What do Americans really think about US foreign policy?

Efren Lopez, U.S. Air Force

Article Highlights

  • A majority of Americans believe US should take military action in countries where terrorists are hiding

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  • 76% of Americans say the US should focus on fixing problems at home and building national prosperity

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  • POLL: Military remains most respected institution in American life

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At the GOP debate on national security and foreign policy Nov. 22, the Republican candidates will weigh in on such hot-button topics as Iran, Iraq, China, and Israel. At the root of their remarks lies an answer to a single question: What role should America play in the world? It's a question the American people themselves have wrestled with for decades. We at AEI do not believe that polls should be used to make policy. They are too crude for that purpose. Still, it is important to know what Americans are thinking and how those attitudes have changed over time. Below we review polls that illustrate some of Americans' values about foreign policy.

One of the most powerful themes in polls about foreign policy is our reluctant internationalism. As the trends below show, Americans know the United States must play a global role, but we also want to concentrate on problems at home.
Q: Do you think it will be best for the future of this country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stay out of world affairs? (NORC, Chicago Council)

Active part Stay out
1947 68% 25%
1974 66 24
1986 64 27
1998 61 28
2010 67 31

Q: Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements. We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home. (Gallup, Times Mirror, Pew)

Agree Disagree
1976 73% 22%
1985 60 34
1995 78 18
2005 71 23
2011 76 21

Positive views about the military have risen substantially, and today, the military is the most respected institution in American life. Americans are not eager to cut funds for the military nor are they eager to expand them. A new question from the bipartisan Battleground poll shows that 82 percent of Americans would oppose "cutting spending on defense programs, including programs for soldiers and veterans."
Q: Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one. (Gallup)

Great deal/quite a lot of confidence in the military
1975 58%
1985 61
1995 64
2005 74
2011 78

Q: Below is a list of present federal government programs. For each, please select whether you feel it should be expanded, cut back or kept about the same. (Chicago Council)

                                Defense spending
Expand Cut back Kept same
1974 14% 42% 38%
1986 22 34 39
1994 21 34 41
2004 37 13 46
2010 30 27 43

Historically, Americans have expressed doubts about building democracy abroad. They believe the world would be safer with more democracies, but perhaps aren't confident that we know enough about how to do this.
Q: Below is a list of possible foreign policy goals that the United States might have. For each one please select whether you think that it should be a . . . (Chicago Council)

Very important foreign policy goal -- helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations
1974 28%
1986    30
1994 25
2004 14
2010 19

Q: Should the United States try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can, or should the United States stay out of other country's affairs? (CBS)

National response Response of Republicans
Try to change 15% 16%
Stay out 70 72

American attitudes about terrorism have been tough and assertive. Republicans have been even more so.
Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the United States taking military action in countries where it believes terrorists are hiding? (CBS)

National response Response of Republicans
Approve of U.S. taking military action in countries where it believes terrorists are hiding 65% 75%

Q: Do you think it is something justified to use water boarding and other aggressive interrogation tactics to get information from a suspected terrorist, or are these tactics never justified? (CBS)

Q: As you may know, for the past several years the United States has been holding a number of suspected terrorists at a US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Based on what you have heard or read, do you think the US should continue to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay, or do you think the US should close the prison and transfer the prisoners somewhere else? (CBS)

National response Response of Republicans
Water boarding sometimes justified   45% 70%
Should continue to operate Guantanamo 52% 76%

Americans are always reluctant to put troops in harms' way.
Very important foreign policy goal -- Protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression (Chicago Council)
1974 28%
1986    32
1994 24
2004 18
2010 24

National response Response of Republicans
U.S. military should use force where civilians are under attack by their own government 39% 41%
Should not (CBS) 39 42
War with Iraq was worth the loss of Americans lives (CBS) 24 42
Approve of removing nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 (CBS) 77 63
War in Afghanistan is going very or somewhat well (CBS) 48 53
U.S. did the right thing by fighting the war in Afghanistan (CBS) 36 48
In Afghanistan, US should
                 Increase troops
8 10
                 Decrease 58 47
                 Keep same (CBS) 27 36

Throughout the Cold War, Americans consistently told pollsters they wanted their leaders to engage the Soviets. They valued talk. That is the case today, too.

Iran is a threat and requires military action now (CBS) 15% 22%
Can be contained with diplomacy 55 52
Not a threat now 17 17
North Korea’s development of
weapons is a threat to the U.S. that requires military action now (CBS)
16% 17%
Can be contained for now 65 63
Not a threat 12 15

All CBS data are from an early November 2011 poll. For any questions about this compilation, please contact Karlyn Bowman (202-862-5910) or Andrew Rugg (202-862-5917) at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.
  • Phone: 2028625910
    Email: kbowman@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Andrew Rugg
    Phone: 2028625917
    Email: andrew.rugg@aei.org

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