December 4, 2013

Americans put low priority on promoting democracy abroad


Promoting democracy abroad was cited as a top foreign policy priority by just 18% of Americans.

U.S. political leaders have long spoken of America’s democracy as pivotal to its role in the world, whether it was Woodrow Wilson declaring in 1917 that the U.S. must enter World War I to make the world “safe for democracy,” or George W. Bush saying, on his re-election in 2004, that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”

But promoting democracy in other nations in recent decades has not  been a top priority for the American public. A new Pew Research Center survey on “America’s Place in the World” found that just 18% of those surveyed cited this as a top foreign policy objective, putting it at the bottom of a list of priorities. Since 1993, the share of Americans saying promotion of democracy was a top priority has never topped 29%.

Just under three-in-ten (27%) Democrats saw promoting democracy abroad as a priority, with much less support coming from Republicans (16%) and independents (13%).

For the 11 priorities tested, those surveyed were asked whether each long-range foreign policy goal should be a “top priority,” “some priority” or “no priority at all.”

This sentiment has become particularly pointed when it comes to the situation in the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring uprisings beginning in 2010 against authoritarian regimes gave way to turmoil in many of the affected countries.

A survey conducted in Oct. 2012 pointed to the disillusion that had set in. Those believing the Arab Spring would lead to lasting improvements dropped from 42% in April 2011 to 25%, and along with that change, the U.S. public began putting less importance on democracy in the region than in having stable governments. That view is even more pronounced in the latest survey than it was last year: 63% now put more importance on stable governments while 28% see democracy as a priority.


Category: Daily Number

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. felix fernandez de castro garteiz4 years ago

    For the rest of the world democracy it’s not a priority either.

    1. Paco4 years ago

      Democracy is an important concern for those without power or at least those who understand they have no power.

      To those who have power or who think that they have power, or those who imagine that the powerful actually care about their needs, democracy is mostly a problem to be overcome. It is those last two out of three that are really obstructing the realization of democracy.

  2. Roy Lindbom4 years ago

    Why promote democracy overseas?

    We have too much difficulty maintaining it here!

    1. felix fernandez de castro garteiz4 years ago

      Why, indeed? especially when overseas democracy is a low priority and with the recent experience in north Africa.

  3. Paco4 years ago

    The much more important concern is restoring democracy in our own country. We have important work right here at home and we need to concentrate on that.

  4. J.W. Jensen4 years ago

    It’s so sad that more than twice as many people feel stable governments in other countries are more important than democracies there. A dictatorship is often a very stable government. The last shah of Iran had a stable government. While promoting democracy doesn’t have to be a top priority, it becomes a human rights issue if all we are interested in is stability, however that may be defined. As I get closer to retirement, I think more and more about moving to a country with a stable AND democratic government. I feel less and less part of the American stream of thought.