January 9, 2020 | By Jack Benjamin

2019 Wrap Up

As we venture into the new year and decade, it’s important to put 2019 into perspective. This past year, the Council’s polling team examined key foreign policy issues such as the escalation of the US-China trade war, heightening tensions with Russia, support for US alliances with Korea and NATO, rising concern over climate change, polarizing immigration policies, and more. The following is 2019, in polls:

US Foreign Policy: Rejecting Retreat

The upending of US foreign policy under the Trump administration, the revolt against establishment politicians, and the rise of the progressive wing in US politics has led many foreign policy experts to conclude that Americans want to retreat from the world. However, the 2019 Chicago Council Survey data pointed in the opposite direction, as seven in ten (69%) Americans stated that it would be best for the future of our country if we take an active part in world affairs. The results underscored widespread consensus among Americans to maintain and support alliances, military strength, and international trade. Whether they identify as Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, large numbers of Americans continued to favor the foundational elements of traditional, post–World War II US foreign policy.


Iran

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy shakeup in the early days of 2020 has been the escalating tensions between the US and Iran. In June 2019, six in ten Americans rated the Iranian nuclear program a critical threat (57%, up slightly from 52% in 2018). This put Iran’s nuclear program in the top tier of critical threats including cyberattacks on US computer networks (77%), international terrorism (69%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (61%). The increase in overall American concern was driven mainly by a jump among self-described Republicans over the past year saying Iran’s nuclear program is a critical threat (now 70%, up from 59% in 2018).

When asked in 2019 which policies they would prefer in response to an Iranian withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, Americans were divided on using force against Iran. Stay tuned for early 2020 survey results to find out what Americans are willing to do now that Iran signaled it will roll back some of its nuclear deal commitments.


China

Throughout 2019, the United States and China engaged in a steady escalation of tariffs as the ongoing trade war ebbed and flowed amid signals of progress and regress. Americans broadly supported engaging in trade with China, but were split along partisan lines on how to engage in that trade. Republicans supported raising tariffs on Chinese imports and believed it would help the US economy in the long run, while Democrats opposed doing so and believed it would be harmful. Americans are also divided on US-China relations. While a February 2019 Chicago Council poll found that a majority of Americans described the United States and China as rivals (63%) rather than partners (32%), the 2019 Chicago Council Survey in June showed that the American public preferred cooperation and engagement with the rising global power.


Russia

US-Russia relations remained tense in 2019, as the countries have been at odds since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Findings from a February binational survey, conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center, showed that a majority of Russians continued to say that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has brought the country more good than harm, despite its negative consequences on US-Russia relations. In fact, publics in Russia and the United States agreed that bilateral relations are in a poor state, though both publics would like to see the two countries negotiate an agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals following the US’ withdrawal from the INF treaty in August. Another rare topic of agreement: publics in both countries noticed cracks in the US-EU relationship. While Americans have long expressed support for NATO, a majority said that unity among NATO allies weakened. At the same time, Russians’ impressions that transatlantic security links diminished contributed to their sense that the United States is now in a weaker global position.


Allies and Partners

US relations with many of its longstanding allies and partners, such as NATO, were strained in 2019 by ongoing admonishment from the Trump administration. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, in our annual survey all-time high percentages among Democrats (86%), Independents (68%), and Republicans (62%) believed that NATO is still essential to US security, and 78 percent of Americans overall said that the United States should maintain or increase its current commitment to NATO. Nevertheless, relations with key European allies, such as Germany, soured. Following President Trump’s criticism of Berlin’s defense spending, Trump persistently threatened to impose crippling tariffs on German automakers. The American public, meanwhile, saw the US-German relationship as good for US national security, but was narrowly divided over US military presence in Germany.

On a more positive note, Mexican public opinion toward the United States completely shifted course from 2017. Surveys conducted by Buendía y Laredo in Mexico and the Chicago Council in the United States found that a majority in Mexico expressed a favorable view of the United States and that Americans were more positive toward Mexico than they had been since 2002. The resurgence in bilateral opinion was matched by similar views about the US-Mexico economic relationship.

And on the other side of the globe, relations between Japanese Prime Minister Abe and President Trump remained cordial, despite a hard US push for trade concessions and a looming dispute over Japanese support for US bases in the country. Despite these challenges, Americans were supportive of the US military presence in Japan and said the US-Japan relationship strengthens US security. In the Korean Peninsula, January polling found that the public generally saw their security situation improving and felt confident in the US security guarantee. But both South Koreans and Americans remained skeptical that improving security will result in a denuclearized North Korea. In the summer, the 2019 Chicago Council Survey found that support for South Korea as an ally remained high and bipartisan, with Americans believing the US-Korea alliance bolsters US national security. And publics in both nations saw room for growth in the alliance. Surveys conducted by the Chicago Council and the Asan Institute in October found that both South Koreans and Americans see a strengthened US-ROK alliance as an asset in dealing with China.


Climate Change

For the first time since the question was first asked in 2008, a majority of Americans said that climate change is a critical threat. Though the shift in opinion was driven primarily by Democrats (78% critical threat) and Independents (54% critical threat), Republicans also grew more convinced that the issue needs to be addressed. Despite the low percentage of Republicans who responded that climate change is a critical threat (23%), fewer Republicans in 2019 (33%) than in 2010 (47%) questioned the idea that climate change is really a problem. Instead, a growing majority of Republicans considered it a problem that should be addressed, though more say it should be addressed gradually with low costs (46%) than right away with potentially significant costs (20%).


Immigration

Last year, Republican and Democratic leaders argued over migrant detention facilities, the Trump administration’s family separation policy, nationwide immigration enforcement raids, tightened asylum rules, and the status accorded to DREAMers. Reflecting the partisan rancor on Capitol Hill, the 2019 Chicago Council Survey found many deep partisan divisions over immigration. Republicans saw immigration as a critical threat to the country, said restricting immigration makes the US safer, and supported using US troops to stop migrants from crossing into the United States. Democrats, on the other hand, did not consider immigration a critical threat, and their views on policy actions substantially and consistently differed from Republicans. Such deep divisions further spread into the debate on the controversial border wall when the federal government shut down in January of 2019 for the longest time in US history. On this topic, a Chicago Council survey found that both sides of the deadlock had the backing of their public constituencies, but the President’s insistence on the topic did not boost support for a border wall expansion among the general public.


Looking Ahead: Democrats and Foreign Policy

Domestically, on the minds of many Americans is the upcoming 2020 election. While Democratic presidential candidates were united in their opposition to the Trump administration’s policies, they have tried to distinguish themselves along progressive and more moderate lines on key issues. Overall, Democrats among the American public—including those who consider themselves “liberal” Democrats and “moderate” or “conservative” Democrats—shared a similar foreign policy outlook based on US international participation, alliances, and international trade. But there are key differences that might influence which candidates voters choose.

In 2020, stay tuned to Running Numbers for more data on how Americans—and publics around the world—are thinking about the key foreign policy issues of the day.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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