January 6, 2014

U.S. Foreign Policy: Key Data Points from Pew Research

Growing numbers of Americans believe that U.S. global power and prestige are in decline. 

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For the first time in surveys dating to 1974, more than half of the public (53%) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, according to the Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey. Just 17% say it plays a more important role, while 27% say it is about as important as it was in the past.

Despite the difficult foreign policy problems facing the United States, more Americans want the U.S. to mind its own business abroad and concentrate more on its own national problems.

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For the first time since 1964, more than half (52%) agree that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own;” 38% disagree, according to a survey conducted Oct.-Nov. 2013. Similarly, 80% agree with the statement, “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.”

As an example of the desire for less foreign involvement, most think the U.S. should be less involved in Middle East leadership changes, according to an Oct. 2012 survey.

The Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey found that 63% of the public said that having stable governments in the Middle East is the most important outcome, even if there is less democracy in the region.

The top long-range foreign policy priorities of Americans are protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks, protecting American jobs and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

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About eight-in-ten or more Americans put protecting the country against terrorist attacks and protecting American jobs should be the nation’s top long-range foreign policy goals, and 73% cited preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, according to the Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey. At the bottom of the list were promoting and defending human rights abroad (33%), helping improve living standards in developing nations (23%) and promoting democracy in other nations (18%).

While the public is inclined to less global engagement, most Americans do favor greater U.S. involvement in the global economy.

KDP_Global_EconomyWhen asked whether greater U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it exposes the U.S. to new markets and opportunities for growth or a bad thing because it exposes the country to greater risks and uncertainty, 66% choose the former, according to the Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey. About three-quarters of the public (77%) say the growing trade and business ties between the U.S. and other countries is a good thing.

Americans want the U.S. to remain the world’s sole military superpower.

KDP_Military_SuperpowerMore than half of the public (56%) say U.S. policies should try to keep it so America is the only military superpower, while 32% say it would be acceptable if China, another country or the European Union became as militarily powerful as the United States, according to the Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey. According to our September 2012 survey, four-in-ten Americans believe the U.S. relies on military strength too much to achieve its foreign policy goals, and about the same number (44%) say their country relies on its military strength about the right amount. Only 10% say the U.S. relies on military might too little.

The public regards Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda as a major threat to the U.S., but almost as many Americans now see cyber-attacks from other countries as a major threat.

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Americans largely approve of the use of drones to target extremists, unlike most other nations surveyed. 

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About six-in ten (61%) of Americans support the use of drones to target extremists leaders and organizations, according to a March-May 2013 survey. But in 31 other nations surveyed, at least half disapprove of the U.S. conducting drone missile strikes targeting extremists in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. An Oct.-Nov 2013 survey found that 50% of Americans believed the use of military drones had made the U.S. safer from terrorism, while 27% said they had not made much of a difference and 14% said they had made the U.S. less safe.

Americans overwhelming oppose a nuclear armed Iran and about two-thirds would support military action to prevent it.

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About nine-in-ten (93%) of Americans oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. About two-thirds (64%) would back using military force if necessary to prevent that from happening while 28% want to avoid a military conflict, according to a March-May 2013 survey. About three-quarters (78%) of Americans would back tougher economic sanctions to help deter Iran from developing weapons. In an Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey, conducted before the agreement last November to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program, 60% of Americans said they did not believe Iranian leaders were serious about addressing the world’s nuclear concerns.

Americans are divided over whether fighting the Iraq war was worth it and whether it was the right decision. On Afghanistan, most Americans say fighting that war had not made much difference in making the U.S. safer from terrorism or that it had made it less safe.

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A decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the public offers a divided judgment of the war: 46% say the U.S. has mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq, about as many (43%) say it has mostly failed, according to a March 2013 survey. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the Oct.-Nov. 2013 survey found that 31% of Americans said fighting the war in Afghanistan had made the U.S. safer from terrorism, while 43% said it had not made much difference and 21% said it had made the U.S. less safe.

Read more Pew Research reports on Foreign Policy.

Index to other Key Data Point fact sheets

Cite this publication: Sara Goo. “U.S. Foreign Policy: Key Data Points from Pew Research.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 6, 2014) http://www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/u-s-foreign-policy-key-data-points/, accessed on July 23, 2014.