Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment

Yesterday, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, the first of several reports on the 2014 Chicago Council Survey. Below are a selection of key findings from the report, which you can find in full at www.thechicagocouncil.org. Be sure to follow @ChicagoCouncil@IvoHDaalder, @RoguePollster, and @ckafura for continuing discussion of the 2014 Survey results. 

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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.

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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 long-standing 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.

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A little more nuance about US, European public opinion on Syria

Marc Lynch of George Washington University recently debuted his arrival at the Monkey Cage with an analysis of  281 polling figures on American attitudes on Syria on The Monkey Cage (see “The Problem with #WithSyria”).  Based on these survey results, he concluded that many Americans are following the situation in Syria,  care about the situation but do not feel the US government has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, and  want to help by providing humanitarian aid – but they don’t support the US government taking more forceful action.

I agree with these conclusions, but wanted to highlight a few other findings as well.

At least earlier in the crisis, there was some American support for action beyond humanitarian efforts

Though not necessarily majorities, some surveys showed that earlier in the crisis, a substantial portion of the American public were willing to do something more than humanitarian efforts, especially if there was proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its people. In a Pew survey conducted April 2013, more Americans favored (45%) than opposed (31%) the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Syria, “if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups” (23% didn’t know).  It’s important to note that this question was also presented as a multilateral action, which is typically more palatable to Americans.  A May 2013 CNN/ORC survey found that two in three (66%) Americans said that the US would be justified in using military action against the Syrian government “if the US were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country.”  And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2012 reported majority (63%) support for military action in Syria if it used chemical weapons against its own people. A majority also supported US military involvement if Syria attacked neighboring US allies (69%) or lost control of its chemical weapons (70%).

The same December 2012 ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that six in ten (62%) of Americans supported the use of US military aircraft to create a no-fly zone, if no ground troops were involved. And while dated at this point, the 2012 Chicago Council survey found that Americans were willing to support sanctions against Syria, and possibly more.  Even before the violence spread into Damascus in 2012, a majority supported increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Syrian regime (63%).  Nearly as many said they would support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (58%), though a majority opposed bombing Syrian air defenses (72% opposed)- which in this case, would likely be necessary to impose a no-fly zone. Despite this disconnect between supporting a no-fly zone and opposing strikes against Syrian targets, in my view, these numbers represented an underlying desire (at least back then) across partisan differences, to move a step in between sanctions and what it would take to enforce a no-fly zone.

Later, when possible military action became closer to a possible reality, public opposition toward forceful action increased.  Though Pew did not repeat the same question they asked in April 2013 when a plurality supported taking multilateral military action, they did find that opposition to US airstrikes against Syria had increased dramatically from 48 percent in August 2013 to 63 percent in September 2013. In this case, the response was presented as a US unilateral response, which was being discussed at the time, and is always less popular than a multilateral initiative. In another example, ABC News/Washington Post surveys from August and September 2013 similarly reported an increase in opposition to US missile strikes (from 59% to 64%).

Some European support for similar types of engagement   

The German Marshall Fund’s 2013 Transatlantic Trends asked Europeans and Americans whether their countries should either intervene in Syria, where the government had  been using military force to suppress an opposition movement, or stay out completely.  Not surprisingly, when presented with just these two options, majorities in the US and Europe wanted to stay out.  But when given a wider range of alternatives, there was some more variation in opinion.

CNN commissioned an online survey in the UK, France and Germany in August 2013, after accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.  While online surveys in Europe (as well as most in the US) are not yet up to the standards of a random, representative surveys,  their findings can be suggestive.  In this case, when prompted with the Syrian government’s possible use of chemical weapons in the question, a majority in Germany (55%) and substantial minorities in the UK (46%) and France (39%) supported tightening economic sanctions.  There was some support for “Western nations” establishing a no-fly zone  (41% in Germany, 34% in UK, 31% in France). But as in the US case, fewer favored airstrikes against Syrian military targets (32% in France 20% in Germany, 16% in the UK).  Three in ten in the UK (30%) and France (27%) and somewhat fewer in Germany (22%) preferred to do nothing. [Poll respondents were allowed to choose more than one option from a list of “most appropriate responses,” which included tightening sanctions, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, striking Syria with missiles, invading with a ground force, and doing nothing]. 

Americans supported the Russian-brokered deal regarding Syria’s chemical weapons

While a slim majority of Americans in several surveys say they disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the Syria crisis, we can’t tell whether this disapproval is because people think the US is not doing enough or whether it has done too much. No doubt, this assessment is also highly partisan in nature.  Nevertheless, majorities in several surveys show overall approval for the deal to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. A September 2013 Quinnipiac University Poll found that 71 percent supported a “plan to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons” (19% opposed).  And a September 2013 CBS News/NYTimes poll similar found that 82 percent of Americans favored the plan reached by Russian officials “that would involve the government of Syria turning over all of its chemical weapons to international weapons inspectors” (15% opposed). That said, a majority (66%) thought it was unlikely that the Syrian government would turn over all of its chemical weapons to international inspectors.

All this to say that earlier in the crisis, when it was perhaps easier to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys, there was some segment of public support for perhaps doing more.  Sadly, Syria seems to be off the public radar these days with more recent attention on Ukraine.  Stay tuned for a posting on that topic next.

On Syria – Public Perspectives

As the debate over taking action in Syria continues, I wanted to share  a few interesting pieces on Syria and public opinion in advance of President Obama’s address to the nation tomorrow night.

CNN’s Global Public Square blog posted an article by Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (and a member of the 2012 Chicago Council Survey team), that discusses the importance of question wording (or “framing”) of the Syria issue in recent US public opinion polls. Reviewing a series of American public opinion survey results from ABC/Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and other surveys, Kull concludes that the US public tends to oppose military action if it is presented as an attack against the Syrian government and not specifically against chemical weapons capabilities. When presented as a targeted strike against chemical weapons capabilities, however, there is plurality support for action.

Foreign Policy also highlights two interesting articles related to Syria. One is written by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland  discussing Arab opinion on American credibility. For Arabs in the region, Telhami argues, American credibility on the use of force is not the issue. The issue is deep suspicion of US goals: “even if the United States intervenes in Syria under humanitarian auspices, it will be seen as nefarious.” He also believes that Arab views have probably not been affected by the use of chemical weapons, but that the factors in Arab views are humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The other Foreign Policy article is by Marc Lynch of George Washington University and FP’s The Middle East Channel. He asserts that while Arab leaders may play the credibility card on the costs of inaction on Syria, these views do not extend to the Arab Street. Lynch cites a September 2012 survey by the Center for Strategic Studies among Jordanians showing only 5 percent support for foreign military intervention (despite widely unfavorable views of Assad), and a May 2013 Pew survey showing six in ten Egyptians and Tunisians opposed to arming Syrian rebels (again, despite unfavorable views of Assad). He then turns to an analysis of current Arab broadcast and social media and how they are creating more polarized and insular political and identity groups. Lynch (and his colleagues Deen Freelon and Sean Aday) made this conclusion after analyzing nearly 40 million tweets about Syria in English and Arabic over a 28-month period and discovered a clustering effect in the data.  Their takeaway is that in contrast to the unified Arab public reaction to the Egyptian revolution or the US military action in Iraq, we should expect a more fragmented response to developments in Syria.

It would be really interesting to see polling results from the Arab world that framed the issue in different ways to demonstrate the impact of perceived motives. Judging from the data so far, it seems that US action would probably viewed less in altruistic terms and more as US interference in the Middle East.

Sweet and Sour: American Opinion on China

By Dina Smeltz

Sun Zhe, director of the Center for Sino-US relations at Qinghua University in Beijing, characterized US-China relations as “sweet and sour,” according to a USA Today article this week.  That’s a useful way to describe American public attitudes toward China as well.  Several recent surveys show that Americans recognize China’s growing influence and emphasize the importance of friendly engagement with China.  But many also recognize that over the longer term China’s rise could be a negative development for the competitiveness of the United States.

More Unfavorable than Favorable Views of China; China’s Influence Expected to Grow

Several polls in 2012 and 2013 reported more unfavorable than favorable ratings of China among Americans. Just-released Pew results from March-April 2013 show that American views of China have declined steadily from 51 percent favorable in 2011 to 37 percent today. Some of the decline in favorable views of China might be a reaction to concerns about the impact of Chinese competition on the US economy – especially in the context of American economic difficulties – similar to American fear of Japanese economic strength during the 1990s. At the same time, the Chinese public has grown less favorable toward the United States (40% favorable in 2012 versus 58% in 2010) (Figure 1).

Bilateral Favorability Ratings

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Ay Chihuahua! US Views of Mexico At Lowest Point Since 1994.

In advance of President Obama’s visit to Mexico later this week, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in conjunction with The Wilson Center, today released a public opinion survey brief on Americans’ views toward Mexico. Findings show Americans’ overall views of Mexico are at their lowest point ever in Chicago Council Surveys dating back to 1994. It also finds relatively few Americans are aware that Mexico is one of our top trading partners. For more information, see the full report here. Infographic on Mexico

Ten Years On: American Public Opinion on the War in Iraq

By Craig Kafura, senior program officer, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Wednesday, Dan Drezner referenced the 2012 Chicago Council Survey in his post on the effects of the Iraq war on American foreign policy:

Here’s the thing: Deep down, the American people are pretty realist. The legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that this realist consensus has cemented itself further in the American psyche. The American public has an aversion to using force unless the national interest is at stake, and a deep aversion to using force to do things like promote democracy or human rights.

Public opinion does not always form a powerful constraint on American foreign policy, but one of the biggest legacies of Iraq is that public attitudes about the use of force have imposed serious constraints on the United States.

His full post is definitely worth reading. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that the legacy of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) appears to be strongly shaping the American public’s views of international engagement. While we didn’t delve too deeply into that relationship in Foreign Policy in the New Millennium, the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war provides a good opportunity to do so. This post is the first in a series on the war in Iraq and the seeming impacts it has had on American public opinion.

First, most Americans do not think much has been gained from the war. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey, as well as long- term trends from ABC News/Washington Post, show a majority of Americans say that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting (see figure 1). There was only a brief period from April 2003 up to the summer of 2004 when more favored than opposed the war. From then until December 2004 the public was divided; after December,  the war never mustered majority support.

Figure 1: Was the Iraq War Worth It?

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South Korean Public Opinion Following North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test

By Karl Friedhoff, Program Officer, Public Opinion Studies Center, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies

North Korea’s third nuclear test brought the traditional condemnations, but a newer feature of the media coverage was the lack of reaction of the South Korean public. However, this reaction is not new—in the National Assembly election in April and December’s presidential election less than 5 percent said that issues related to North Korea were the deciding factor in their vote despite missile launches that occurred around the same time. Some have taken this lack of reaction as a signal that the South Korean public does not take such provocations seriously. However, analysis of South Korean public opinion shows that this is not the case.

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South-North relations not seen as national priority

Public reaction has been muted because South-North relations have not been an important issue to South Koreans over the past year (Figure 1). Instead, the focus has been on South Korea’s considerable domestic challenges—household debt, wealth disparity, and economic growth have topped the bill. A failed missile launch in April produced only a slight bump in the perceived importance of South-North relations and a successful launch in December produced no bump whatsoever. Following the February 2013 nuclear test there was a 7 percentage point bump from January, but recent history suggests that this will not last. Continue reading