Among much of the political elite today, a specter is haunting America—the specter of isolationism. Since the last Chicago Council Survey in 2012, many policymakers, politicians, and pundits have come to question the continued willingness of Americans to engage in world affairs. As global troubles brew in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, some claim that the public is turning inward and resistant to any sort of US military intervention. And they have used public opinion polling to argue their points.
Public continues to support an active role for the United States in world affairs.
But a new survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted from May 6 to 29, 2014, demonstrates that isolationism is not the appropriate term to describe current public opinion. Public support for international engagement remains solid, with six in ten Americans in favor of an active role in world affairs. At the same time, four in ten Americans now say the US should stay out of world affairs—a proportion that has grown to its highest point since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974.
The new survey data show that this growing desire among Americans to “stay out” of world affairs is linked to increased criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a decreased sense of threat, a longstanding desire to focus on domestic problems, and an increased divide among Republicans on this question. But the data do not show a desire to disengage from the world. Instead, results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey confirm continued, and in some cases even growing support for US international involvement, especially when it comes to nonmilitary forms of engagement.
Indeed, the most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago. As they have for four decades, Americans support strong US international leadership, place primacy on protecting American jobs over other foreign policy goals, favor diplomacy with countries that are hostile toward the United States, support participation in many international treaties and agreements, and endorse trade despite economic setbacks. Americans remain selective about when they will support putting US troops in harm’s way, but are most likely to do so in response to top threats or humanitarian crises.
Public aversion to the use of force is long-standing.
Much of the discussion around Americans’ current foreign policy mood is centered upon war weariness and public opposition to military intervention in places like Syria and Ukraine. Indeed, with seven in ten Americans now viewing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as not worth the cost, public hesitancy about military intervention is real. But it is not new. In fact, since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974, Americans have consistently expressed reluctance to use military force to solve international problems, especially when doing so involves putting “boots on the ground.” That skepticism persists today, with little public support for military intervention in Ukraine in the event of Russian invasion (30%), sending troops into Syria (17%), or leaving US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support counterterrorism and anti-insurgency operations (33%). And though arming the rebels in Syria may not pose a direct risk to Americans, only one in four support doing so (25%), consistent with past public opposition to arming rebel groups.
Americans will support force if they sense a direct threat.
At the same time, the 2014 Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans will support the use of force when they feel directly threatened, if they expect the response to be relatively low cost and low risk, or in case of a humanitarian disaster. Thus, a majority of Americans is prepared to use US troops to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon (69%). And as they have for more than a decade, majorities are willing to put US troops in harm’s way in order to combat terrorism (56% support sending ground troops to attack terrorist training camps) and to ensure the oil supply (54%). Support for military action goes up when such actions pose little to no hazard to American soldiers, including air strikes to carry out bombing attacks against terrorist camps and facilities (71%), assassinations of individual terrorist leaders (70%), and drone strikes against suspected terrorists (63%).
Moreover, at least in principle, Americans support sending US troops to prevent a government-sponsored genocide (71%) and to help with humanitarian crises (71%). Importantly, support for using force in all these cases is not confined to those Americans who want the US to play an active role in world affairs. Even among those who say the United States should stay out of world affairs, majorities would support the use of force in most of these cases.
Majorities support alliances, treaties, and keeping a military edge.
The discussion on American views of the US role in the world has tended to emphasize public caution about the use of force. But this ignores the fact that Americans today generally support many other forms of global engagement, including strong alliances, trade agreements, international treaties, strategic uses of sanctions, and diplomacy. This is true even for those who prefer that the United States “stay out” of world affairs, though they are less supportive of providing economic and military assistance to other countries. Even while reluctant to use forces, Americans nevertheless consider maintaining US military superiority one of the most effective ways to achieve US foreign policy goals. They also continue to support maintaining a long-term US military presence overseas. And while Americans have grown even more critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2012, they are not calling for large-scale cutbacks in defense spending.
Globalization receives the highest endorsement ever; majorities support new trade agreements.
As much as they value US military superiority, Americans believe economic power is more important to a nation’s power and influence in the world. As the US economy continues to recover from the largest global economic collapse since the 1930s, Americans continue to express broad support for globalization and free trade. Two out of three Americans say that globalization is mostly a good thing (65%), the highest recorded percentage to feel this way since the question was first asked in 1998. Six in ten also support the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe (62%) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated with a dozen Pacific Rim countries (63%).
Americans continue to support diplomacy and sanctions.
Americans prefer a diplomacy-first strategy before—if at all—resorting to force. For example, six in ten (62%) support the interim agreement between Iran and the United States, and nearly eight in ten (77%) support diplomatic efforts to stop Iranian enrichment. A large majority of Americans also supports continuing diplomatic efforts to get North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program (85%). In addition, in several surveys conducted since 2008, consistent majorities think that US leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders of Cuba (73% in 2014), Iran (67%), and North Korea (61%). Half continue to favor talking with the Taliban (49%), Hezbollah (50%), and Hamas (50%).
Americans also support sanctions as a means of achieving US foreign policy goals. Two in three Americans support the United States and its allies increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria (67%). A large majority of Americans support the UN Security Council placing sanctions on Iran if Iran commits a major violation of the interim treaty (83%, slightly higher than the 77 percent who favor continuing diplomatic efforts).
Americans draw distinctions between spying on friends and foes.
Despite the international resentment created in the wake of revelations about US surveillance programs, only one in three (34%) supports placing greater restrictions on the National Security Agency (NSA). A plurality thinks the budget for general information-gathering activities of the CIA and NSA should remain the same as it is now (41%).
Americans tend to support spying on countries for which they have unfavorable views and oppose spying on those governments they view favorably. Seven in ten or more think the United States should be listening in on the governments of China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Russia. Compared to 20 years ago, even more Americans now favor spying on China, Mexico, North Korea, and Russia. Majorities—to varying degrees—oppose spying on Brazil, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
More Republicans than Democrats now support “staying out” of world affairs.
For the first time in the 40-year history of the Chicago Council Survey, more self-described Democrats (64%) than Republicans (60%) support an active international role for the United States. Conversely, Republicans (40%) are now more likely than Democrats (35%) to say that the United States should “stay out” of world affairs. In fact, since 2006, the proportion of Republicans who say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs has nearly doubled (from 20% to 40% today). Independents have also grown substantially more likely to say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs, increasing from 30 percent in 2006 to 48 percent today.
Other results seem to confirm the traditional leanings of partisans, with Republicans expressing highest support for the use of force, Democrats most likely to support peacekeeping and multilateralism, and Independents lying somewhere in between. Yet the shift on the proper role of the United States in world affairs may hint at emerging differences among supporters of the Republican Party, perhaps reflecting the political debate among Republican political leaders on the future of American foreign policy.
A review of Chicago Council Surveys conducted over the past 40 years—covering Vietnam, the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, the rise of China, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2008 financial collapse—shows that American attitudes on foreign engagement have been remarkably stable. Throughout, Americans have expressed a preference for a foreign policy that relies on multiple means of engagement, avoiding military entanglements overseas, while ensuring we remain strong militarily and economically. That was true 40 years ago. It is equally true today.
The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation, and the personal support of Lester Crown.