U.S. political leaders have long spoken of America’s commitment to 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 reelection in 2004, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”
More recently, President Joe Biden told world leaders gathered virtually at the Munich Security Conference, “We must demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”
But in recent decades, promoting democracy in other nations has not been a top priority for the American public. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early February found that just 20% of U.S. adults cited this as a top foreign policy objective, putting it at the bottom of the list of 20 topics polled.
This post draws on a survey of 2,596 U.S. adults conducted Feb. 1-7, 2021, for a report on Americans’ foreign policy attitudes, including their confidence in President Joe Biden’s handling of world affairs. Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
The 2019 global data was based on a survey conducted across 34 countries from May 13 to Oct. 2, 2019, totaling 38,426 respondents. The surveys were conducted face-to-face across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and on the phone in United States and Canada. In the Asia-Pacific region, face-to-face surveys were conducted in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, while phone surveys were administered in Australia, Japan and South Korea. Across Europe, the survey was conducted over the phone in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK, but face-to-face in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Only about a quarter of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (24%) saw promoting democracy abroad as a priority, with even less support coming from Republicans and GOP leaners (15%).
Those surveyed were asked from a list of 20 priorities which ones they saw as top priorities when it came to long-range foreign policy goals. Those ranking at the top included protecting American jobs, reducing the spread of infectious diseases and protecting against terrorist attacks. The lowest priorities, along with promoting democracy, were reducing U.S. military commitments overseas, aiding refugees fleeing violence and reducing legal immigration in the U.S. (fewer than three-in-ten mentioned these).
While promoting democracy around the world may seem like an aspirational ideal to some, and Center surveys have found broad support for many democratic principles, our research has also shown that many are dissatisfied with democracy in practice. Across 34 countries surveyed in 2019, a median of 52% were dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in their country, compared with 44% who were satisfied. About six-in-ten Americans (59%) were dissatisfied, as were 69% of people in the UK and 58% or more in 11 other countries, with Greeks registering the highest level of dissatisfaction (74%).
The 2019 survey found that one factor related to this dissatisfaction was the feeling that political elites are out of touch with their people. Across the 34 countries polled, a median of 64% disagreed with the statement “Most elected officials care what people like me think.” This opinion was shared by 71% of Americans and was also particularly widespread in Europe, where a median of 69% expressed this view. And those who believe elected officials do not care about people like them were much more likely to be dissatisfied with democracy in their country. This relationship was present in nearly every country surveyed in 2019.
Note: This is an update of a post originally published Dec. 4, 2013.