December 3, 2009

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Isolationist Sentiment Surges to Four-Decade High

Overview

The general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations are apprehensive and uncertain about America’s place in the world. Growing numbers in both groups see the United States playing a less important role globally, while acknowledging the increasing stature of China. And the general public, which is in a decidedly inward-looking frame of mind when it comes to global affairs, is less supportive of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan than are CFR members.

In polling conducted before President Obama’s decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, both groups expressed pessimism about prospects for long-term stability in Afghanistan. Fewer than half of the public (46%) and CFR members (41%) say it is very or somewhat likely that Afghanistan will be able to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban. While half of the CFR members (50%) favor increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, just 32% of the public agrees.

In the midst of two wars abroad and a sour economy at home, there has been a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment among the public. For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.

The quadrennial survey of foreign policy attitudes, conducted among the general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, finds broad recognition of China’s growing power. But the public takes a less benign view of China’s rise than do the members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

For CFR members, China has been transformed from a major threat to the United States to an increasingly important future ally. Just 21% of CFR members view China’s emergence as a world
power as a major threat to the United States. In 2001, 38% of foreign policy opinion leaders said that China’s emergence was a major threat, as did 30% in 2005.

More important, there is a growing belief among CFR members that China, along with India, will be more important U.S. allies in the future. Majorities of the Council members surveyed say China (58%) and India (55%) will be more important U.S. allies; Brazil is a distant third (37%). And while more CFR members view China, India and Brazil as more important future allies than did so four years ago, substantially fewer say the same about Japan and Great Britain.

The public sees China’s emerging power as more worrisome than do the foreign policy opinion leaders. There has been virtually no change since 2005 in the percentage of the public saying that China represents a major threat to the United States (53% today, 52% then). Moreover, while Iran is mentioned most often as the country that poses the greatest danger to the United States, China continues to rank among the countries frequently named by the public as dangers to the U.S.

The new survey finds that 41% of the public says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years ago – the highest percentage ever in a Pew Research survey. And while the foreign policy opinion leaders differ with the public about many issues – including President Obama’s foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan and China – a growing proportion of Council on Foreign Relations members agree that the United States is a less important world leader. Fully 44% of the CFR members say the U.S. is a less important global leader, up from 25% in early September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks.

In a reversal of opinion from the beginning of last year, 44% of the public now says China is the world’s leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. In February 2008, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China. Somewhat fewer people now say China is the top economic power than named Japan as the leading economic power in the late 1980s (58% in 1989).

The United States is widely viewed as the world’s leading military power – 63% express this view, while just 18% name China. A majority of the public (57%) continues to say that U.S. policies should try to maintain America’s role as the world’s only military superpower – although far fewer favor this if it risks alienating U.S. allies.

However, the percentage saying that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” has reached an all-time high of 49%. Four years ago, 42% agreed that the U.S. should “mind its own business” in international affairs; in December 2002, just 30% agreed with this statement.

At the same time, there has been a rise in unilateralist sentiment. Fully 44% say that because the United States “is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.” That is by far the highest percentage agreeing since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1964.

CFR members continue to strongly support the United States playing an assertive role in global affairs: 69% say the U.S. should be either the single world leader (7%) or the most assertive of leading nations (62%). These opinions are little changed from previous surveys.

Yet CFR members assign a far lower priority to several globally oriented policy goals than they did at the beginning of the decade. Just 10% of CFR members say that promoting democracy in other nations should be a top U.S. foreign policy goal, down from 44% in early September 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks.

Defending human rights (down by 22 percentage points as a top priority), strengthening the United Nations (19 points) and improving living standards in developing countries (13 points) also are now viewed as less important priorities by CFR members.

These are among the principal findings of America’s Place in the World, a survey of foreign policy and national security attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan organization focused on helping government officials and the public better understand the world and foreign policy. The survey was conducted among 642 members of the Council on Foreign Relations and 2,000 members of the public.

The survey finds that the Council members are much more positive about President Obama’s approach to foreign policy and his handling of specific issues than is the public. About three-quarters (77%) of the members of the Council of Foreign Relations approve of Obama’s overall job performance, compared with just 51% of the public. There are comparable or even larger differences in opinions about Obama’s handling of Iran, Iraq, global climate change and several other issues. Yet the CFR members are nearly as critical of Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan as is the public. Just 42% approve of Obama’s job performance on Afghanistan, which is modestly higher than his rating among the public (36%).

Only about half of CFR members (49%) say the Taliban’s growing strength in Afghanistan represents a major threat to the United States; 70% of the public sees this as a major threat. Yet CFR members are much more supportive than the public of the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan – fully 87% say this was the right decision compared with 56% of the public. CFR members also are more supportive than the public of increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan.

There is little optimism among either the members of the Council on Foreign Relations or the public about prospects that Afghanistan can become stable enough to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban. Just 41% of the Council members and 46% of the public think that it is very or somewhat likely that Afghanistan will become stable enough to withstand the threat from the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Major Threats and Long-Term Priorities

The public and Council on Foreign Relations members generally agree on three of the major threats facing the United States – large majorities of both groups say Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear program and international financial instability are major threats to the well-being of the United States. But they differ over the seriousness of other global threats. The public views China’s emergence as a world power as a more serious threat than do CFR members, and the gap is nearly as large over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Fully 69% of the public says that North Korea’s nuclear program is a major threat to the well-being of the United States, which is little changed from 2005 (66%). But concerns about North Korea have declined markedly among CFR members over this period: just 44% currently regard North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat, down from 67% in 2005. While growing tensions between Russia and its neighbors are viewed as a major threat by just 38% of the public, even fewer CFR members (12%) say this is a major threat.

More than eight-in-ten (85%) CFR members say instability in Pakistan is a major threat to the U.S.; this is a much lower concern for the public – just 49% view this as a major threat. In addition, higher percentages of the CFR members view global climate change (by 15 percentage points) and international financial instability (by 13 points) as major threats to the United States.

The CFR members’ concerns over Pakistan are seen in other ways as well. Nearly one-in-five (18%) says that Pakistan represents America’s most important international problem. However, Pakistan is mentioned by only 1% of the general public as America’s top international problem.

In terms of long-range policy priorities, large majorities of both the public and CFR members see preventing another terrorist attack on the United States and reducing U.S. dependence on imported energy sources as top priorities.

But on other goals – particularly protecting American jobs – there are substantial differences. Fully 85% of the public views this as a top foreign policy priority compared with just 21% of CFR members. This gap is not new: It was as large in the first America’s Place in the World survey in 1993 (85% of public, 19% of foreign policy opinion leaders) and has remained about as large in each of the succeeding studies.

Greater percentages of the public than CFR members also view reducing illegal immigration (by 35 points) and combating drug trafficking (by 34 points) as top long-range priorities. And while 37% of the public says strengthening the United Nations is a top priority, just 18% of CFR members agree. By contrast, a clear majority (57%) of CFR members say that dealing with global climate change should be a top long-range priority, compared with 40% of the public.

Support for Free Trade Holds Steady

The survey underscores the public’s anxiety over the nation’s economy. Fully 85% say protecting jobs should be a top foreign policy priority and economic issues are cited most frequently as the greatest international problem confronting the United States, followed closely by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite these concerns, public support for free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has increased somewhat over the past year. In April 2008, nearly half of Americans (48%) said that free trade agreements were bad for the country, while 35% said such agreements were good for the country. In two polls this year, including the current survey, pluralities have said that free trade agreements and WTO policies are good for the country; currently, 43% say that free trade agreements are good for the country, while 32% express a negative opinion.

Nonetheless, foreign policy specialists have long been more supportive of free trade compared with the public, and that remains the case today. Nearly nine-in-ten CFR members (88%) say that free trade agreements and the policies of the WTO are good for the country, which is little changed from previous America’s Place in the World surveys.

The public expresses more negative opinions about the specific impact of free trade agreements on jobs, economic growth and wages. Still, somewhat smaller percentages say that free trade agreements lead to job losses (53%), lower wages (49%) and slower economic growth (42%) than did so in April 2008 (61%, 56% and 50%, respectively).

Public’s Terrorism Concerns Grow

The survey also finds substantial differences between the public and CFR members over anti-terrorism strategies and tactics – and even over the ability of terrorists to launch new attacks on the United States. Currently, 29% of the public says the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack on the U.S. is greater than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks; that percentage has risen 12 points since February. (NOTE: The main survey of the public was mostly conducted before the Nov. 5 shootings at the Ft. Hood Army base in Texas.)

The public’s attitudes about terrorists’ capabilities are comparable to opinions in October 2005: 29% say the ability of terrorists to conduct a major attack is greater than it was at the time of 9/11, 38% say their ability to launch a major strike is the same as it was around 9/11, while 29% say it is less.

By contrast, an increasing proportion of CFR members say the ability of terrorists to launch a major attack is less now than at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks; 56% of CFR members say that currently, up from 44% in 2005.

The public and CFR members continue to support divergent policies to combat terrorism. Most notably, 19% of the public says the use of torture is often justified to gain important information from terrorist suspects, while 35% say the use of torture in these circumstances is at least sometimes justified. Just 2% of CFR members say torture is often justified, and 11% say it is sometimes justified, to gain important information from suspected terrorists.

The proportion of the public saying torture is at least sometimes justified against suspected terrorists has increased modestly over the past year. Currently, 54% say torture is at least sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists, compared with 49% in April and 44% in February.

Other findings:

Cite this publication: “U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (December 3, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/12/03/us-seen-as-less-important-china-as-more-powerful/, accessed on July 22, 2014.