2014 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy Shows Public Support for “Active” Role in World Affairs

September 15, 2014
At 40th Anniversary of Survey, Americans’ Attitudes Remain Remarkably Stable

Craig Brownstein
Edelman - Washington, DC
P: 202.326.1799 C: 202.390.1602

September 15, 2014 CHICAGO – Americans show solid support for U.S. international engagement according to a major report (PDF) released today by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs on its 2014 survey of American public opinion on foreign policy. In stark contrast to the ongoing dialogue among the political elite suggesting the American public has become more isolationist, the Chicago Council Survey data reveal that six in ten Americans continue to say that the United States should play an active part in world affairs.

“It’s clear that Americans are fatigued by a decade of war, but describing them as isolationist is misleading,” said Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “They understand that we live in a dangerous world, and that our safety and security will at times require a resort to arms. When that clearly is the case, Americans will support using force.”

While Americans remain war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan and prefer to stay out of large-scale interventions that require extended deployments of ground troops, majorities of Americans are willing to support air strikes or send U.S. troops in response to top threats or humanitarian crises.

“Americans want engagement,” said Jane Harman, director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where the Chicago Council report will be publicly released today. “What they don’t want is military-centric engagement. They’ve seen us make some problems worse because we failed to understand tribal societies and what sort of help could make a difference.”

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Chicago Council Survey, and over the decades, American attitudes toward foreign policy have consistently supported international engagement. The public continues to support robust U.S. leadership on the global stage, favoring diplomacy-first solutions and working within a multilateral framework.

“We are seeing a return to views on international engagement and the use of force that existed prior to the 9/11 attacks,” said Dina Smeltz, principal author of the new report and senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at The Chicago Council. “Far from expressing a desire to retreat, what is most notable about these survey results is how steady American support for foreign policy engagement has been over the 40 years the Council has been polling.”

The full report (PDF) contains additional key findings:
  • Americans support active U.S. engagement abroad to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, including long-term overseas military bases. Despite increasing criticism of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more Americans continue to favor maintaining (39%) or increasing (25%) defense spending.
  • For the first time ever, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the U.S. should stay out of world affairs. In fact, since 2006, the proportion of Republicans who say they want the U.S. to stay out of world affairs has nearly doubled (from 20% to 40% today).
  • Cyberterrorism rated top threat to U.S. vital interests, followed by terrorism. The majority (69%) believe that a cyber-attack on U.S. computer networks is the top threat to U.S. vital interests. Terrorism has been among top threats since first asked about in 1994, and remains one of the few situations where majorities of Americans say they are willing to support the use of U.S. troops.
  • Globalization receives the highest endorsement ever. Two out of three Americans say that globalization is mostly a good thing (65%), the highest ever recorded percentage to feel this way since 2006. 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%).
  • Now more than ever, Americans view economic power as superior to military power. Eight in ten Americans (77%) say that economic strength is more important than military power (23%) – more than they ever said so in the past. A plurality of the public holds a misperception that China has already surpassed the United States in terms of economic power (45%), with 27 percent thinking the U.S. is more powerful economically and 26 percent thinking they are about equal.
  • Americans seem comfortable in a world where power is diffusing among nations and institutions. Americans support multilateral approaches to decision making in foreign policy and six in ten agree that when dealing with international problems, the U.S. should be more willing to make decisions within the UN even if this means that the U.S. will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (59%, up since 2008).
  • Only a minority now see the rise of China as a critical threat to US interests (41%) compared to majorities in the mid-1990s. And two in three Americans (67%) say that the U.S. should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than actively working to limit China’s growth (29%).
  • Americans broadly support surveillance efforts against hostile nations. Only one in three (34%) supports placing greater restrictions on the National Security Agency (NSA), and seven in ten or more think the U.S. should be listening in on the governments of China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Russia.

The 2014 survey is available on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs website, thechicagocouncil.org/survey. Additional polling information is available on The Chicago Council’s data-related blog, runningnumbers.org. For updates follow #2014CCS, @ChicagoCouncil, @RoguePollster, and watch the release event live stream.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey was made possible by generous support from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, the United States-Japan Foundation, and Chicago Council Chairman Lester Crown.

Data was collected between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is ± 2.1 percentage points. The full dataset from this year’s study will be made available on the website in January 2015.