Majorities of the public and Council on Foreign Relations members say Islamic extremist groups, Iran’s nuclear program and international financial instability represent major threats to the well-being of the United States.
However, the public is much more likely than CFR members to view the Taliban’s growing strength in Afghanistan, North Korea’s nuclear program, and China’s emergence as a world power as major threats. By comparison, far more CFR members see political instability in Pakistan as a major threat. Global climate change also is regarded as a more serious threat by CFR members than the public.
The public and CFR members generally see the world as more dangerous for the United States since the Cold War ended two decades ago. And majorities in both groups say the danger of an attack on the United States with a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is greater now than a decade ago.
In terms of the possible use of U.S. military force, the public continues to be more supportive than CFR members of taking preemptive action against countries that may threaten the U.S., but have not yet attacked. The public also is much more supportive of using U.S. military force if it were certain that Iran had produced a nuclear weapon. However, there is greater support among foreign policy opinion leaders than the public for using force in response to another scenario – if extremists were poised to take over Pakistan.
Public’s Security Concerns Change Little
The public’s views of top international concerns have changed little over the past few years. Terrorism continues to be the top international concern; 76% say Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda are a major threat. Iran’s nuclear program also continues to rank near the top of the list with 72% now saying this is a major threat, which has increased steadily from 60% in September 2008. In October 2005, 61% said Iran’s nuclear program posed a major threat to the United States.
The proportion of the public saying North Korea’s nuclear program is a major threat grew substantially between January and June of this year. Currently, 69% view North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat, which is little changed from June (72%) and on par with opinions in 2005 (66%). A similar proportion of Americans (70%) view the Taliban’s growing strength in Afghanistan as a major threat.
About three-in-five (61%) view international financial instability as a major threat to the well being of the U.S. There is greater concern about international financial stability now than a decade ago (52%) or in 2001 (47%).
About half (49%) of the public views political instability in Pakistan as a major threat, virtually unchanged from June and up only slightly since 2008. Global climate change (44%) and growing tensions between Russia and its neighbors (38%) rank somewhat lower as major threats to the United States.
For CFR members, North Korea’s nuclear program rates as a less serious threat than it did in 2005: 44% now view it as a major threat, compared with 67% four years ago. And since 2001, the percentage citing China’s emerging power as a major threat has declined from 38% to 21%.
Partisanship Colors Some International Concerns
Within the general public, majorities of Republicans and Democrats view many of the possible international concerns as major threats to the well-being of the United States. On most issues, there are only modest partisan differences – but climate change is a notable exception. Six-in-ten Democrats (60%) and 45% of independents view global climate change as a major threat, compared with only 24% of Republicans.
More Republicans than Democrats say Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda are a major threat, but the differences are much smaller: 85% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 72% of Democrats say that these groups are a major threat to the United States.
Within CFR members, some partisan differences also are evident. As with the general public, the largest difference is over the issue of climate change. More than seven-in-ten (73%) Democrats and those who lean Democratic say global climate change is a major threat compared with only 20% of those who identify or lean Republican.
In addition, more Republicans and those who lean Republican view Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat than Democrats or those who lean Democratic (78% vs. 59%). A similar pattern is evident on the threat from the Taliban’s growing strength in Afghanistan; 59% of Republican CFR members view the Taliban as a major threat compared with 45% of Democrats.
Iran Seen as Greatest Danger
When asked in an open-ended format which country represents the greatest danger to the U.S., more Americans cite Iran (21%) than any other country. Smaller proportions of the public name Iraq and Afghanistan (14% each) and about one-in-ten cite China (11%) and North Korea (10%) as the country that poses the greatest danger to the U.S.
The proportion citing Afghanistan as the greatest danger has nearly tripled (from 5% to 14%) since September 2008. There has been a more modest increase in the percentage mentioning North Korea (from 6% a year ago to 10% now).
Over the same period, public concerns over China have declined slightly; 11% cite China as the country representing the greatest danger to the U.S., down from 16% in 2008. Notably, very few (2%) name Russia as the greatest danger to the U.S., down substantially from the 14% who cited Russia in the fall of last year, after Russian troops entered Georgia.
Republicans overwhelmingly view Iran as the greatest danger to the U.S.; 31% cite Iran whereas 13% mention North Korea and Afghanistan, the next most frequently mentioned countries. By comparison, Democrats are more divided in their views. Roughly equal proportions of Democrats cite Iraq (17%), Afghanistan (17%) and Iran (16%). About one-in-five (19%) independents mention Iran and 14% cite China as the country representing the greatest danger to the U.S.
More Dangerous World for U.S.
A majority of the public (58%) and nearly half of CFR members (49%) say the world is now more dangerous for the United States since the end of the Cold War. Just 12% of the public sees the world as less dangerous, compared with 30% of CFR members.
Public views about whether the world has become more dangerous for the U.S. have changed little since early September 2001, when 53% expressed this view. But in that 2001 survey, which was conducted shortly before the 9/11 attacks, most CFR members (60%) said the world was less dangerous for the United States than it had been during the Cold War.
Currently, there are no significant partisan differences on this question within the general public or CFR members. Majorities of Republicans (55%), Democrats (60%) and independents (60%) say the world is more dangerous for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War.
Increased Threat of WMD Attack
Asked specifically about the possibility of an attack on the United States with a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon, CFR members are somewhat more likely than the public to say that the danger of such an attack is greater than it was a decade ago.
About six-in-ten CFR members (61%) and 52% of the public say the danger of an attack with a weapon of mass destruction is greater now than it was 10 years ago. Very few in either group say the danger of such an attack is less today; 29% of CFR members and 35% of the public say the danger is about the same now as it was then.
Public views about the danger of a WMD attack on the U.S. have fluctuated since the late 1990s. In 1997, 36% said an attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapon was greater than it had been a decade earlier. That figure rose to 51% in early September 2001 and 64% in August 2003, during the early months of the Iraq war, before declining in the current survey.
Republicans in the general public and among CFR membership are more likely than Democrats to say there is greater danger of a WMD attack on the U.S. Majorities of Republicans (62%) and independents (52%) say the danger of attack on the U.S. with a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is greater now than it was 10 years ago. Democrats are more divided in their opinion; 47% say the danger of attack is greater and 41% say it is about the same as ten years ago.
Among CFR members, 73% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the danger of attack is greater, compared with 57% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Public Favors Preemptive Force
A majority (52%) of the public says that it can often (16%) or sometimes (36%) be justified to use military force against countries that seriously threaten the U.S., but have not attacked. About four-in-ten (41%) say it can rarely (24%) or never (17%) be justified. These opinions are little changed since October 2005. In May 2003, a few months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 67% of the public said it was at least sometimes justified to use force against countries that threaten but have not attacked the U.S.
Far fewer CFR members say that preemptive military action against potential adversaries is often or sometimes justified. Currently, just 31% say the use of force can often (4%) or sometimes (27%) be justified. About two-thirds (66%) of CFR members say that the use of preemptive military force is rarely (55%) or never (11%) justified.
As expected, there are substantial partisan differences over whether it is justified to use force against countries that threaten the U.S., but have not attacked: 65% of Republicans say it is at least sometimes justified, compared with 44% of Democrats and 50% of independents. Similarly, 54% of CFR members who identify or lean Republican say the use of force is at least sometimes justified compared with 24% of those who identify or lean Democratic.
Using Force in “What if” Scenarios
A majority of the public approves of using U.S. military forces in several international situations. More than six-in-ten (63%) approve of using U.S. forces if it were certain Iran had a produced a nuclear weapon while less than a third (30%) disapprove. Opinion among CFR members is nearly the opposite; only 33% approve of using force in this situation while 61% disapprove.
But more CFR members approve of using force if extremists were poised to take over Pakistan; 63% approve of the use of force in this scenario, compared with 51% of the public.
Majorities of both the public (58%) and CFR members (57%) support the use of force if an ethnic group in Africa was threatened by genocide. There has been little change since 2001 among the public or CFR members in views about the use of force to help those in Africa threatened by genocide.
More Republicans approve of the possible use of U.S. military forces in Iran and Pakistan than do either Democrats or independents. About eight-in-ten (79%) Republicans approve of using force if it were certain Iran had produced a nuclear weapon compared with 57% of Democrats and 59% of independents.
Similarly, 64% of Republicans approve of using force if extremists were about to take over Pakistan while fewer than half of Democrats (48%) of independents (45%) approve. However, identical percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents (59% each) would favor using U.S. force if an ethnic group in Africa were threatened by genocide.
Little Change on Defense Spending
Currently, 46% favor keeping spending on national defense at about its present level, 26% favor increasing the level of defense spending, while about the same percentage (23%) supports cutting defense spending. Opinion has been relatively stable since 2004.
Support for increased defense spending had reached an all-time high (50%) in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. From 1999 to 2000, more Americans thought defense spending should be increased than decreased. From 1990 to 1997, the trend was reversed with more saying spending should be cut back than saying it should be increased.
Compared with the public, a far greater proportion of CFR members say defense spending should be reduced; 40% say that, compared with 23% of the public. Conversely, a far smaller percentage of CFR members (7%) than the public (26%) favors increasing defense spending.
Among the public, more Republicans (39%) than Democrats (17%) support increased spending on national defense. About three times as many Democrats (31%) as Republicans (10%) say defense spending should be cut. Independents are somewhat more divided; 48% say the U.S. should keep defense spending the same, 24% say it should be increased and another 24% say it should be decreased.
Similar partisan differences are evident among CFR members. Half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think defense spending should be cut back compared with only 13% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. By comparison, far more Republicans than Democrats say spending should be increased (22% vs. 2%).