Africa: US Foreign Policy Poll, 8/11/96

Africa: US Foreign Policy Poll, 8/11/96

Africa: US Foreign Policy Poll Date Distributed (ymd): 960811

Summary of Findings (excerpts)

An Emerging Consensus: A Study of American Public Attitudes on America's Role in the World

Conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and its Program on International Policy Attitudes

Principal Investigators: Steven Kull, I.M. Destler

July 10, 1996

FOr more information, including a copy of the full summary of findings, please contact: Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), 11 Dupont Circle, NW, #785, Washington, DC 20036. Tel: (202) 232-7500; Fax: (202) 232-1159; E-mail:


Since the end of the Cold War, Americans have been groping to define America's role in this new world. How the public feels about this question is explored in a new study ...

The principal findings suggest that:

* Among the American public there is an emerging consensus that rejects both isolationism and the idea that the US should be the dominant world leader. Most Americans feel that the US should stay engaged in international efforts to maintain peace and promote human welfare, but that the US role should be limited to its 'fair share' and should primarily be in cooperation with other countries, and where possible, through the UN.

* Americans feel a modest portion of US resources should be devoted to international efforts (the UN, State Department, foreign aid), both for moral reasons and because it serves long term US interests.

* The consensus in support of such engagement is obscured by widespread misperceptions that the US is doing much more internationally than it is in fact, which then creates resistance. But when Americans are asked their preferred levels for US commitments, they usually set them higher than the actual levels.


This study included:

* a nationwide poll of 1,227 randomly selected adult Americans conducted June 21-27, 1996 (margin of error plus or minus 3-4%); * focus groups conducted in Nashville, Tennessee; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Lee, New Jersey; and Boise, Idaho; * a review of existing polling data.

It is part of a larger study, Foreign Policy and the Public, aimed at exploring the links between public opinion and American foreign policy.

(1) A new public consensus is emerging on the role of the United States in the post Cold War world. Most Americans are tired of playing the role of dominant world leader, while at the same time they reject isolationism. Instead, they are moving toward a consensus that the US should stay engaged in international efforts to maintain peace and promote human welfare, but that the US role should be limited to its 'fair share' and should primarily be in cooperation with other countries.

This emerging consensus was reflected in the nationwide poll. When respondents were presented three options for America's role in the world, only 13% embraced the idea that "as the sole remaining superpower, the US should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems." Similarly, just 12% chose the option that "the US should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems." However, an over-whelming 74% endorsed the view that "the US should do its fair share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries."

>From focus groups conducted around the country over the past six months, though, it is clear that for many Americans, this consensus is not fully crystallized. When participants complained that the US is playing the role of dominant world leader or that the US is doing too much, they often made statements that sounded isolationist. But then the same individuals would also strongly reject the idea that the US should withdraw from the world. When they, or somebody else in the group, tried to balance these concerns by articulating a role for the US in which it would participate together with other countries in efforts to promote peace and progress, but with the US role limited to its 'fair share' or 'doing its part,' a strong sense of closure and consensus usually emerged.

Rejection of World Leader Role

Other polls confirm public resistance to the role of world hegemon for the US. In a Times Mirror poll of June 1995, only 13% favored the United States being "the single world leader," 9% said the US "shouldn't play any leadership role," while 74% favored "a shared leadership role."

Americans also overwhelmingly reject the idea that the US should be the world policeman. In the November 1995 PIPA poll, 71% said "the US is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be." In the current poll, 80% rejected the view that "as the sole remaining superpower...the US [should] spend a larger percentage of its...GNP on defense than its allies" in favor of the notion that "all of the industrialized countries should spend about the same percentage."

In focus groups participants rejected the role of US world policeman not only because of the costs involved, but because they saw it as illegitimate for the US to act in a self-interested and unilateral fashion. As a Nashville man said, "I definitely rule out the United States just making up its mind to go do something. Period." A Nashville woman said, "If we're going to get involved in the rest of the world I think we should do it as part of the rest of the world, not just watching our own interests."

Rejection of Isolationism

The majority also rejects isolationism in response to more general questions. By a 59% to 35% margin, respondents said that the US should "take an active part" rather than "stay out" of world affairs." (There was no significant difference between Republicans and Democrats.) Fifty-nine percent rejected the argument that with the end of the Cold War "it is no longer necessary to have such a large diplomatic is better to spend these resources at home," and instead embraced the argument that it is still "important for the US to maintain vigorous diplomatic efforts." ...

Support for Cooperative Engagement

Americans are embracing the idea that the US should be engaged in cooperative efforts to address international problems, especially through the United Nations. Sixty-two percent rejected the idea that the US should "go its own way in international matters." Sixty percent said that the US should cooperate fully with the United Nations. In an April 1995 PIPA poll, an overwhelming 89% agreed that:

"When there is a problem in the world that requires the use of military force, it is generally best for the US to address the problem together with other nations working through the UN, rather than going it alone."

In contrast, only 29% embraced the argument that when military force is needed: "It is better for the US to act on its own rather than working through the UN, because the US can move more quickly and probably more successfully." ...

While poll respondents showed concerns that the UN may be wasteful, this concern does not appear to be specific to the UN and is actually a bit less than for the US government. Asked to estimate how much of their budgets are lost to waste, fraud and abuse, the median respondent estimated 30% for the UN (mean 37%) but 40% (mean 40%) for the US government.

Support for US engagement also extends to foreign aid. When asked to allocate federal budget funds, all but 8% of respondents provided some money for humanitarian and economic aid, and 54% said they would maintain (16%) or increase (38%) the present funding level. In a January 1995 PIPA poll, 80% said the US should give some foreign aid.

(2) Support for US international engagement is dampened by a widespread feeling that the US is doing more than its 'fair share.' However, this attitude seems to reflect substantial overestimations of how much the US is actually contributing relative to other countries. When Americans are asked to set their own preferred levels for US contributions, they usually set them higher than the actual level.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they support paying UN dues in full. Fifty-seven percent favor the US contributing US troops to UN peacekeeping operations. While these are solid majorities, they are somewhat less than one might expect from the stronger majorities that favor the US contributing its 'fair share' to international efforts.

This more modest level of support for specific acts of engagement seems to derive from a widely held attitude that the US is doing more than its fair share. Fifty percent said that the US is paying more than its fair share for UN dues. In an April 1995 PIPA poll, 60% said the US contributes more than its fair share of troops to UN peacekeeping. In the January 1995 PIPA poll, 84% said that the US gives more than it should relative to other industrialized countries.

But these judgments of unfairness seem to rest on major misperceptions. The median respondent estimated that the US contributes 40% of all the aid given by the wealthy countries to developing countries (in fact, the US gives 12% of development aid according to the OECD). In the April 1995 poll, the median respondent estimated that the US was contributing 40% of all the troops for UN peacekeeping (the actual number at the time was 4%). In the January 1995 PIPA poll, 81% estimated that the US contributes more of its GNP to development aid than most other industrialized countries (in fact, the US gives the lowest percentage of all).

Particularly interesting is the fact that when Americans are asked to set an appropriate US share, they often set a level much higher than the actual level. For aid to developing countries, the median respondent said the US should give about a 20% share--nearly twice the actual amount. ...

(3) Many Americans feel conflict about committing resources to solving international problems when there are pressing problems at home. For many, this problem is resolved by seeking a balance between moral considerations and self-interest and assigning a modest and delimited portion of US resources to help those in other countries. Most Americans also believe that the world is so interconnected that efforts to solve global problems ultimately serve US interests. ...

This conflict is also reflected in polls. When poll questions pose a priority choice between directing resources to solving problems at home and some other international option, the majority will nearly always opt for solving problems at home. For example, in the January 1995 PIPA poll, 80% agreed that "Solving problems at home is more important than giving foreign aid." But then most of these same respondents expressed some support for foreign aid on other questions. Only 8% overall said they did not want to give any foreign aid. And in a July 1994 PIPA poll 84% agreed that "Sometimes the US should be willing to make sacrifices if this will help the world as a whole." ...

The second way that individuals resolve this problem is by making a bridge between national values and global values, especially in a long-term framework. Americans are very responsive to poll questions that make such a link. In the current poll, an overwhelming 79% agreed with the argument that:

Because the world is so interconnected today, the US should participate in UN efforts to maintain peace, protect human rights and promote economic development. Such efforts serve US interests because they help create a more stable world that is more conducive to trade and other US interests.

Only 29% agreed with a counter argument that: "the world is so big and complex that such [UN] efforts only make a minimal difference with little benefit to the US. Therefore it is not in the US interest to participate in them."

Seventy-eight percent agreed (50% strongly) that the US should contribute to UN peacekeeping because: "if we allow things like genocide or the mass killings of civilians to go unaddressed, it is more apt to spread and create more instability in the world so that eventually our interests would be affected."

In the January 1995 poll, 63% agreed that the US should give some foreign aid because "in the long run, helping Third World countries develop is in the economic interest of the US."

In focus groups, participants often made such links spontaneously. A Nashville woman said, "We have a selfish reason for wanting to help the world, that when there is trouble in the world it invariably spreads." Sometimes respondents were quite emphatic and even apocalyptic. For example, a man in Fort Lee, New Jersey said:

I say invest foreign aid to help people get an education, give them tools to work... and then they begin to build and then they develop, and they end up buying goods from us, we buy goods from them, they defend us; we defend them. Maybe not short term, maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in my grandkids' lifetime, but down the road long term. So my biggest concern with America is that if we don't do anything globally, long term, to help out, then we're just going to die. And forget about jobs--I won't have a job, my kid won't have a job, no one will have a job. There'll be no charity to give anybody anything. There'll be nothing.

(4) Many Americans feel that a disproportionate share of US resources are going to international efforts. But, here again, this feeling seems to be driven significantly by extreme overestimations of how much goes to international efforts. When Americans are asked to set their preferred level of investment in international efforts, the majority usually sets a level the same as or higher than actual levels, even when they are required to make trade-offs against domestic spending priorities.

Polls show that most Americans feel that too much is going to international efforts--but apparently, this attitude is based on misperceptions. In the current poll, when respondents were asked how much of every $1,000 of the US economy, or GNP, goes to humanitarian and economic aid for developing countries, the median estimate was $100--while the actual amount has been between $1.00 and $1.50 over the last few years according to the OECD. Asked what would be an appropriate amount, a strong majority wanted to reduce it well below the level they perceived--the median preferred level was $25--still far above the actual amount. When respondents were asked how they would feel if they heard the actual amount was $1.50, only 18% thought that this amount would be too much. ...

(5) The one area of international activity in which the majority does seem to want to cut spending is defense. In this case, as Americans get more information about the actual level of defense spending, the majority shifts from wanting modest cuts to wanting deep cuts. Philosophically, there is also majority support for shifting some resources from military to diplomatic and other nonmilitary approaches to security. ...

(6) A substantial number of Americans feel ambivalence about contributing US troops to UN peacekeeping because they feel uncomfortable requiring American soldiers to risk their lives. The majority would like individual soldiers to be given the choice of whether to participate. With this condition fulfilled, an overwhelming majority then favors contributing troops to UN peacekeeping. However, a strong majority feels that the US military has the right to require such participation by US troops, an issue dramatized by the recent case of army medic Michael New. ...

(7) Concerns that the US is contributing more than its fair share have obscured majority support for US participation in the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. When respondents can specify the US portion relative to other countries, a solid majority supports contributing some US troops (though a smaller portion than the current level). A solid majority also supports some US involvement should the Bosnian peacekeeping operation be extended beyond December. A very strong majority supports arresting the Bosnian Serb leaders charged with war crimes, even if this puts US troops at risk. ...

(8) A solid majority also supports contributing US troops to a possible UN peacekeeping operation in Burundi, especially when respondents can specify the US portion relative to other countries. However, support may erode if Congress opposes involvement.

A fairly strong majority expressed support for the US contributing troops should the UN establish a peacekeeping operation in Burundi to intervene if forces there start carrying out genocide. As in the Bosnia questions, half the sample was asked a standard question, and 57% said they would favor contributing US troops, while 38% opposed. When the other half was given the option of setting the level of US troops (with zero explicitly offered), 66% said the US should contribute some troops while just 31% said that the US should not contribute any. Among those who favored contributing some, the median preferred level was 20%. ...


Message-Id: <> From: Date: Sun, 11 Aug 1996 14:26:13 -0500 Subject: Africa: US Foreign Policy Poll

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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