November 17, 2005

Opinion Leaders Turn Cautious, Public Looks Homeward

II. Global Policy Goals and Threats

The existential threats posed by terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction rate as leading long-term U.S. policy concerns, in the view of both opinion leaders and the public. But there also is a widely shared belief that decreasing the nation’s dependence on imported energy should be a major policy objective.

Fully 87% of mayors and other state and local government officials say that reducing U.S. dependence on imported energy sources is a top priority; comparable numbers of scientists and engineers (83%) and members of the news media (82%) agree. More than 60% in each group of influentials — and two-thirds of the public (67%) — view energy independence as a major long-term policy objective. Among the public, comparable percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents say that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign energy is a top priority.

There are wide differences between opinion leaders and the public — and among the groups themselves — over the importance of other goals. For the public, protecting the jobs of American workers ranks about equally important as important as defending the nation against terrorism (84% vs. 86%), and more cite jobs as a top priority than say that about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (75%). But this goal is a far lower priority for influentials; only among state and local government officials (64%) and religious leaders (55%) do majorities believe that protecting U.S. jobs is a top long-term priority.

The public also continues to view the goals of reducing the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases, and combating international drug trafficking, as more important priorities than do most opinion leaders.

In addition, the public views reducing illegal immigration as a much more important long-term goal than do opinion leaders. About half of Americans (51%) say that reducing illegal immigration should be a top priority; that compares with 34% of military leaders, a third of religious leaders, and far lower percentages in other groups.

Differences among Influentials

The hierarchy of policy concerns varies among the groups of opinion leaders. Nearly nine-in-ten religious leaders (89%) say that protecting groups or nations threatened with genocide should be a top priority. This objective is viewed as a much lower priority by other groups and the general public. In addition, far more religious leaders rate defending human rights in other countries as a top priority than do those in other groups. Military leaders, security and foreign affairs experts, in particular, see the advancement of human rights abroad as a low-ranking objective.

Dealing with global climate change is a dominant concern for scientists and engineers, but is viewed as less important by other groups. Fully 86% of scientists and engineers say dealing with global climate change should be a top long-term priority; the only objective that draws comparable concern among scientists and engineers is reducing American dependence on imported energy (83%).

Among military leaders, there is broad agreement that defending the U.S. against terrorism (96%), preventing the spread of WMD (85%), and reducing dependence on imported energy (72%) are major priorities. Beyond these three issues, however, other potential goals rate as far less important for military leaders.

The survey finds that the goal of strengthening the U.N. is a relatively low priority among both opinion leaders and the public. A narrow majority of scientists and engineers (54%) view bolstering the U.N. as a top priority, but there is far less support for this objective elsewhere. Just 40% of Americans say that strengthening the U.N. is a top priority, down from 48% in July 2004.

Even smaller percentages of opinion leaders and the public view the promotion of democracy in other nations as a top long-range priority. No more than three-in-ten in any group rates the promotion of democracy abroad as major long-term goal of the United States (32% of state and local officials).

National Threats

There is no consensus, among opinion leaders or the public, as to which country represents the greatest danger to the United States. Three countries are cited most frequently by opinion leaders — North Korea, China and Iran. This marks a change from the previous survey in August 2001, when pluralities in each group pointed to China as posing the biggest danger to the United States.

Academics and think tank leaders mention China most frequently as the country presenting the greatest danger to the U.S. (34%). But even among this group, the percentage citing China has fallen from 46% in 2001.

A relatively large proportion of scientists and engineers (21%) cite the U.S. itself as the nation that poses the greatest danger. Only China (at 23%) was mentioned more frequently by scientists and engineers.

Among the general public, roughly equal numbers name Iraq and China as the country representing the greatest danger to the U.S. (18% and 16%, respectively); another 13% pointed to North Korea.

Americans who demonstrate a relatively high degree of awareness of current international issues, based on their responses to several knowledge questions, are divided in their evaluations of national threats, with about one-in-five each citing China, Iran or North Korea. Among those who have little awareness of international issues, a plurality cites Iraq as the country posing the biggest danger to the U.S. (33%).

Specific Threats: N. Korea, Iran

When assessing specific threats to the U.S., opinion leaders and the public express a high level of concern over the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. Majorities in all but one group view North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat to the U.S.; the only exception is scientists and engineers (42%).

Smaller majorities in most groups see Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat; again, scientists and engineers are far less likely to express this view (28%). The general public generally regards both countries’ nuclear programs as worrisome: 66% view North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat, and 61% say the same about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Other possible international threats — including China’s emergence as a world power — trigger less concern. Influentials are deeply divided over whether China’s growing power represents a major threat to the U.S. Far more journalists see China’s increasing power as a major threat than did so four years (64% now, 45% in 2001).

But several other groups express far less concern, and the percentage of security experts who view China’s emergence as a world power as a major threat has declined, from 38% to 21%, since 2001.

Public attitudes toward the potential threat posed by China also have not changed in recent years. About half of Americans (52%) continue to perceive China’s emergence as a serious threat. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (58%) view China’s growing power as a major threat, compared with about half of Democrats (51%) and 45% of independents.

The public is even less concerned over a possible military clash between China and Taiwan. Only about a third of Americans (34%) regard this scenario as a major threat to the U.S., which is virtually unchanged from May 2001 (36%). However, a possible conflict between China and Taiwan does trigger considerable concern among two groups of opinion leaders — security experts and military leaders. Six-in-ten security experts (62%) say such a clash represents a major threat to the U.S., while about half of military leaders agree (51%).

More Americans see the amount of U.S. debt held by foreign investors as a major threat than say that about a possible China-Taiwan conflict and other long-standing foreign policy concerns. More than half of the public (55%) rates U.S. indebtedness to foreign investors as a major threat to the United States. This is generally less of concern to opinion leaders, although majorities of scientists and engineers (63%) and state and local government officials (59%) also regard U.S. indebtedness as a serious threat.

Relatively small percentages among opinion leaders perceive a possible military conflict between India and Pakistan and growing authoritarianism in Russia as major threats to the United States. Just a third of the public (32%) views a possible India-Pakistan conflict as a major threat, while 23% say that about growing authoritarianism in Russia.