oppose the program. The two which gain the most support are the arguments that such a system would be too costly and that building a missile defense system could trigger a new arms race– roughly four-in-ten say each is an important reason to oppose the proposal. Fewer accept the arguments that the technology is not yet available for such a system to work (37% say this is an important reason) or that building such a system could damage U.S. relations with Russia and China (34%). And only three-in-ten (31%) say the notion that there is no real threat to justify building the system is an important reason to oppose its creation.

Even those who oppose the development of a national missile defense system are less than enthusiastic about the leading arguments which underpin their side of the debate. A strong majority (63%) say the contention that a missile defense system would be too costly is an important reason to oppose it, and 59% endorse the argument that building this system could trigger a new arms race. Beyond that bare majorities or minorities sign on to the major arguments laid out in the poll.

Those who favor the development of a missile shield are not swayed by the arguments against it. No more than 27% view any one argument as an important reason to oppose a missile defense system, with as few as 19% agreeing with the notion that there is no real threat that would justify building this system.

Perhaps more importantly, the arguments against a missile defense system are less convincing to those who are unfamiliar with them than are the arguments in favor of such a system. For example, only 32% of those who have never heard the argument that a missile defense system would be too costly see this as an important reason to oppose its creation. Alternatively, more than half (52%) of those who have never heard the argument that the system could protect the U.S. against an accidently missile launch say this is an important reason to support the proposal.

Pros and Cons Have Limited Impact

Ultimately, neither set of arguments succeeded in converting a large number of respondents from one point of view to another. Fully 80% of those who supported a national missile defense system initially maintained that position after considering the arguments for and against such a system. Similarly, 80% of those who opposed the system initially remained opposed at the end of the interview. Overall, 71% of respondents remained consistent in their views on the issue. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) supported the development of such a system initially and maintained that position. Three-in-ten consistently opposed the proposal.

The remaining 29% of respondents either changed their view on the issue after considering the pros and cons or remained undecided. Women were more likely than men to change their views on the issue, especially women over the age of 65. Non-whites were more likely than whites to change their position. Those who never attended college were much less wedded to their position on missile defense than were those who did attend college — 30% vs. 17%, respectively, changed their views on the issue after hearing the arguments for and against. And those who have not followed recent news about missile defense were also more prone to changing their views.

Looking at various political and ideological groupings, conservative Republicans appear to be the most
consistent in their views on this issue. Nearly two-thirds (63%) consistently supported missile defense and only 16% changed their views over the course of the interview. Moderate to liberal Republicans were much less steadfast in their views. Only 44% consistently supported missile defense, 28% consistently opposed it, and nearly a quarter (23%) changed their opinions on the issue.

Two Points for Opponents

While support for missile defense remains consistent, the public also believes, by an overwhelming margin, that terrorists pose a greater threat to the United States than missile attacks. Indeed, more than three-quarters of Americans (77%) say terrorism is the greater threat, 10% point to a missile attack by a rogue nation.

Moreover, while the public favors the creation of a national missile defense system, most Americans believe there’s ultimately a better way to protect the U.S. Fully 53% say having treaties that would limit the arms race and help control the spread of nuclear weapons is the best way to protect the U.S. Given this tradeoff, only 34% opt for building a missile defense system that would protect us from attack.

A significant number of Americans hold seemingly contradictory views on these issues. Nearly one-in-five (18%) say arms control treaties are the best way to insure peace, yet they nonetheless favor the creation of the missile defense system. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans or independents to fall into this category.

Bush Foreign Policy Criticisms Don’t Stick

In spite of much debate in the media and elsewhere about the president’s approach to foreign policy, the public is not receptive to criticisms that Bush is too aggressive in his dealings with other countries or that he is not working cooperatively with our allies and others around the world. A majority of Americans (53%) disagree with the contention that Bush’s foreign policies are too aggressive, only 31% agree. And, on balance, the public says that Bush is working hard enough to have a peaceful relationship with other countries in the world — 51% hold this view, while 28% say he is not working hard enough.

Not surprisingly, partisanship is strongly linked to views about Bush’s foreign policy. Even so, Democrats are evenly split over Bush’s stance toward other countries: 40% say he is being too aggressive and 40% disagree. Furthermore, more than a third (35%) of those who disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job overall, reject the criticism that he is being too hard on other countries. These Bush critics are much more likely to accept the argument that the president is not adequately engaged with other countries in the world. Fully 60% of those who disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president say he is not working hard enough to have a peaceful relationship with other nations.

China’s Not Changing

As in past surveys, relatively few Americans see much progress toward political or economic reform in China. Just 21% believe China is becoming more democratic; three times as many (62%) believe China is not making progress in this regard.

The public has a somewhat better view of China’s efforts at creating a free-market economy. Slightly more than one-third (34%) say Beijing is making progress, but a plurality (47%) thinks it is not. On both of these fronts, Americans have become, if anything, less optimistic over the past three years. In August 1998, 35% saw China becoming more democratic and 41% believed it was making free-market reforms.

More importantly, from a policy perspective, Americans have little expectation that either trade with the West or U.S. influence will have much of an impact on China. By 47%-37%, the public rejects the notion that trade with China promotes democracy there. And when it comes specifically to American efforts, only about one-in-three (34%) think it is possible for the United States, through its policies, to have much of an effect on making China more Democratic, while 56% think it is not possible to do so.

More educated Americans have greater optimism on these issues than those with less education. Nearly half (47%) of college graduates think trade with China will lead to democratization, compared to just one-third of those without college degrees. College graduates also have more hope in the effectiveness of U.S. policies in bringing about democratic change in China. Men are more optimistic than women about both current trends in China and the possibility that more involvement in the world market will lead to democratic changes.

Younger Americans Less Worried

The predominant view of China as a serious problem for the United States, but not an adversary, has changed little in recent years. But there are differences in how demographic groups come down on this question.

More highly educated people, for instance, see China in more a negative light than those with less education. Better than three-quarters (78%) of those who attended college see China as an adversary or a major problem, compared to 63% of those never attended college.

And younger people are less concerned over China than Americans who came of age in the Cold War. More than three-in-ten (31%) of those age 18-29 say China does not present much of a problem for the United States. By contrast, only 10% of those over age 65 don’t see China as a problem.

Global Concerns Most Threatening

Though concern about U.S. relations with China runs fairly high, it is not seen as serious a threat as other global problems such as the spread of weapons of mass destruction, international drug cartels, infectious diseases and terrorism. Saddam Hussein’s continued rule in Iraq, and the threat of missile attacks against the U.S. from countries such as Iraq, Iran or North Korea also rank higher in the public’s assessment of serious threats.

The emergence of China as a world power is rated a major threat by just over half of the public (51%), and 36% see the possibility of military conflict between China and Taiwan as a serious worry for the United States. Older Americans are significantly more concerned about China than younger generations. Fully 44% of Americans age 50 and older see conflict between China and Taiwan as a major threat to U.S. interests, compared to 34% of those age 30-49 and 26% of those under 30.

The bottom of the list of international concerns is dominated by regional issues. Barely one-in-four Americans (27%) view political and economic instability in Russia as a major threat to the United States, a significant drop from 40% just two years ago. And relatively few people view Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba (20%), ethnic conflict in the Balkans (19%) and sectional or tribal warfare in Africa (14%) as major threats to the United States.

Avoid Problems

While a slim majority of Americans see China as a major threat, it is a threat that few want the United States to confront. The public generally wants to pursue a course of moderation when dealing with the world’s most populous nation, and this position crosses partisan lines.

For most Americans, maintaining a good relationship with China is a more important foreign policy priority than promoting democracy and human rights there. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) Americans prefer pursuing a friendly relationship with China, while about one-third (32%) would rather promote democracy and human rights.

This preference for maintaining amicable relations with China is consistent across party lines. Republicans, Democrats and independents all rate this a significantly higher priority than promoting democracy. Six-in-ten Democrats and independents, and about as many Republicans (58%) favor a friendly relationship to an antagonistic one.

Overall, only 26% of Americans believe the Unites States should commit to defending Taiwan, compared to 64% who think the U.S. should not make such a commitment at this time. There are partisan differences on this question, but majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents believe the United States should not make such a pledge to Taiwan.

Republicans are more closely divided on committing to Taiwan’s defense, with 36% favoring this view and 53% opposed. Seven-in-ten Democrats and independents are against the idea of promising to come to Taiwan’s defense if China were to attack the island.

No One Priority

When it comes to specific priorities for U.S. policy toward China, no clear consensus exists. Half say that making sure that China does not become a military threat to Japan and South Korea should be a top priority, and nearly as many (48%) say the same about promoting human rights in China.

Although there is an unwillingness to commit to defending Taiwan against Chinese aggression, four-in-ten people rate assuring a peaceful relationship between the two as a top priority. The same number believes that promoting fair trade between the United States and China should be a top priority.

The partisan differences over these issues are fairly small. The 11-point gap between Democrats and Republicans over promoting a cleaner environment in China (35% Democrats, 24% Republicans) probably has more to do with fundamental differences over the environment than policy toward China.

Bush About Right

The public generally endorses the Bush administration’s China policy, with 46% saying the administration’s approach is about right. Bush is viewed about the same as Clinton in this area, although fewer say Bush has been insufficiently tough on China.

In March 2000, the public was evenly divided in assessing the Clinton administration’s dealings with China with 42% thinking it was about right and 42% saying it was not tough enough. Partisanship is an obvious factor in the public’s view of each administration’s China policy. Four-in-ten Democrats believe Bush has not been tough enough on the Chinese, compared to 32% of Republicans. Last year, a majority of Republicans (52%) criticized Clinton for being too weak in relations with China, while just 34% of Democrats held that view.

Seeing China as an Adversary

Clearly, people’s views of China — whether they see China as an adversary or not — influence their policy preferences. Indeed, those who regard China as an adversary are far more likely than others to favor confronting China over human rights and pledging to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by China.

Nearly half (48%) of those who believe China is an adversary say it is more important for the United States to press for democracy and human rights, compared to 41% in this group who say maintaining good relations is more important. By contrast, those who see China as a serious problem but not an adversary say it is more important to maintain friendly relations by nearly two-to-one (60%-32%).

Similarly, those who consider China an adversary are more supportive of a U.S. policy of defending Taiwan against Chinese military action. More than four-in-ten (41%) people who view China as an adversary believe the United States should commit to defending Taiwan at this time compared to only one-quarter of those who see China as a problem.

In addition, those who consider China to be an adversary have different policy priorities than those who do not. A solid majority (55%) of those who regard China as an adversary rate ensuring peace between China and Taiwan as a top policy priority, compared to 40% among those who see China as a problem. A similar split exists over promoting human rights and democracy, with more of those who consider China an adversary rating this a top priority.