October 11, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Dina Smeltz, Richard Wike

Deep Dish: How Popular is US Foreign Policy?

Two distinguished public opinion surveys reveal how American foreign policy is perceived at home and abroad. Pew’s director of global attitudes research Richard Wike joins Dina Smeltz, lead author of the Chicago Council Survey on US public opinion on foreign policy, to discuss their findings.

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Brian Hanson: 00:02 This is deep dish on global affairs going beyond the headlines and critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about public opinion and how us foreign policy is seen both in the United States and abroad. The Pew Research Center is just out with the latest global attitudes survey which asks people for more than two dozen nations what they think of the United States and the Chicago Council on global affairs is just published its annual Chicago Council survey which asks Americans what they think about us foreign policy taken together. These surveys are a really interesting view of how the world thinks about the US and its standing both at home and abroad. To help us dig into these two reports. I'm joined by Richard Wike, who is the director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center. Welcome Richard. It's good to have you on.

Richard Wike: 00:55 Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: 00:57 And also here is our very own Dina Smeltz who is the senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on global affairs. Dina, great to have you here.

Dina Smeltz: 01:06 It's great to be here with both of you.

Brian Hanson: 01:08 So I want to start off with the Chicago Council survey, which is called America engaged and one of the things that's so striking about this survey as your basic argument, which is that president trump has tried to steer us foreign policy and in new directions and those directions you find aren't really supported by the American public. So you briefly kind of what are the, what are the big findings of your survey?

Dina Smeltz: 01:35 Exactly. So we were looking two years into the trump administration are more Americans now buy into the idea of America first, more unilateralist pulling out of international engagement types of philosophy of foreign policy. And we find no, in fact 70 percent of Americans now say that the United States should take an active part in world affairs, which is the highest it's ever been except for the one period right after the September 11th attacks. And then on those areas where president trump has actually taking concrete action such as pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement or the Iran agreement. We actually find that support for both of those agreements has increased. So rather than getting influenced by the president's withdrawal from international agreements, Americans are even more convinced now that have their value.

Brian Hanson: 02:29 That's really interesting and I think a lot of people would be surprised by that because there is a sense that president trump has his finger on the pulse of what Americans want in terms of foreign policy. So how do you interpret the results that you've got in this political climate where there haven't been big political mobilizations talking about these other kinds of issues like you just laid out?

Dina Smeltz: 02:54 Well, the one thing to acknowledge is that there is about a third of Americans who do support president trump's positions and are very strong supporter of the president and they feel super intensely about their views. So while other Americans did not, um, support pulling back from the world stage, they don't feel as strongly in some of their opinions as other, uh, as the trump core supporters.

Brian Hanson: 03:22 Okay. I'm gonna come back to us attitudes in a minute. And Richard, I want to bring you in a pew has been doing this global attitudes pole for a while. And one of the things that's striking to me about, about your findings this year is that people in other countries really seemed to have a much lower image of both the US and president trump. So what did you find? What's your headline?

Richard Wike: 03:47 Well it, as you say, uh, you know, we've been doing these global surveys now and asking him about America's image for over a decade and a half. And, uh, you know, this year overall it's a, it's a fairly grim picture, I'd say. Um, and there's, there's globally not a lot of confidence in president trump across these 25 countries. We surveyed, you get a 70 percent saying that they don't have confidence in his, uh, leadership in world affairs. US favorability is down, you know, overall attitudes towards the U. S, uh, in most countries are significantly more negative than they were during the Obama era. Um, there's a sense among most of the people that we surveyed that the US doesn't really take into consideration the interest of countries like there's, when it's making foreign policy decisions, uh, there's a sense among many that the us is doing less to, uh, help solve global problems than it was doing a few years ago. So in a variety of fronts, whether you're asking about a president trump himself or you're asking about America's approach to the world, and America is a approach to foreign affairs. It's a pretty negative picture right now. And in many countries we see some of the lowest ratings for the US that we've seen over the course of our polling.

Dina Smeltz: 05:07 In addition in our polls, we also find that Americans think we are losing allies and losing respect. And I think you found that in your poles as well, right? Richard?

Richard Wike: 05:17 That's right. Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, some of the most negative views about the US, uh, some of the strongest criticisms of the u s right now, uh, we find amongst some of our closest allies and partners, you know, especially in Europe, but you see it amongst some of our Asian allies and partners as well. So I think that that fits into some of the things you're finding in your domestic polling. Dana.

Brian Hanson: 05:39 I think the other thing that's really interesting to me, it strikes me is that the, the things that Richard, you just mentioned that people abroad are frustrated that the United States is not doing. Dina, you find actually the American people would like to see us doing those kinds of things. You had this interesting question about should the US agree to cooperate even if it's not our first choice or, or something, um, that, that leadership question, listening to others and um, and taking other interests into account. And what did you find there?

Dina Smeltz: 06:16 Yeah. So we found that a nine and 10 American say that we can best achieve our foreign policy goals by working with other countries in less than 10 percent. Said that, oh, we can best achieve them by working alone, and then we have a question that we designed to get at the idea of our willy are Americans willing to subordinate Americans first choice or, or, um, key interest to the greater good of other UN members or, or our allies. Two thirds of Americans say that when dealing with international problems, the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations or with allies even if this means the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that's not its first choice. And then our poles as well as pew have found over a number of years at Americans support shared leadership. They don't want dominant leadership, but they also don't want no leadership role at all. They want to share the burden and the opportunities of international leadership.

Brian Hanson: 07:14 So this is interesting. And Richard, I want to, I want to go back to you and ask a question that it was presented in our facebook group by Christian [inaudible] who asks our global attitudes toward the U. s right now tied to the current president, or do they go beyond just simply president trump? Is this, is this all about president trump or is there something else going on here?

Richard Wike: 07:39 Well, I'd say that it's a lot about president trump. Uh, but that doesn't explain everything. I think when you, you know, you ask about the United States around the world, um, a lot of things affect how people think about the u s, so certainly it's who's in the White House. Uh, it's American foreign policy. Those tend to be the strongest drivers of, uh, of how people think about the US. But there are other factors as well. So, you know, things we think about when we talk about American soft power matter a lot. Um, you know, things like, attitudes towards American culture for example, are, are important, um, attitudes towards American, a respect the US government's respect for individual liberty. Um, these different elements of American soft power also matter. So, um, you know, it's a variety of different factors that influence how people are thinking about the us at any given moment in time, but the president and the foreign policies tend to be the main drivers.

Dina Smeltz: 08:43 I wanted to pick up on the idea of soft power because we ask this new question in our survey this year, taking a page from Machiavelli said, asking Americans if they would prefer that our country be more admired are more feared in the world. And we found that 73 percent say it's more important to be admired and just 26 percent say fear. But then when we asked, well, what do you think the United States is now? Is it more admired or feared? And more people say fear than admired, but this really unprecedented a percentage of people volunteered that it's something else that either were laughed at or were disliked or seen as a joke, which is something very new in terms of soft power. So I think Americans internally maybe think are soft powered eroding a bit.

Brian Hanson: 09:36 And Richard, how would that map onto what you saw in your, in your survey? About about a foreign attitudes toward the U. S does it do the US folks, does the US population actually have it right?

Richard Wike: 09:47 Well, you know, it's interesting. We have seen some erosion of us soft power in different ways. I think both this year survey, uh, in last year's too. I mean, you know, last year for example, we asked about attitudes towards American culture, American ideas about democracy, uh, things like this. And on the whole they were sort of still positive, but they were down a little bit from the Obama era when interesting findings from this year's surveys, there's a question we've been asking now for about a decade. Uh, do you think that the US government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens? And that question is showing a fairly long term decline in essentially us soft power. Fewer people in many countries, especially in Europe but elsewhere as well, saying essentially the US respect personal freedom. The U s respects individual liberty and that's been on the decline during the trump era, but the decline actually started during the Obama presidency, uh, in, in particular, I think the NSA story, uh, the snowden revelations, maybe some other things that were happening internally in the US affected that question. So, you know, that's an area of soft power where we've seen a decline and it's actually not just about trump. It started before trump.

Brian Hanson: 11:01 So let me engage this question about the practical realities of soft power. You, your survey, Richard documents very, very well that, um, that the attitudes to the United States and the president of declined precipitously. How much does that really matter? What, what kinds of things does that affect in the world?

Richard Wike: 11:21 Yeah, well, I think it can matter. I think that, um, you know, if you think about politicians, uh, in the U, s and in anywhere in the world, they often respond to incentives, right? They see, they respond to the incentive structure around them. And I think that, you know, public opinion helps shape that incentive structure. And if, uh, if the US is very unpopular, if American foreign policies are very unpopular for an American president is very unpopular in a given country that that's an important part of the kind of public opinion and policy environment in that country and it makes it more difficult perhaps for a given government to cooperate with the US or to be seen as working with us on some issues. So it doesn't mean cooperations not going to happen, but it's part of that environment as part of that context. They can make it either harder or easier to work with the US and to collaborate on important issues.

Brian Hanson: 12:19 Dina, I want to, I want to take this idea of attitudes in their affects and bring it to a really specific finding that I found absolutely fascinating being in the poll that you did, which was on trade policy because the public debate right now is tends to be about trade being a problem. Certainly that's the president's, that's the president's perspective on this. And there aren't big public figures who have been articulating that a path forward and the benefits of a free trade. Yet, you found the public is actually moving significantly in favor of trade. What did you find and what do you think's going on here?

Dina Smeltz: 12:59 Sure, so actually for the first time since we've ever asked this question, which goes back to 2004, we now find that similar majorities of Republicans and Democrats all say that international trade is good for consumers like you, the u, s economy and creating jobs in the United States. And in past years we found that when a Republican is in the White House, Republicans will feel more positively and vice versa when the Democrats in power, but this is the first time they both are feeling equally positive and this is spiked since 2016.

Dina Smeltz: 13:37 So I think there's a couple things going on. One is that Democrats have consistently been the pro globalization pro trade constituency in American public opinion for at least the last decade and for Republicans. I think they're feeling better now that we have a republican in the White House. That the environment for business is going to be less regulation and more positive for creating jobs to. Some of it could be hope that a republican president will be more, will be better for the economy. So I think there's two things going on there because support for Trey and some of it is a pushback against the trade bashing, which happened on both sides, you know, but Hillary Clinton and Donald trump were both criticizing the tpp and other trade agreements. But when we ask about trade agreements, there's more of a partisan divide there, but still avant views of Nafta, which we conducted our survey before. There was an agreement with Mexico and this latest round including Canada, but even so, so Donald Trump had said it was one of the worst deals ever, and yet 63 percent of Americans overall said that Nafta good for the U. S economy. Um, and among Republicans, uh, those who are pro trump are negative toward nafta, but those who are positive, who are not strong supporter for Donald trump are majority positive toward nafta.

Richard Wike: 15:11 I was just gonna. I was just going to jump in and say, uh, I think some of those findings, the inner ear really interesting on trade. I think we've seen some of the same things, uh, and some of our surveys in terms of an uptick really in, in support for trade. Um, and one of the things we've seen in the last couple of years in some of our international polling is that, uh, the trump administration's trade policies are pretty unpopular around the world and one of the things that I think it's contributing to trump's and popularity and in a lot of countries, uh, last year we tested a lot of several different policies of the trump administration, including the idea of pulling out a various trade agreements. We saw a lot of opposition to that. We also saw a lot of opposition to the US withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

Richard Wike: 16:02 We saw a lot of opposition to the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. So, you know, in, in general, I think one of the things that, to us jumped out of those findings was that people around the world really don't like it when they see the US pulling out of international commitments. Um, they also don't like it when they, when they see the US putting up barriers between itself and the rest of the world. We asked about building the wall on the border with Mexico for example, or making it more difficult for people to come into the United States from certain majority Muslim countries. And there was a lot of opposition to those ideas too. So, you know, the general takeaway for us was that people don't like to see these barriers between the US and the rest of the world, whether it's a literal barrier in terms of the border on the wall, the wall on the border with Mexico or figurative barrier in terms of making it more difficult for people to get into the country and they don't like to see us backing out of these international commitment. So you know, this kind of idea of, of the US withdrawing from the world walling itself off from the rest of the world. And then these are very unpopular notions among the public's we surveyed.

Dina Smeltz: 17:09 That makes sense that they would want the United States to be part of the solution. Especially because it's such a big player in the world.

Brian Hanson: 17:15 And I believe, Dina, you found similar things when looking at us opinion when it was things about Paris, when it was the Iran deal and, and others. Uh, what did, what did you find, how do Americans feel about the US pulling out of these kinds of things?

Dina Smeltz: 17:30 Yeah. Americans have a tradition of multilateralism and supporting the United Nations and um, being willing to participate in international agreements even when our own congress doesn't vote for them. Um, so yeah, we found that majority is a higher now than before, um, than even a year ago say that we should purchase a paid in the Iran agreement and in the Paris agreement and in the ICC and in the new TPP. So, um, Americans generally do like to. They might not know everything that is in the agreement. In fact, I'm sure they don't know all the details, but, uh, they generally support working with other countries to solve bigger problems.

Brian Hanson: 18:18 One of the things that strikes me as I listened to both of you is the amount of convergence between us popular opinion about what they would like us foreign policy to be, and then Richard, what you're finding in many parts of the world, obviously there are differences in different parts and different issues play different ways, but overall what you find in, in, in foreign policy as to people who study opinion, should we take this as hopeful, the fact that there is this, this unaccepted on public opinion in theu , s and strong desire in, in, uh, in the rest of the world. Does that create political forces that push us in that direction or create a permissive environment to move in that direction? How do we interpret this, this seeming congruence and an opinion around the world?

Dina Smeltz: 19:10 I mean, I think you can look at it optimistically, but the truth is that most people around the world judging United States by our policies or our president because they don't have a lot of day to day contact with Americans. Um, but I think when I worked at the State Department doing polls abroad too, I always noted a dis connect or a misperception that people around the world don't know that Americans want shared leadership. Um, they might think we want to dominate or in today's case maybe they think we want to be more isolationist, but yeah, so it would kind of help if there was some kind of a campaign that actually explain how Americans really feel.

Richard Wike: 19:54 Yeah, I think Dina is right about how foreign publics tend to be driven mostly by in terms of their sort of immediate assessments of United States, mostly by who's in the White House and um, by what our policies are. I mean, one thing that strikes me about the current rise and anti Americanism, if you wanna talk about it in those terms around the world and how it compares with say the rise of the Anti Americanism we saw during the Bush era is that there are some similarities and certainly some of the numbers look similar. But I think there's some differences too. Um, you know, if you think back to that era, there was a lot of talk about the u s as the hyper power. Well, you know, the US is sort of Mr big, uh, and, and the US kind of flexing its muscles around the world, uh, with, without being restrained by international institutions and things like that.

Richard Wike: 20:47 And was, this moment seems a little bit different to me in that a lot of the opposition to the u s and t to us foreign policy in the moment, I'm really is more about the US pulling back and kind of withdrawing from a leadership position, uh, in a withdrawing from international commitments, you know, questioning the value at toms of, of, of a multilateral institutions and things like that. So I think there are some similarities between those two different periods. And again, a lot of the numbers, if you look at ratings for trump and the old writings for President Bush back in the, in, uh, towards the end of his second term in office, the numbers look pretty similar. But I think some of the dynamics are a little different to you.

Dina Smeltz: 21:29 It'd be interesting to ask that if Americans miss some of the power, now that they've withdrawn, you always want the other side of the grass.

Brian Hanson: 21:40 Yeah. And Dina, what are you, what are you finding in the United States? Because clearly in the US, I'm a president, Bush's popularity dipped at the end of his term foreign policy decisions made particularly in the Midwest in the. Sorry, the foreign policy decisions particularly made in the Middle East were not very popular. How does the structure of us opinion today compare to a George W dot Bush era?

Dina Smeltz: 22:09 So I think one of the striking things working on the Chicago Council survey as, because the trends go back to 1974 is just how stable Americans really are on the broad contours of our foreign policy. They want to be engaged in the world. They don't want to be the dominant hyper power. They don't want to be the world's policeman, but they do support their allies and they do support trade and cooperative internationalism. Um, but what President Bush's policies, particularly the Iraq war brought to the table was the beginning of partisan divides in foreign policy. So for a long time American foreign policy, when we looked at opinion, there weren't that many differences between Republicans and Democrats, but after 2003, we started to see really big divides on support for the United Nations criticism of immigration, feeling that immigration is a threat to the United States, differences on climate change, globalization, and even trade around those years. So we did see a growing difference between the parties starting in that era. It's only wide instance then.

Brian Hanson: 23:20 That's interesting. And Richard, I wanted to follow up on this, on this issue of partisanship. One of the things that you touched in on your poll was some of the populist parties and differences in opinion about the US by people who identify with populist parties in different countries than otherwise. Is that something that you've looked at before and is that new? Do we see a difference in the structure of public opinion and other countries? Visa vi the US that's also become partisan.

Richard Wike: 23:52 Well, you know, we, we haven't really looked consistently at this, this idea of do supporters of populist parties, um, you know, how their views differ about the United States and about the US president from, from others, but it is something we focused on over the last couple of years and, um, in what we find is that if you look at supporters of populous parties in Europe, for example, uh, they do, uh, tend to have more positive views about president trump. Um, you know, if you have a favorable view of Ukip, for example, in Britain, which was the independent payment of president trump. Um, and, um, I mean even among European populous, trump doesn't get especially high ratings, but he does get much higher ratings and he does among others in Europe.

Brian Hanson: 24:38 The next thing I want to ask about is the question of leadership world leadership. And we're obviously at this geopolitical moment with the rise of China where there's a lot of discussion of what role China would play in the world. And Richard, you asked people explicitly around the world, um, uh, do they see China rising and would they rather live in a world that is led by China or the United States? What did you find?

Richard Wike: 25:06 Yeah, this was one of the more interesting findings in the survey to me is that, and we asked him about a number of different countries and whether people thought they're basically on the rise or is or their power falling or are they staying about the same and overwhelmingly in a big majority is in most countries said we see China as on the rise. We think they're more important than they were a decade ago and world affairs, uh, and much more so than, than any other country we asked about. But at the same time, we also ask people basically what would be better in the future to have a world where the US is the top power or world where China is the top power. And when we do that, uh, overwhelmingly, people say the US, they say that it'd be better in the future if the US, uh, you know, is the top power. So, to me that, that tells me that, uh, you know, even at a moment where there is a lot of frustration with the US, a lot of frustration with the, uh, American president, you know, there are things that people continue to value about the United States and if you ask them, you know, who do they want to be the leading power moving forward, there's still likely to say the United States.

Brian Hanson: 26:14 And Dina, what do we find in us opinion? You've already talked about the fact that the American people would support us leadership. Um, do we have any sense of how the American public feels visa vi China and the leadership between the two countries?

Dina Smeltz: 26:30 It's really interesting because when we had our advisory board meeting here, just to go over the final results, uh, one of the things that struck them as policy practitioners and academics is that America Fi, American fears of China are actually pretty low. They don't see China as a threat, as a military threat. They see it as an important economic leader. They see China strength being rooted in its economy. While ours is a little more diffused between our economy and our military power, and they don't really seem to sense a direct threat, even the threat of a trade war with China didn't get, Oh really? Majority concerned, uh, Democrats are more concerned than Republicans, but still it wasn't one of the big pressing concerns like nuclear proliferation or international terrorism. So I think in terms of what goes on in the beltway and on capital hill in terms of worrying about, and certainly in the White House, worrying about China, it, there's a lag among the American public. You don't seem to see it as a direct threat yet.

Brian Hanson: 27:38 So as we close, I'd like to ask you both the same question, which is, what should us policymakers take from the surveys that you've done? What is the most important finding are the most important takeaway that you believe should affect their action? Richard, I'll start with you.

Richard Wike: 28:01 Well, I think there's a lot in this service about a views the United States among some of our closest partners and allies and I think that's an important thing to pay attention to. Uh, in, uh, some of the most negative numbers we see when we ask about the u s and a variety of different ways are found among a close allies, the US, some of the most negative trends, uh, in terms of, you know, downturns and America's image are happening among close allies and partners. A place like Germany is a good example where you've seen a real drop off, uh, and America's image, uh, you see Germans overwhelmingly saying that relations or gotten worse over the past year. Um, if you look at places like Canada and Mexico, you know, uh, our neighbors, a US favorability in Canada is at an all time low in our polling, just six percent in Mexico, uh, have confidence in president trump. That's his lowest rating on the survey. So amongst some of our closest allies and partners, you see some of the most negative trends. And I think that's something that's worth noting.

Brian Hanson: 29:07 And Dina, what's the most important takeaway for you, for policymakers?

Dina Smeltz: 29:11 I think what I've been telling audiences abroad, I just got back from Russia and Finland, is that I think these views show that, uh, if you read the headlines in United States or in other countries, you might think that America and Americans just naturally want to withdraw from the world right now and that president trump is in the White House because American support, his type of policy, but in fact Americans now affirm even more our involvement in world affairs and supporting international endeavors to, for solutions. Um, I think a lot of policymakers view the US public as a constraint on actions that they can take and really what our survey finds, not just this year, but almost every year that we pull, that Americans really are open to subordinating us interest to world interests. Um, they welcome participation in international agreements and even in terms of taking military action right now, support is at unprecedentedly high levels. So, uh, I think that's something that's often misunderstood and mis diagnosed in terms of how public opinion, that's not always a constraint. It's often an opportunity as well.

Brian Hanson: 30:36 So Richard Wike from the Pew Research Center and Dina Smeltz from right here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thanks very much for the work that you did in these polls. I think it's really a fascinating view of how the foreign policy of this country is being perceived and as you both pointed out, it has implications in the world. So thank you both for being on.

Dina Smeltz: 30:57 Thank you. Great talking with you. Richard and Brian.

Richard Wike: 30:59 Great. Yeah, nice talking with you. Thanks so much.

Brian Hanson: 31:05 And thank you for tuning into this episode of deep dish. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belonged to the people who express them and not the Chicago Council on global affairs or the Pew Research Center. You can find our show under deep dish on global affairs wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you liked the show, please do me a favor and press the subscribe button so that you can get each and every new episode is it comes out. If you think you know somebody who would enjoy today's episode, take a moment and tap the share button and send it along to them. If you have any questions about anything you heard today or if you want to submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes and invite you to join our facebook group, deep dish on global affairs. This episode of deep dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy's Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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