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2010 Chicago Council Survey

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Marshall M. Bouton, Rachel Bronson, Gregory Holyk, Catherine Hug, Steven Kull, Benjamin I. Page, Silvia Veltcheva, and Thomas Wright
American flag
Jon Sailer

The 2010 Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans remain committed to an active part in world affairs—its problems, opportunities, and key actors.

Constrained Internationalism - Adapting to New Realities

Executive Summary 

The world in 2010 looks quite different to Americans than it did just a decade ago. U.S. influence is seen as lessening, as China’s is on the rise. Other countries are also viewed as increasing in influence, suggesting a trend toward a more multipolar world. The threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation are perceived as continuing unabated. Difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on for most of a decade. There is a growing feeling that conflict between Muslim and Western civilizations is inevitable. The financial crisis and deep lingering recession since 2008 at home have helped sustain an already negative view of America’s economic future. In view of these challenges, Americans overwhelmingly prefer to focus on fixing problems at home. 

Americans are not, however, backing away from their long-held commitment to take an active part in world affairs. They support a strong global military posture and are committed to alliances, international treaties and agreements, humanitarian interventions, and multilateral approaches to many problems. Americans also support many direct U.S. actions to address critical threats to U.S. vital interests. 

Yet constraints on U.S. economic resources and influence abroad have led Americans to reassess priorities, scale back certain ambitions, and become more selective in what they will support in terms of engagement in major conflicts between other countries and long-term military commitments. They appear to accept the idea of playing a less dominant role in the world, as other countries pursue more independent foreign policies. Even so, they are keeping a watchful eye on China, while supporting friendly cooperation and engagement with this rapidly rising power. 

Lessening of U.S. Influence 

  • U.S. influence in the world today is seen as significantly greater than any other country asked about, including China. Yet the perception of U.S. current influence has declined since 2008, and in ten years U.S. influence is projected to decline even further. Meanwhile, China’s influence is projected to increase in ten years to be nearly on par with the United States. 
  • Only one-quarter of Americans think the United States plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to ten years ago, down from a solid majority in 2002 when the question was last asked. 
  • Looking forward fifty years, only one-third of Americans think the United States will continue to be the world’s leading power. 
  • Just over half of Americans think the ability of the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals has decreased. 
  • Three-quarters of Americans think the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the United States is either the same or greater than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks. 
  • A bare majority of 51 percent believe that because most Muslims are like people everywhere, we can find common ground and violent conflict between the civilizations is not inevitable. The percentage who say instead that because Muslim religious, social, and political traditions are incompatible with Western ways, violent conflict between the two civilizations is inevitable, has increased sharply since 2002 from 27 percent to 45 percent today. 

Tough Economic Times at Home 

  • A large majority of Americans think that the way things are going, the next generation of Americans who are children today will be eco- nomically worse off than the generation of adults working today. 
  • Americans are showing dampened enthusiasm for expanding many federal government programs. Top priorities continue to be the domestic programs of aid to education, health care, and Social Security, all still with majorities wanting to expand them. However, these majorities have been steadily declining and are the lowest in a decade. 
  • Two-thirds of Americans think reducing federal budget deficits is “very important” to the United States remaining competitive with other countries in the global economy, putting this at the top of the list of items asked about. 
  • While globalization is seen as “mostly good” for the United States by a majority of Americans, it is seen as bad for many aspects of American life, including the job security of American workers and creating jobs in the United States. Half of Americans now think it should be a goal of the United States to either try to slow globalization down or reverse it. 
  • Nine out of ten Americans today think it is more important for the future of the United States to fix pressing problems at home than to address challenges to the United States from abroad. 

Sustained Support for International Engagement 

  • Two-thirds of Americans continue to think it is best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs. 
  • More than eight out of ten Americans think it is at least “somewhat desirable,” if not “very desirable,” for the United States to exert strong leader- ship in world affairs. 
  • Two-thirds favor keeping America’s commitment to NATO what it is now. 
  • A majority of Americans think maintaining superior power worldwide is a “very important” foreign policy goal. 
  • A majority also thinks the United States should have about as many long-term military bases as it does now, though support for long-term bases in many specific countries has dropped. 
  • Americans maintain their strong support of international treaties and agreements to deal with important problems such as nuclear proliferation and war criminals, favoring participation in the biological weapons treaty, the nuclear test ban treaty, the International Criminal Court, and an international treaty on climate change. 
  • Majorities support new international institutions to monitor financial markets, energy markets, and climate change treaty obligations as well as to provide information and assistance with migration problems. 

Acceptance of Less Dominance 

  • A large majority thinks the United States is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be, a long-held view. 
  • Less than 10 percent think that as the sole remaining superpower, the United States should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems. Instead, a strong majority thinks the United States should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries. 
  • More than two-thirds of Americans think that as rising countries like Turkey and Brazil become more independent from the United States in the conduct of their foreign policy, it is mostly good because then they do not rely on the United States so much (rather than thinking it is mostly bad because then they are more likely to do things the United States does not support). 
  • There has been a striking overall drop in the percentages of Americans who say that various countries are “very important” to the United States, with thirteen of the fourteen countries asked about in both 2008 and 2010 showing declines. The only country that did not decline in perceived importance is China. 
  • More than two-thirds think that the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively work to limit the growth of China’s power. 

Preference for More Selective Engagement 

  • Given the constraints brought on by the financial crisis at home, the limits of U.S. power and influence abroad, and the strong desire to address domestic ills, Americans are choosing carefully where to focus their efforts. 
  • The principles of selective engagement that emerge from this study are: 
    • Support for actions against top threats 
    • Support for low-risk, low-cost humanitarian actions 
    • Support for multilateral actions through the United Nations 
    • Preference for lightening the U.S. military footprint 
    • Preference for staying on the sideline of conflicts that are not seen as directly threatening to the United States 
Support for Actions against Top Threats 
  • Americans show strong support for both military and nonmilitary actions against international terrorism and nuclear proliferation as well as for actions to secure the energy supply and reduce dependence on foreign oil, all issues at the top of the list of “critical” threats and “very important” foreign policy goals. 
  • Majorities support actions that include working through the United Nations to strengthen international laws against terrorism, participating in the treaty that would prohibit nuclear weapon test explosions worldwide, having a UN agency control access to all nuclear fuel, creating a new international institution to monitor the worldwide energy market and predict potential shortages, U.S. air strikes on terrorist facilities, assassination of terrorist leaders, pursuit of mainly nonmilitary measures aimed at stopping Iran from enriching uranium, and the use of U.S. troops to ensure the oil supply. 
Afghanistan/Pakistan 
  • A majority thinks that eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal for American troops to fight and die for. 
  • Three-quarters of Americans support either withdrawing forces within two years or an even longer commitment—“as long as it takes to build a stable and secure state.” Less than one-quarter believe the United States should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan right away. 
  • Americans also support taking military action to capture or kill terrorists if the United States locates high-ranking members of terrorist groups operating in Pakistan that threaten the United States, even if the government of Pakistan does not give the United States permission to do so. 
Iran 
  • On the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Americans are at present reluctant to resort to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, prefer- ring economic sanctions and diplomacy. 
  • Very strong majorities do not think it is likely that a military strike would cause Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program. They also think a strike would likely result in retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets in neighboring states as well as in the United States itself. 
  • If all efforts fail to stop Iran, Americans are about evenly divided on whether to conduct a military strike. 
  • If Iran were to allow UN inspectors permanent and full access throughout Iran to make sure it is not developing nuclear weapons, a slight majority of Americans believe that Iran should be allowed to produce nuclear fuel for producing electricity. 
Energy Dependence 
  • Strong majorities favor several measures to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, including creating tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar or wind power; requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency even if this means the price of cars would go up; and building nuclear power plants to reduce reliance on oil and coal. 
Support for Low-Risk, Low-Cost Humanitarian Actions 
  • Strong majorities of Americans support robust U.S. responses to humanitarian crises. These include using U.S. troops in other parts of the world to stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people, creating an international marshals ser- vice through the United Nations that could arrest leaders responsible for genocide, and providing food and medical assistance to people in needy countries. 
Support for Multilateral Actions through the United Nations 
  • Americans also continue to support multilateral action in certain major conflicts where they would not support U.S. action alone, namely in the case of an invasion by North Korea of South Korea. 
  • They are also generally supportive of peacekeeping operations, including having a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained, and com- manded by the United Nations. 
Preference for Lightening the U.S. Military Footprint 
  • Overall, a majority of Americans think the United States should have about as many long-term military bases as it has now. 
  • Majorities still favor long-term U.S military bases in South Korea, Afghanistan, and Germany. However, only half of American now support long-term bases in Japan and Iraq, a shift from 2008 when majorities were in favor. And, majorities now oppose long-term bases in Pakistan and Turkey. 
Preference for Staying on the Sideline of Conflicts That Are Not Seen As Directly Threatening to the United States 
  • A majority of Americans think that if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran were to retaliate against Israel, and the two were to go to war, the United States should not bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel and against Iran. 
  • Fewer than half of Americans show a readiness to defend Israel against an attack by its neighbors. 
  • Four out of ten Americans think the United States has been doing more than it should to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Americans are now evenly split on whether U.S. government leaders should be ready to talk with leaders of Hamas, down from a majority in favor of this. There is no majority support for using U.S. troops to be part of an international peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 
  • Two-thirds of Americans think that in response to North Korea’s torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship in which forty-six South Korean sailors were killed, the United States should strongly criticize North Korea for its attack, but should view it as one in a series of incidents in the North Korea– South Korea conflict over disputed waters. Only a little more than one-quarter think the incident was an act of unprovoked aggression and the United States should join South Korea in punishing North Korea. 

Diminished Ambitions for Upgrading International Institutions 

  • Reponses show a sharp drop in support for strengthening international institutions. In the case of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, majorities still favor strengthening them, but the size of the majorities has dropped quite dramatically since 2002 when the question was last posed. 
  • International economic institutions (the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) have now lost majority or plurality support for strengthening. 
  • There is also no longer a majority that thinks strengthening the United Nations should be a “very important” U.S. foreign policy goal, although a large majority still sees this as at least a “somewhat important” goal. 
  • Americans still support many important new roles for the United Nations, with strong majorities in favor of giving the United Nations the authority to go into countries to investigate human rights violations, having a UN agency to control access to all nuclear fuel in the world to ensure that none is used for weapons production, having a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained, and commanded by the United Nations, giving the UN the power to regulate the international trade of arms, and giving the UN the power to override a veto by a permanent member of the UN Security Council. 

Watchful Acceptance of China’s Rise 

  • While Americans do not see the rise of China as highly threatening at this point, they are keeping a watchful eye on it, showing some concern about economic relations and hedging against a potential future military threat. 
  • Three-quarters of Americans believe it is likely that someday China’s economy will grow to be as large as the U.S. economy, and two-thirds think that “another nation” will either become as powerful or surpass the United States in fifty years. 
  • Half of Americans think that if China’s economy were to grow as large as the U.S. economy, this would be equally positive and negative. The rest lean heavily toward the negative, thinning this would be “mostly negative” rather than “mostly positive.” 
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe China practices unfair trade. Two-thirds now under- stand that China loans more money to the United States than the United States loans to China, up dramatically over the past two surveys. Roughly half consider debt to China a critical threat to vital U.S. interests in the next ten years. A majority is opposed to having a free trade agreement with China. 
  • Only a minority (but a substantial one) views the development of China as a world power as a “critical” threat. Very few Americans are “very worried” that China could become a military threat to the United States in the future, while nearly half are “somewhat worried.” 
  • As mentioned, a strong majority of Americans prefer to undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively work to limit the growth of China’s power. Yet a majority prefers to hedge against a possible future threat from China by building up strong relations with traditional allies like South Korea and Japan even if this might diminish relations with China (as opposed to building a partnership with China at the expense of allies). When asked specifically if the United States and South Korea should work together to limit China’s rise in the years ahead, a majority is in favor. 

Steadiness on Support for International Trade 

  • Americans are steady in their support for inter- national trade. A majority believes foreign trade is “more of an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports” than “a threat to the economy from foreign imports.” 
  • Only about one-third of Americans are flatly opposed to agreements to lower trade barriers such as tariffs, with a plurality favoring such agreements provided that the government has programs to help workers who lose their jobs. 
  • Nearly three-quarters think the United States should generally comply with a decision by the World Trade Organization even if it rules against the United States. 
  • Americans favor the status quo on free trade agreements, opposing new agreements with China, Colombia, India, and South Korea. Only Japan receives majority support, though slim, for a free trade agreement with the United States. 

Immigration 

  • Responses on immigration questions have generally not grown more negative since 2008, even as overall negative sentiment persists. 
  • Majorities think that “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” constitutes a “critical” threat to the vital interest of the United States and that “controlling and reducing illegal immigration” should be a “very important” goal of U.S. foreign policy. 
  • Immigration is seen as having a negative impact on many aspects of U.S. life, including the job security of American workers, the U.S. economy, and American companies. 
  • An overwhelming majority of Americans support a package of immigration reforms that includes stronger enforcement measures (greater efforts to secure the border, identify illegal immigrants, and penalize employers who hire them) as well as a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (a program that would require them to pay back taxes and to learn English). 

Climate Change and the Environment 

  • A majority of Americans say that protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth, rejecting the idea that economic growth should be given priority even if the environment suffers to some extent. 
  • Overall, climate change is seen less as a “critical” threat, than as an “important” threat to U.S. vital interests. 
  • On a question with three views of climate change, the plurality view is that the problem of climate change should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost. Relatively equal proportions take the other two positions: that climate change is a serious and pressing problem and we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs, or that until we are sure that climate change is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs. 
  • Nearly half of Americans think their government is not doing enough about climate change—far more than say it is doing too much—while just under one-third say the government is doing about the right amount. 
  • To address climate change, strong majorities favor creating tax incentives to encourage the development and use of alternative energy sources such as solar or wind power; requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency even if this means the price of cars would go up; and building nuclear power plants to reduce reliance on oil and coal (the same measures as they sup- port to address dependence on foreign sources of energy). 
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About the Authors
Marshall M. Bouton
Senior Fellow, Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania
Marshall M. Bouton is president emeritus of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Dr. Bouton currently serves as a member of the advisory group for the Council’s Center on Global Food and Agriculture, a member of the advisory board for Omnivore, an affiliated expert of the Lugar Center, and is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
President and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Rachel Bronson is the president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She oversees the publishing programs, management of the Doomsday Clock, and a growing set of activities around nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. Before joining the Bulletin, Bronson served as the vice president of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Gregory Holyk
Research Analyst
Gregory Holyk is a research analyst at Langer Research Associates.
Catherine Hug
Catherine Hug is a principal with Chicago Creative Group.
Steven Kull
Steven Kull is the Director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.
Benjamin I. Page
Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.
Silvia Veltcheva
Silvia Veltcheva is a former program officer at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Thomas Wright
Thomas Wright is the Director, Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow of foreign policy, project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution.