Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Opinion Leaders Turn Cautious, Public Looks Homeward

America’s Place in the World

Introduction and Summary

Preoccupied with war abroad and growing problems at home, U.S. opinion leaders and the general public are taking a decidedly cautious view of America’s place in the world. Over the past four years, opinion leaders have become less supportive of the United States playing a “first among equals” role among the world’s leading nations. The goal of promoting democracy in other nations also has lost ground, and while most opinion leaders view President Bush’s calls for expanded democracy in the Middle East as a good idea, far fewer think it will actually succeed.

As the Iraq war has shaken the global outlook of American influentials, it has led to a revival of isolationist sentiment among the general public. Fully 42% of Americans say the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” This is on par with the percentage expressing that view during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the 1990s after the Cold War ended.

Favorable opinions of the United Nations, which had declined in recent years, have fallen still further. Only about half of Americans (48%) now express a positive opinion of the U.N., down from 77% four years ago.

These are among the principal findings of America’s Place in the World, a survey of opinion leaders and the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations. This quadrennial study examines the foreign policy attitudes of state and local government officials, security and foreign affairs experts, military officers, news media leaders, university and think tank leaders, religious leaders, and scientists and engineers, along with the general public. The new survey, conducted Sept. 5-Oct. 31, reflects the major changes in the world that have occurred since the previous poll, conducted in the summer of 2001 just prior to the 9/11 attacks. There has been continuity in some areas, such as in the broad agreement among opinion leaders and the public that protecting against terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction are top long-term policy objectives.

Yet the war in Iraq has had a profound impact on the way opinion leaders, as well as the public, view America’s global role, looming international threats, and the Bush administration’s stewardship of the nation’s foreign policy. If anything, the opinion leaders are much gloomier about Iraq’s future than is the public. Most opinion leaders feel that the U.S. will fail in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq; a majority of Americans (56%) believe success is still possible. Moreover, the opinion leaders express considerable doubt that Iraq will even survive as a unified country. About four-in-ten or more in every group say that the country will end up being divided into three countries, representing Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

The survey finds a continuation of long-standing differences between the public and influentials over issues such as trade and the importance of protecting American jobs as a foreign policy priority. However for both opinion leaders and the public, partisanship is the decisive factor in views of President Bush and his principal policies — especially those related to the war. In effect, the partisan differences are greater than the elite-public divide when it comes to Bush and his policies.

The gap between Republican and Democrat influentials in views of Bush’s performance is about as wide as it is among the general public, and considerably greater than the partisan differences in evaluations of former President Clinton’s job performance at a comparable point early in his second term.

As in past America’s Place in the World surveys, the sample of opinion leaders includes more Democrats than Republicans or independents. Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest decline in Bush’s approval rating since August 2001 has come among scientists and engineers — the most heavily Democratic group.

By contrast, influential groups that include relatively high percentages of Republicans, such as military leaders, have a more positive view of Bush’s job performance. The military leaders also are more optimistic about prospects for success in Iraq than are members of other groups.

Changing Views of China

The Iraq war and continuing threat of terrorism have dramatically affected the way opinion leaders and the public look at potential threats from other countries. Four years ago, there was broad concurrence, if not a consensus, that China represented the greatest danger to the United States. Today, opinion leaders mention China, North Korea and Iran each about as frequently. The public also is divided as to which country represents the biggest threat to the United States; 18% cite Iraq, 16% China, and 13% North Korea. In 2001, twice as many Americans (32%) named China as the country posing the greatest danger to the U.S.

More generally, China’s emerging global power is not triggering increased concern among opinion leaders or the general public. And while solid majorities in each elite group — and a plurality of the public (45%) — continue to view China as a “serious problem, but not an adversary,” fewer than one-in-five in each group say China is an adversary. Partisanship is at most only a minor factor in attitudes toward China.

Moreover, many influentials predict that in the future China will become an increasingly important U.S. ally. State and local government officials, academics and think tank leaders, and scientists and engineers most frequently name China as a country that will be more important to the U.S. in coming years.

India – the New France

Underscoring the rising importance of Asia generally, foreign affairs specialists and security experts most often name India as a country likely to emerge as a more important U.S. partner. News media leaders cite China and India equally as often.

The influentials are more unified in their opinions of which U.S. allies will decline in importance — France is named far more frequently than any other country. Military leaders, in particular, believe France will be less important to the U.S. in the future; 53% point to France, with 30% mentioning Germany. By contrast, far fewer than one-in-ten military leaders cite any Asian country as being less important to the U.S. in the future. The dominant view among opinion leaders continues to be that the United States should share global leadership with other nations, rather than act as a single leader. But compared with the previous America’s Place in the World, there is generally less support for the U.S. being the “most assertive” of leading nations. The decline has been particularly pronounced among state and local government officials (18 points) and national security specialists (17 points).

Opinion leaders are divided over whether the U.S. should pursue policies to ensure that America remains the world’s only superpower. Religious leaders and scientists and engineers — groups that generally support a more limited leadership role for America — believe it would be acceptable if a rival military power emerged. However, most state and local government officials, military leaders, and foreign affairs experts say U.S. policies should be aimed at retaining America’s status as the sole military superpower. Half of the public also favors U.S. policies to maintain America’s position as the only superpower, while 35% say it would be acceptable if China, another country, or the European Union became as militarily powerful as the U.S.

The public’s overall support for global engagement — which increased in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — has clearly receded. Just a quarter of the public favors the U.S. being the most active of leading nations, which represents a significant decline compared with October 2001 (33%). The percentage of Americans who agree that the “U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has risen from 30% in 2002 to 42% currently. Isolationist sentiment is growing particularly among Democrats and independents. More than half of Democrats (55%) now say the United States should mind its own business internationally up from 40% in 2002; among independents, 42% express that view now, compared with 27% three years ago.

As to public perceptions of the U.S. global image, two-thirds of Americans (66%) say that the U.S. is less respected than in the past. When asked about possible reasons for global discontent with the U.S., overwhelming percentages of Americans (71%) and opinion leaders (87%) cite the war in Iraq as a major factor.

Majorities in each group of influentials, and 60% of the public, also believe that America’s wealth and power are a primary cause of global discontent with the U.S. But opinion leaders are much more inclined than the public to view U.S. support for Israel as a major reason why people around the world dislike the U.S. Majorities in each group of opinion leaders — including 78% of journalists — see this as a major reason for discontent with the U.S. Just 39% of the public agrees.

The Bush administration’s strategies for repairing the tattered U.S. image in the Middle East — through the promotion of democracy and by increasing public diplomacy in the region — are viewed skeptically by opinion leaders. No more than a third in any group believe that Bush’s push for democracy in the region will succeed; most believe it is a good idea, but one that will fail. Security specialists and foreign affairs experts, in particular, express little confidence that public diplomacy can do much to help America’s image in the region, though that effort is more highly regarded by religious leaders, state and local government officials and military leaders.

The survey finds continuing differences between the public and influentials over the extent to which the nation’s foreign policy should serve domestic objectives. Fully 84% of the public views the protection of American jobs as a top long-term foreign policy priority; far fewer opinion leaders see this as an important goal. In addition, the public remains much more skeptical than opinion leaders about the benefits of international free trade agreements. Just 44% of Americans see agreements like NAFTA as good for the country; by contrast, solid majorities in all but one group (religious leaders) think such pacts have a positive impact.

The public also favors a more aggressive approach toward the use of military force generally and in tactics in the war on terror than do the opinion leaders. More than half of Americans (52%) believe that using military force is at least sometimes justified against nations that may seriously threaten the U.S., but have not attacked. That represents a decline from previous public surveys — 60% favored such preemptive military action last December. Even so, the public is far more supportive than opinion leaders taking military action against nations that have threatened but not attacked the U.S.

In addition, large majorities in each group of influentials believe the use of torture against terrorist suspects can rarely if ever be justified. The public is much more tolerant of the use of torture against suspected terrorists — 46% say it can be often or sometimes justified, while 49% believe it is rarely or never justified.

Other Findings

  • Solid majorities in every group of opinion leaders — and 84% of the public — say it is important that the partnership between the U.S. and Western Europe remain close. Comparably large majorities of opinion leaders feel a stronger European Union also benefits the U.S., but the public is more divided over this issue.
  • Americans express considerable concern over the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases. But fewer opinion leaders view reducing the spread of AIDS and other diseases as a major U.S. policy priority.

  • The public overwhelmingly believes post-9/11 restrictions on foreign student visas are worth it to prevent terrorists from entering the country. But majorities in five elite groups — including nearly all academics — say the restrictions go too far.
  • Majorities in most groups of influentials say the U.S. should join the International Criminal Court. But military leaders are a notable exception — a narrow majority opposes the U.S. joining the international court.
  • Americans view the goals of reducing the flow of illegal immigration and combating international drug trafficking as much more important long-term priorities than do opinion leaders.
  • The public, on balance, believes cases of U.S. prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay were mostly the result of misconduct by American soldiers rather than the consequence of official policies. Opinion leaders are divided, with solid majorities in five of eight groups saying that the prison abuse scandal was the result of official policies.
  • Pluralities in every group of influentials — as well as the public — attribute the fact that there has not been a terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11 to luck. Just a third of the public — and no more than a third in any elite group — says it is because the government has done a good job in protecting the country.
Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information