October 18, 2001

The View Before 9/11: America’s Place in the World

A Special Analysis on Foreign Policy Attitudes Before the Attacks

Report Summary

America’s view of the world changed dramatically, and perhaps permanently, on Sept. 11. But in order to measure the nature and extent of these changes it is important to understand where attitudes toward international issues stood before the attacks occurred. A three-month survey by the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations — completed in early September — provides a detailed snapshot of the worldview of “before” America.

The quadrennial survey, titled America’s Place in the World, found that American opinion leaders and the public had a mixed approach to international affairs. No single issue or concern was dominant. While the spread of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism were ranked among the top threats to the United States, the elites and the public also expressed concern over a varied list of global problems ranging from infectious diseases to international financial instability. China was seen as the country that posed the greatest danger to the United States, but the dominant view among both the public and the elites is that China is a problem to be managed, not an enemy to be defeated. Most elite groups saw the spread of radical Islam as a greater threat to U.S. interests than China’s emergence as a world power.

Both the opinion leaders and the public sensed that the peace and prosperity of the 1990s were coming to an end. Compared to four years earlier, several of the elite groups expressed far less satisfaction in the state of the world — among foreign affairs experts, for instance, satisfaction fell from 60% in 1997 to 34%. Much of this dissatisfaction was linked to concerns about President Bush’s handling of foreign policy — specifically, the contention he paid too little heed to the interests and concerns of traditional allies. While there was a strong consensus among most elites in favor of aggressive multilateralism — a “first among equals” role for the United States — the general public wants the nation to be no more or less active than others.

For its part, the public, while giving Bush much higher marks, saw the world as a much more dangerous place than the influentials. And there were signs that the public was rousing itself from its long inattention to international affairs. A majority supported the continued deployment of U.S. forces in the Balkans and most backed military intervention to prevent an African genocide. A growing minority of Americans (29%) said the media is not providing enough coverage of foreign news, although a majority expressed satisfaction with the amount of overseas news.

Both the public and influentials believed that foreign terrorists posed a much greater risk of deploying a weapon of mass destruction against the United States than even hostile military powers. For opinion leaders, this translated into broad opposition of Bush’s missile defense proposal. A majority of the public, however, continued to express support for the plan.

This study provides the context for analyzing post-attack attitudes on such issues as multilateralism, globalization and the use of American force. It also raises questions about how the various attitudinal trends reflected here will be reshaped by the events of Sept. 11:

1) Priorities. Obviously, American policy priorities, both domestically and internationally, will be dominated by terrorism for the foreseeable future. But what will become of the broad support for other goals, like preventing the spread of infectious diseases, dealing with global warming and preventing genocide? Before the attacks, these were regarded as at least as important as traditional geo-political concerns.

2) Bush’s Foreign Policy. American influentials expressed deep reservations about Bush’s go-it-alone approach. Europeans were even more withering in their criticism of the president’s foreign policy — an August survey by the Pew Research Center, in association with the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Herald Tribune, showed that more than seven-in-ten people in each of four major European nations said Bush makes decisions based entirely on U.S. interests (see “Bush Unpopular in Europe, Seen as Unilateralist,” Aug. 15, 2001). Will this skepticism, at home and abroad, now be subordinated to the strength of the anti-terrorism coalition Bush is able to assemble?

3) Missile Defense. How do the terror attacks affect the skepticism among most elites, and the moderate public support, that existed before the attacks? A missile defense system would have been ineffective in the face of a suicide assault, but at a time when there is a clamor for homeland defense, public backing for a missile shield may prove resilient.

4) Globalization. The elites strongly endorsed expanding trade and globalization — with the exception of the labor sample, at least seven-in-ten in every group said they believed globalization is a good thing for the United States. A majority of the public (60%) agreed — but 42% said they shared some concerns of anti-globalization protesters. These concerns were largely ill-defined, but a significant number (16%) pointed to globalization’s environmental impact. Does the economic downturn now intensify public opposition to trade and globalization?

5) Public Engagement. Certainly, public interest in international affairs has soared since the crisis began, but will it continue? In the past, interenational crises have produced spikes in public attention to foreign affairs, but they proved temporary. The question now is whether the struggle against terrorism will generate increased interest in overseas issues over the long term. This issue also has a political dimension. In the post post-Cold War era, will Americans continue to elect presidents primarily on their ability to deal with domestic matters?