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 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.


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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Americans Support Use of Force Against Terrorism

By Dina Smeltz, senior fellow, public opinion and foreign policy, Craig Kafura, senior program officer, studies, and Liz Deadrick, research assistant

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As President Obama prepares to address the nation tomorrow night regarding the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chicago Council Survey results from May 2014 show that the Americans remain concerned about the threat of international terrorism, though less intensely now than in the past. Still, combating terrorism remains a top foreign policy goal for the U.S. public, and one of the few situations where majorities of Americans say they are willing to support the use of US troops. That support is reflected in recent polls from CNN/ORC International and ABC News/Washington Post, which find majorities of Americans in favor of conducting airstrikes against ISIS.

Terrorism a top threat, though fears are declining

Americans have long sensed a threat from international terrorism, even before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Chicago Council Surveys conducted in 1994 and 1998 found solid majorities expressing concern about terrorism, following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. By 2002, the first Chicago Council Survey to follow the 2001 attacks, nine in ten Americans said that international terrorism was a critical threat (91%). In tandem, nine in ten also considered combating international terrorism a very important goal (91%).

Terrorism Threat and Goal - Trend - PNG

Over the past decade, Council surveys have shown a declining sense of threat across a number of issues, particularly since the public’s hyper-vigilant attitudes in 2002. In the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, six in ten rate international terrorism a critical threat (63%), a sharp decline from 91 percent in 2002. In fact, as the figure above shows, this is the lowest level of concern reported since this question was first asked in 1994. There have been concurrent declines over time in fears about nuclear proliferation (from 85% deeming it a critical threat in 2002 to 60% now) and Iran’s nuclear program (68% a saying it is a critical threat when first asked in 2010 to 58% now).

Despite these subsiding fears, international terrorism remains a top concern for Americans today. Only one in four Americans (24%) believe that the United States is safer today than it was before the terrorist attacks in 2001. A plurality says the country is as safe as it was before 2001(48%), and another quarter says the country is less safe (27%). In addition, among all twenty potential threats asked about in The 2014 Chicago Council Survey, international terrorism is currently ranked second. Only cyber-attacks on US computer networks are ranked higher, with 69 percent of Americans viewing these as a critical threat.

Similarly, combating international terrorism remains one of the public’s top five foreign policy goals, as it has been since the question was first asked in 1998. This year—as with every year except for 2002—it ranks as less important than protecting the jobs of American workers and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Majority of Americans support most measures for combating terrorism, including use of US troops

Majorities of Americans have consistently supported a variety of possible actions to combat terrorism, including the use of force. Seven in ten Americans support US airstrikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities (71%) and assassinations of individual terrorist leaders (70%). Six in ten support attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps (56%) as well as drone strikes to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists (62%). While these levels have also declined from post-9/11 peaks, current readings are in line with results from 2012 and from 1998. These results highlight the public’s preference for lower-risk approaches of airstrikes, assassinations, and drone strikes. Over time, support for airstrikes and ground troops has returned to levels before the 2001 attacks, while support for targeted assassinations has grown.

Anti-Terror Actions - Trend - PNG

These preferences are reflected in Americans’ current views on how to deal with ISIS. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released September 9 found support for airstrikes in Iraq (71%) and Syria (65%). Similarly, a new CNN/ORC International poll released on September 8, 2014 shows a majority favoring airstrikes (76%) against ISIS. Yet the public continues to oppose sending US troops, with 61 percent of the public opposed to placing US soldiers on the ground to combat ISIS.

Measures to combat international terrorism - 2014

The public also favors non-military approaches to combat terrorism. Nearly four out of five Americans (78%) favor working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them, making this multilateral approach the most favored of all measures. However, support for this measure has decreased steadily since 2002 when it was favored by 88 percent of Americans.

Younger Americans place lower priority on combating terrorism


Since 2002, when large majorities of all age groups deemed terrorism a critical threat, generational gaps have broadened on this and other issues. Now, a bare majority (51%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 view international terrorism as a critical threat, down from 92 percent in 2002. In contrast, larger majorities of older Americans label it as a critical threat, ranging from 57 percent among those ages 30-44 to76 percent of those over age 60. This declining perception of threat is not limited to terrorism, however, as Americans are less likely to describe most threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey as critical. Nor is this age gap an entirely new phenomenon: younger Americans have consistently been less threatened by international issues. But the size of the gap has grown.

Terrorism Threat - by age

Younger Americans are also less supportive than older Americans of the use of drones. A majority of 18-29 year olds (51%) oppose the use of drone strikes to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists (44% support) compared to majority support among other age groups. In the cases of NSA data collection and the use of air strikes against terrorist camps and facilities, younger Americans favor these approaches, but to a lesser degree than older Americans, as has consistently been the case since the question was first asked in 1998. For example, nearly eight in ten (78%) of Americans over the age of 60 support the NSA collecting telephone and internet data to identify links to potential terrorists—but only six in ten Americans under the age of 44 say the same.

There is also a steadily widening age gap occurring between the youngest and oldest age groups on the use of air strikes. Sixty percent of 18-29 year olds favor US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities compared to 80 percent of Americans over the age of 60 say the same. Finally, when it comes to putting ‘boots on the ground’, younger Americans are about as supportive as older Americans: slightly more than half of 18-29 year olds (51%) and Americans over the age of 60 (57%) support using ground troops to attack terrorist training camps and other facilities.

Partisan divisions on terror threat

Republicans have consistently been the most likely to say that combating terrorism is a very important goal since the question was first asked in 1998. However, the proportion of Democrats emphasizing the importance of fighting terrorism has been on the rise since 2008—the year President Obama was elected. At the same time, the importance of terrorism to Republicans has steadily declined from its post-9/11 peak of 94 percent. Now, Democrats (65%) are as likely as Republicans (62%) to say that combating terrorism is a very important goal. Independents are least likely to say so (56%).

Terrorism Goal - by PID

Though support for combating terrorism crosses partisan lines, Republicans tend to be more likely than Democrats to favor using force to combat it. Eight of ten (80%) Republicans favor the assassination of individual terrorist leaders while 68 percent of Democrats support this action. The same holds for U.S. air strikes against terrorism training camps and other facilities (Republicans favor at 82 percent and Democrats at 67 percent) and for attacks by U.S. ground troops (66 percent of Republicans favor and 57 percent of Democrats). Democrats, however, show higher favor for helping poor countries develop their economies (75%) and working through the UN (84%) than Republicans (60% and 76%, respectively).

About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey

The analysis in this report is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The 2014 Survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel 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 for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points.

A full report on the results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey will be released on September 15.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the United States-Japan Foundation.

Somebody’s Watching Me: American Views on NSA Surveillance

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

President Obama delivered a speech earlier today announcing curbs he plans to implement on government surveillance activities. A survey conducted earlier this month (January 4-7, 2014) by Quinnipiac University showed that Americans tend to think that NSA collection of phone call records is excessively intrusive for Americans’ personal privacy. But the public is divided on whether the program is necessary to keep Americans safe. In contrast to 2012 Chicago Council Survey data that shows greater inclination among Republicans to support anti-terrorism efforts, this recent poll shows a partisan shift here—with more Democrats than Republicans saying the phone record program is necessary for US security.

Many Americans Seem to Agree that Leaks Created “More Heat than Light”

Given the open investigation against Edward Snowden, the President limited his comments on Snowden’s actions, though he did characterize the nature of the disclosures as creating “more heat than light.” For their part, a majority of Americans consider Snowden a “whistle blower” (57%) versus a “traitor” (34%). Yet by about a 5 to 4 margin, more say that Snowden’s revelations were mainly bad for the country (46% bad, 40% good), and think the Obama administration should NOT “drop the pursuit of Snowden and let him come home as a free man” (47%, 39% should drop pursuit).

Bare Majority Say NSA Surveillance Has Gone Too Far

When asked whether anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in impinging upon civil liberties or not far enough to adequately protect the country, 51 percent of Americans think the government has gone too far (33% not far enough, 16% unsure). This marks the first time since this question was asked in 2010 that a (bare) majority says the government has gone too far. Back in 2010, a majority (63%) thought the government was NOT doing enough. Once Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance became public in the summer of 2013, pluralities began to say the government had gone too far (Figure 1).


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