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2012 Chicago Council Survey

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura, Marshall M. Bouton, and Rachel Bronson
2012 Chicago Council Survey: Foreign Policy in the new Millennium

The 2012 Chicago Council Survey tracks public opinion on US foreign policy since the September 11 attacks, and includes an assessment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Foreign Policy in the new Millennium

Executive Summary

The last decade has been a trying time for the American people, who have lived through the aftershocks of the September 11 attacks, two costly wars, a deep financial crisis, and a slow economic recovery. Emerging from years in which anti-terrorist efforts were at the center of U.S. foreign policy, Americans now find themselves in a world in which traditional allies in Europe are embroiled in economic crisis, dramatic change has come to the Middle East, China’s influence is growing, and Iran and North Korea continue to pursue nuclear programs.

Past ten years brought hard lesson

The 2012 Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans are recalibrating their views on international engagement and searching for more effective and less costly ways to project positive U.S. influence abroad. The public ultimately has not viewed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as successful, seeing neither security benefits nor an increase in democracy in the greater Middle East as a result of U.S. efforts. Now, with a strong sense that the wars have overstretched our military and strained our economic resources, they prefer to avoid the use of military force if at all possible.

Further desire to selectively engage

Over the past two years, the preference for selective engagement that was first revealed in the 2010 Chicago Council Survey has consolidated. Americans are now less likely to support the use of force in many circumstances and are more likely to endorse spending cutbacks, including on defense. As always, if force is necessary, there is a preference for multilateral rather than unilateral approaches.

Less activist approach most pronounced among Millennials

Millennials (those age eighteen to twenty-nine) are at the front edge of these evolving American attitudes toward certain key aspects of foreign policy, perhaps foreshadowing trends that will continue into the future. They are much less alarmed about major threats facing the country, particularly international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the development of China as a world power. They are also less supportive of an activist approach to foreign affairs than older Americans.

Independents, often distinct in their opinions from both Democrats and Republicans, may also be a force for change. Over time they have become less inclined to support an active U.S. role in world affairs at a steeper rate than partisans, and they are less likely to consider strong U.S. leadership in world affairs desirable.

U.S. still has a positive role to play

Despite military and economic struggles over the past ten years, Americans still consider the United States as the greatest and most influential country in the world. But they are seeking a lower profile. They clearly reject the role of the U.S. as a hegemon and want to take a more cooperative stance, even if this means the United States might have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice.

Middle East a source of threat

The lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are shaping views of involvement in the Middle East, a region seen as the greatest source of threats in the future. Americans do not prefer to disengage completely from this region, but continue to support military action to combat terrorism, secure the oil supply, and respond to genocide or humanitarian crises (as in Libya). But fewer now favor having long-term military bases in the region, and support for economic aid has also dropped. When it comes to Iran, far more Americans endorse diplomatic rather than military solutions to deal with the nuclear threat.

Americans are unsure whether the political changes resulting from the Arab Spring will be good or bad for the United States. Majorities support continued economic and military aid to Israel, as Americans try to balance their foreign policy approaches among conflicting forces in the region.

Asia becoming more important

While Americans are not taking their eyes off the ball in the Middle East, they clearly see Asia as a region of great and growing importance to the United States. Overall, Americans see Asia as important because of its economic dynamism rather than as a threat. However, they also recognize that over the longer term, Asia’s, and especially China's, rise could be a negative development for the United States.

The American relationships with Japan and South Korea are still viewed as the linchpin of foreign policy in Asia, especially with North Korea’s nuclear capability seen as the greatest threat in this region. But there is a growing trend toward developing relations with China even at the expense of these allies.

Political polarization overstated

While media attention has focused on growing political polarization in American society, this appears to be exaggerated. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the foreign policy opinions of Americans in "red" and “blue” districts are remarkably similar. Moreover, Chicago Council Survey trends reveal that Republicans and Democrats rarely disagree on key foreign policy issues, though they differ in emphasis. Their sharpest differences are on immigration issues and Middle East policy.

Reorientation in the new millennium

The United States—and the world—have changed over the past ten years, and Americans believe that the way in which the United States engages with the world should adjust accordingly. While they see value in being a strong military power, Americans seem well aware of economic constraints and the limits of military force to effect change. They want to scale back spending, avoid major new military entanglements, and prefer less dominant leadership from the United States. While there is an increasing focus on Asia, the public does not want to turn away completely from the challenges in the Middle East.

New forces are having an impact on American foreign policy preferences, including the Millennials and Independents. Yet there is great consistency over the past decade in American support for cooperating with allies, participating in international treaties, and intervening militarily against genocide and humanitarian crises. In this regard, Americans remain true to their underlying values and aspirations for the United States to play a positive international role.

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About the Authors
Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2001.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Assistant Director, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Council expert Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
Council expert Craig Kafura
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.
Rachel Bronson
Former Vice President, Studies, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Former Vice President, Studies, Chicago Council on Global Affairs