August 18, 2004

Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq

Part Three: Foreign Policy Priorities

Sept. 11 changed the public’s foreign policy priorities. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, concern over future terrorist attacks dominated public concerns and many traditional foreign policy goals assumed a lower priority. Now, nearly three years later, the public’s priorities have shifted again. While protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks remains the top priority, other issues have rebounded in importance. The biggest changes over this time period are a renewed focus on global social problems (such as AIDS, international drug trafficking and world hunger), and a more intense concern about protecting the jobs of American workers.

Currently, nearly nine-in-ten Americans (88%) say taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks should be a top foreign policy priority. Even before 9/11, this issue rated as the public’s leading priority. But its importance increased markedly after the attacks (93% said this was a top priority) and has fallen only marginally since then.

Yet the public now attaches nearly as much importance to the goal of protecting the jobs of American workers ­ 84% say this should be a top foreign policy priority. This is up from 74% in October 2001 and comparable to the level of concern expressed in September 1993, when jobs and the domestic economy were in the forefront of Americans’ minds.

More than seven-in-ten Americans (72%) view reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases as a top foreign policy priority. Prior to Sept. 11, public concern over this issue was equally high (73% said this should be a top priority), but it declined as a priority after the attacks (59% in October 2001). The increase since that time has been most pronounced among whites, middle-aged Americans, college graduates, Republicans and independents. College graduates, in particular, rate reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases as a more important objective; 67% rate it a top priority, up from just 43% in October 2001. Reducing the spread of AIDS remains a higher priority for women, blacks and liberals, but the gaps along demographic and party lines have narrowed substantially in recent years.

Increased Partisan Differences

The shift in public priorities since the fall of 2001 is largely a consequence of growing divisions along partisan lines. While Republicans and Democrats had similar lists of foreign policy priorities in October 2001, they are increasingly focused on different issues today.

Protecting the U.S. against terrorism is by far the leading priority among Republicans, with more than nine-in-ten (93%) rating that goal a top priority. By comparison, about as many Democrats cite protecting U.S. jobs as a major priority as mention terrorism (89% vs. 86%). And while Republicans are more focused on preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and reducing America’s dependence on imported oil, Democrats are more concerned about reducing the spread of AIDS and combating international drug trafficking.

Looking at partisanship across a range of policy issues, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats have grown wider on those issues that have been politicized since 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq war ­ namely preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, insuring adequate energy supplies and reducing U.S. military commitments overseas.

WMD Less Important

While still among the public’s top foreign policy priorities, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction rates somewhat lower than it has in the past, and has become much more politicized. In early Sept. 2001, 78% of Americans said preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction should be a top foreign policy priority. In mid-October 2001, that number rose slightly to 81%.

Since then, however, the percentage saying this issue should be a top priority has fallen to 71%. It is now comparable to the level of concern expressed in the early to mid-1990s.The falloff since Oct. 2001 has been most pronounced among whites, those with at least some college education, and, as with many other issues, reflects a growing political divide. There has been no change in opinions on this issue among Republicans or conservatives. But significantly fewer Democrats and independents rate preventing the spread of WMD as a top priority today than following the 9/11 attacks.

Energy and Oil

Ensuring adequate energy supplies for the U.S. continues to rank among the public’s leading long-term policy goals. Seven-in-ten Americans say this should be a top priority, virtually unchanged from Oct. 2001 (69%) and down slightly from early Sept. 2001 (74%). Energy security has assumed somewhat greater importance since the mid-1990s, when roughly six-in-ten said this should be a top priority.

This issue is especially important to Republicans. More than three-quarters of Republicans (77%) place a high priority on ensuring adequate energy supplies. By contrast, 65% of Democrats ­ and just half of liberal Democrats ­ say energy should be a top priority. Otherwise, there are few notable demographic differences on this issue.

Reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil rates somewhat lower on the public’s list of priorities. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (63%) cite this as a top objective. Nearly equal proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents say reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil should be a top priority.

Combating international drug trafficking is one of the policy goals that was viewed as less important after 9/11, but has rebounded. Today 63% of the public says this should be a top foreign policy priority, up from 55% in October 2001 and comparable to the 64% who expressed this view in early September 2001. The number was marginally higher in September 1997 (67%).

Improve Relations With Allies

A 58% majority rates as a top priority the goal of getting other nations to assume more of the costs of keeping world order. This view has changed little in the past few years, and is fairly consistent across most demographic and political groups. However, the goal of persuading other nations to share international burdens is much more important to older Americans than it is to younger people: 68% of those age 50 and older say this should be a top priority, compared with 51% of those under age 50.

The related issue of improving relations with U.S. allies is slightly more divisive from a political standpoint. Overall, 54% of the public says improving relationships with U.S. allies should be a top foreign policy priority. But Republicans are significantly less likely to hold this view than are Democrats or independents (47% vs. 58% and 59%, respectively).

‘Compassion Agenda’

Several of the remaining foreign policy priorities relate to providing assistance ­ material, security or other forms ­ to countries in need. Half of the public says dealing with the problem of world hunger should be a top priority. This issue, like preventing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases, faded somewhat in the immediate post-9/11 period (34% said it should be a top priority in October 2001), but has since assumed more urgency.

Addressing the problem of world hunger is given much higher priority by Democrats, liberals, women, blacks and the less affluent.

By comparison, there has been little change in public attitudes toward preventing genocide, despite the ongoing tragedy in Sudan. Roughly half of the public (47%) rates “protecting groups or nations that are threatened with genocide” as a top policy priority; prior to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, 49% held this view.

There are no major differences in this view demographically or politically, but this is a higher priority for those who have followed the situation in Sudan very closely (59% top priority) than for those who have paid less attention to the story (45%).

A third of the public believes promoting and defending human rights in other countries should be a top foreign policy priority. This number has increased steadily since 1993, when 22% viewed human rights as a top priority and an equal percentage said it should have no priority at all. In the pre-9/11 poll, Democrats placed more importance on this issue than did Republicans (32% vs. 24%, respectively). Today Republicans feel more strongly about the issue (38% vs. 30% of Democrats).

Spreading Democracy a Low Priority

Despite President Bush’s goal of a more democratic Mideast, only about a quarter of Americans (24%) believe that promoting democracy in other nations should be a top priority. There has been no increase in support for this objective since October 2001.

There is no significant partisan division on this question ­ just 27% of Republicans and 22% Democrats rate this as a top priority. Those who feel the war in Iraq was the right decision are more likely to rate this an important objective. Still, just three-in-ten war supporters call this a top priority, compared with 18% of those who feel the war was the wrong decision.

In addition, white evangelical Protestants are stronger proponents of promoting democracy than are non-evangelical Protestants or Catholics (30% vs. 20% and 22%, respectively, say this should be a top foreign policy priority).

Waning Support for Addressing Global Warming

Global warming is a much less important issue to most Americans than it was prior to 9/11. Just 36% rate it a top priority, and while this represents a small rise in importance since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (31%) it is still far below previous levels. In early Sept. 2001, 44% of Americans said global warming should be a top priority, and as recently as 1995, fully 56% of the public held this view.

Republicans and Democrats are worlds apart when it comes to global warming. While 44% of Democrats say this issue should be a top priority, only 22% of Republicans agree. Independents are much closer to Democrats on this issue (42% say top priority). There was a similar partisan gap in the pre-9/11 survey, when 51% of Democrats but just 30% of Republicans gave global warming top billing.

Defense Spending

The public is somewhat more supportive of reducing U.S. military commitments abroad than it was in early September 2001; 35% now rate that objective as a top priority, compared with 26% three years ago. For the most part, however, public attitudes on defense issues are now similar to where they were prior to the attacks.

Overall, 53% think the U.S. should keep defense spending at about the same level, 25% believe it should be increased while 18% think it should be cut back. Public support for increased defense spending rose sharply between early September 2001 and the survey conducted just six weeks later, after the 9/11 attacks (from 32% to 50%). The current balance of opinion is much closer to measures taken prior to Sept. 11. In August 1999, for instance, 54% backed maintaining the current level of defense spending, 27% favored increased spending, and 16% supported a cut in defense expenditures.

Americans are somewhat more supportive of increasing the size of the military. About a third (34%) express that opinion, while a majority (54%) favors keeping the military the same size and just 8% support a cut back. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the gender gap on many defense issues has disappeared, and in the current survey nearly as many women as men are supportive of increasing the defense budget. However, men are significantly more likely than women to favor increasing the size of the military (40% vs. 29%).