August 18, 2004

Foreign Policy Attitudes Now Driven by 9/11 and Iraq

Part Two: America’s Place in the World

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and more than a year after the start of the war in Iraq, the public takes a paradoxical view of America’s place in the world. Nearly half of Americans (45%) say the United States plays a more important and powerful role as world leader than it did 10 years ago ­ the largest percentage expressing that opinion in the three decades that this question has been asked.

Yet Americans ­ in greater numbers ­ also believe that the United States is less respected by other countries than it has been in the past. Two-thirds (67%) say the U.S. is less respected, as opposed to just 20% who say the U.S. retains as much respect around the world as in the past.

The percentage saying that the U.S. is less respected internationally is higher than the number who expressed this opinion in May 1987, during the Iran-contra hearings, and nearly double the number who felt this way in January 1984, at the start of President Ronald Reagan’s second term. Furthermore, more than four-in-ten Americans (43%) see the declining respect for the U.S. around the world as a major problem, double the number who believe it is a minor problem or not a concern (23%).

Partisan Perceptions

Partisanship is by far the most important factor shaping these attitudes. In previous surveys, Republicans, Democrats and independents all shared similar perceptions of U.S. power around the world. In early September 2001 (just prior to the 9/11 attacks), about four-in-ten Republicans (38%) and about a third of independents (34%) and Democrats (32%) felt the United States played a more important role as world leader than it did a decade earlier.

Today, the dominant view among Republicans is that the U.S. is more important and powerful than it was a decade ago: 63% of Republicans express that view, an increase of 25 points compared with three years ago. By contrast, Democrats regard U.S. global power in the same way as before the Sept. 11 attacks ­ the same number regard the U.S. as more powerful as did so three years ago (32%).

U.S. Less Respected

The belief that the United States is now less respected by other countries is widely shared across the demographic spectrum. There are no significant differences in this attitude by gender, age, race or education.

Yet there are sharp political differences, with far more Democrats and independents than Republicans saying that other countries accord the U.S. lower levels of respect than in the past. And this gap is as large, if not larger, when vote preference is considered. Among swing voters, 69% think the U.S. is less respected than it has been, while just 26% say it is as respected or more respected than in the past.

Opinions about the war in Iraq also are closely related to perceptions of America’s global standing. Nearly nine-in-ten of those who think the war was the wrong decision (87%) say the United States is less respected than it once was; just 13% of war opponents believe the U.S. is as respected or more respected. About half of war supporters (53%) think the U.S. is less respected, while 44% think other countries respect the U.S. as much or more than in the past.

In addition to believing that the U.S. has lost respect around the world, most Americans also believe it is losing popularity. About six-in-ten (59%) believe the U.S. is liked less by other countries than in the past, about twice the number who think America’s popularity is unchanged (29%). Fewer than one-in-ten think the United States is liked more than it was in the past.

Assessing the Consequences

By roughly two-to-one (43%-23%), Americans say the decline in respect for the U.S. from other countries represents a major problem. Partisanship is a key factor in shaping opinion on this issue, but education is a factor as well.

About half of college graduates (51%) view declining respect for the U.S. as a major problem, a view shared by 41% of those with a high school education. Slightly more women than men see this as a major problem.

Politically, Republicans (and Bush voters) are divided over whether the decline in America’s respect is a major problem, while solid majorities of Democrats (and Kerry voters) believe that it is. Swing voters, by a two-to-one margin (44%-22%), view America’s lower level of respect as a significant concern. Nearly two-thirds of those who believe the Iraq war was the wrong decision (65%) say the loss of respect from other countries is a major problem for the U.S.; just 28% of those who feel the war was the right decision agree.

State of the World

In general, Americans offer a negative assessment of the way things are going in the world, with just 21% expressing satisfaction with global conditions. That is in line with previous surveys dating back to 1993; even prior to Sept. 11, less than three-in-ten ever expressed a positive view of the way things are going in the world.

Attitudes toward the state of the world are divided by partisanship. More than three times as many Republicans as Democrats express satisfaction with global conditions (37% vs. 11%). Prior to 9/11 the gap was smaller, with 31% of Republicans expressing satisfaction compared with 22% of Democrats.

Public satisfaction with the state of the nation, while not very high at 38%, still exceeds positive opinion of global conditions by a wide margin. African Americans, in particular, express overwhelming dissatisfaction with the way things are going both in the U.S. and in the world. Just 16% of blacks have a positive opinion of national conditions, while just 6% say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the world.

Between Empire and Isolation

Americans continue to reject the role of single world leader for the United States, yet they also resist the pull of isolationism. Roughly three-quarters (74%) say the U.S. should play a shared leadership role, while 11% say the United States should be the single world leader and 9% think the U.S. should play no leadership role in the world.

While these broad judgments about America’s place in the world have remained fairly stable for more than a decade, there has been movement on the issue of whether the U.S. ­ while sharing the leadership role with other nations ­ should be the most active of leading nations or about as active as others.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a notable rise in the percentage who said the U.S. should be most active among leading nations ­ from 25% in early September 2001 to 33% in mid-October of that year. That was the highest percentage expressing that sentiment in the 11 years this question has been asked. When combined with the 12% who believed the U.S. should assume the role of “single world leader,” nearly half of Americans (45%) favored the U.S. becoming the world’s leading nation or at least the most active among leading countries.

But the number who favor the U.S. being most active among leading nations has declined to 30% in June 2003 and 27% today. Currently, just 38% want the U.S. to be either the single world leader (11%) or most active among leading nations (27%). More (44%) favor the U.S. being only about as active as other leading nations.

The decrease since then has been most pronounced among women, minorities and people with a high school education. Notably, Republicans remain as supportive of an assertive global role for the U.S. as they were in October 2001 (54% now, 53% then). By comparison, there has been a significant falloff in the number of independents (down 11 percentage points) and Democrats (down nine percentage points) favoring this approach.

Multilateral Foreign Policy Favored

In general, the public favors giving the interests of U.S. allies strong consideration in the conduct of foreign policy. About half of Americans (49%) say the U.S. should strongly take allied interests into account in determining the nation’s foreign policy, while 37% believe America’s foreign policy should be based mostly on U.S. national interests.

The public’s preferences in this regard are virtually unchanged from early September 2001, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. At that time, 48% said the U.S. should pay heed to allied concerns and 38% favored determining foreign policy mostly on the basis of national interests.

Following the 9/11 attacks, this question was modified to ask specifically about the conduct of the war on terrorism. Initially, the public decisively supported giving strong consideration to allied interests in the war on terror. In October 2001, most (59%) said the U.S. should strongly take allied interests into account. But opinion shifted dramatically ­ in favor of basing policy mostly on national interests ­ in subsequent surveys. By August 2002, a plurality (45%) said national interests should predominate with respect to the war on terrorism. Views have remained largely unchanged since that time; currently 43% believe national interests should take precedence in the war on terrorism, while 35% say the U.S. should strongly take into account the views of allies.

Education is a more important factor than partisanship in shaping people’s views about working with allies. Many more college graduates than those with a high school education favor giving allies’ interests strong consideration when making foreign policy decisions (56% vs. 36%). At the same time, the partisan differences on this issue are much narrower than over questions relating to U.S. power and prestige.

By nearly two-to-one (57%-29%), people who see declining respect as a major problem for the U.S. favor giving allied interests heavy consideration when determining foreign policy. Those who view declining respect as less of a problem are evenly divided over whether allied interests (42%), or national interests (45%), should be more of a consideration.

Most Favor Strong Ties with W. Europe

Despite the strains in U.S. relations with Western Europe, the public has remained supportive of continued close ties with countries in that region. A 56% majority believes the partnership between the U.S. and Western Europe should remain as close as it has been in the past, while just 33% think the U.S. should pursue a more independent course.

Opinion in this matter has changed only modestly since February 2003, prior to the start of the war in Iraq. At that time, somewhat more Americans (62%) backed a close relationship with Western Europe. Since then, smaller majorities have supported a continuing partnership with Western Europe.

There are no partisan differences on this issue ­ nearly identical numbers of independents, Republicans and Democrats want relations with Western Europe to remain as close as in the past. But there are significant differences on the basis of race and education. About six-in-ten whites believe the transatlantic partnership should remain close; barely a third of African Americans (34%) agree. And many more college graduates than those with a high school education support a close relationship with Western Europe (66% vs. 49%).

Mixed Views on War; Skepticism about Iraqi Government

Public views of the war in Iraq are nuanced and ambivalent, but the long-term trend is clearly negative. A narrow majority of Americans (53%) continue to believe it was the “right decision” to use military force in Iraq, but this figure is down from the 74% who held that view during the height of major combat last year. And more Americans now disapprove (52%) than approve (43%) of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq. This approval rating is down from a peak of 77% during the major combat phase in April 2003.

Moreover, the formal transfer of power in Iraqi at the end of June from the United States to a new interim Iraqi government has not triggered any significant improvement in the way Americans view the situation there. By a ratio of more than three-to-one, the percentage of Americans (19%) who say the new Iraqi government is doing an “excellent” or “good” job is outnumbered by the percentage of Americans (65%) who say it is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job.

In addition, although news media coverage of Iraq dropped sharply following the transfer of power, many Americans apparently have been following events there closely enough to know that the casualties suffered by American forces did not decline in the month following the transfer. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) say the number of U.S. military casualties has been higher in the past month compared with recent months; 42% say casualties have remained about the same; and just 18% say they have dropped. (The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq was 54 in July and 42 in June, according to the Defense Department.)

The erosion in public support for the war in Iraq over the past year is best illustrated by a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who question whether the war has helped the war on terrorism. Just 45% now say it has “helped,” while 44% say it has “hurt.” The public has been evenly divided on this question since June, whereas 15 months ago, following the fall of Baghdad, just 22% said it had hurt and nearly two-thirds (63%) said it had helped. As recently as February of this year, 62% said the war in Iraq had helped the war on terror, and only 28% said it had hurt.

On this question, as on virtually every other assessment of the Iraq war, attitudes divide starkly along partisan lines. Americans who say they intend to vote for Bush say the war in Iraq has helped the war on terrorism by a margin of 82%-10%. Americans who say they plan to vote for Kerry say the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism by a margin of 74%-17%. Swing voters mirror the nation as a whole, with 42% saying it has helped and 44% saying it has hurt.

Despite the public’s growing doubts on this question, there has not been an equivalent spike in support for a quick pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. Just four-in-ten Americans (42%) favor withdrawing U.S. troops as soon as possible, while 54% say troops should remain in Iraq until the situation there has stabilized. These numbers have been fairly constant over the past year.

On the question of when to withdraw, Americans are separated not just by partisanship (61% of Kerry supporters favor a quick pullout, as opposed to 16% of Bush supporters who hold that view) but also by their level of education. Two-thirds of all Americans who graduated from college favor keeping troops in Iraq long enough to bring stability, while more than half (61%) of Americans with less than a high school degree favor a quick pullout.

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say Bush does not have a clear plan to bring the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion, while 36% say he does. These figures have been stable for the past year, and they remain strongly influenced by partisanship. Eight-in-ten Bush supporters (79%) say he has a clear plan, while 94% of Kerry supporters and 62% of swing voters say he does not.