Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 3: Top Global Problems, Long-Term Policy Goals

The public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations cite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the most important international problem facing the United States. Yet the two groups differ over the importance of other issues, most notably Pakistan: 18% of CFR members view Pakistan as America’s top international problem, compared with just 1% of the public.

In addition, nuclear proliferation and global environmental issues are cited more often by CFR members than by the public as top international problems: 12% of CFR members mention nuclear proliferation, compared with just 2% of the public; and 7% of CFR members cite environmental issues, compared with 1% of the public. Conversely, economic problems are viewed as more important concerns by the public (19%) than CFR members (12%).

Notably, relatively few CFR members (4%) view the loss of trust, credibility or international respect as America’s top international problem; in 2005, 17% of CFR members viewed the loss of trust as a top global concern, placing it behind only terrorism (21%) and Iraq (19%) on the list of top problems.

Long-Range Foreign Policy Goals

Opinions about long-term U.S. foreign policy goals have changed little in recent years, among both the public and Council on Foreign Relations members. As in the past, protecting American jobs is a much greater foreign policy priority for the public than CFR members. By contrast, CFR members are somewhat more likely than the public to rate preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction as a major priority.

Protecting the nation against terrorist attack and protecting the jobs of American workers are the public’s top long-range foreign policy goals. Fully 85% say each should be given top priority. About three-quarters (74%) say stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction should be a top priority.

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations put stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction at the top of their long-range priority list (88%), along with the need to protect the nation against terrorist attacks (81%). But Council members see protecting the jobs of American workers as a much lower foreign policy priority than does the public. Just 21% rate this as a top priority. Among both groups, about two-thirds see the need to reduce dependence on imported energy sources as a top long range goal (64% among the public, 65% among CFR members).

The public and foreign policy opinion leaders also diverge on such issues as combating drug trafficking, reducing illegal immigration and the importance of dealing with global climate change. The public puts a much greater priority on combating international drug trafficking (56% top priority) and reducing illegal immigration (46%) than do CFR members (22% and 11%, respectively). On the other hand, 57% of CFR members say that dealing with global climate change is a top priority, compared with 40% of the public.

While 37% of the public says that strengthening the United Nations is a top long-range goal, just 18% of CFR members agree. Small minorities in both groups rate promoting democracy in other nations as a top long-range priority at this point (21% for the general public, 10% for CFR members).

Little Change in CFR Members’ Priorities

Currently, 88% of CFR members say stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction should be a top priority, largely unchanged from 89% in 2005 and 83% in early September 2001, just before the Sept. 11 terror attacks. About nine-in-ten said the same in 1997 and 1993 (88% and 90%, respectively).

More CFR members now cite the need to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks as a top goal than just before the 2001 attacks. About eight-in-ten (81%) say that currently, little changed from 84% in 2005. In 2001, 62% viewed protecting against terrorism as a top priority.

The percentages who say dealing with global climate change is a top priority have changed little over this period (56% in 2001, 56% in 2005 and 57% in 2009). But other concerns have declined as priorities for CFR members in recent years. These include strengthening the United Nations, promoting human rights abroad and promoting democracy abroad.

For example, in 2001 43% of CFR members said promoting human rights abroad was a top priority; 21% say so today, about the same as in 2005 (22%). Strengthening the UN is a top priority for 18% of CFR members, down from 29% in 2005 and 37% in 2001.

Top Public Priorities: Terrorism, Jobs

The public’s foreign policy priorities also have not changed much in recent years. Fully 85% say that taking measures to protect the United States from terrorist attacks should be a top priority, little changed from 2005 (86%) and in 2001 (80%) just before the 9/11 attacks.

As many Americans view protecting the jobs of American workers as a top priority (85%) as say that about protecting the nation against terrorist attacks. A somewhat smaller percentage (74%) says stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction is a top foreign policy priority.

The percentage saying that reducing dependence on imported energy is a top priority remains near two-thirds (64% now, 67% in 2005). Currently, 56% say combating international drug trafficking is a high priority, compared with 59% in 2005 and 64% in 2001.

Nearly half (46%) say reducing illegal immigration is a top priority, compared with 51% in 2005. Currently, 40% of the public says dealing with global climate change should be a top long-range foreign policy goal, which also is largely unchanged from 2005 (43%) and 2001 (44%).

While strengthening the U.N. has never rated as a leading policy goal for the public, the percentages rating this as a top priority have remained steady in recent years, even as bolstering the U.N. has declined as a priority among CFR members. Currently, 37% of the public says strengthening the U.N. should be a top long-range goal, compared with 40% in 2005 and 42% in 2001.

Partisan Divides over Immigration, U.N., Poverty

There are only small partisan differences over the top foreign long-term policy goals: overwhelming majorities of Republicans (90%), Democrats (85%) and independents (82%) say that protecting the U.S. from terrorism should be a top priority. Large majorities in each group say the same about protecting American jobs.

But there are substantial partisan differences over several other long-term objectives. For Republicans, reducing illegal immigration is a far more important long-range goal than it is for Democrats: 56% of Republicans rate reducing illegal immigration as a top objective, compared with 47% of independents and 39% of Democrats.

By contrast, strengthening the U.N., improving living standards in poor nations and dealing with global climate change are all rated more highly by Democrats than Republicans. Half of Democrats (50%) say strengthening the United Nations should be a top priority, compared with 34% of independents and just a quarter (25%) of Republicans.

Similarly, a majority of Democrats (56%) say dealing with global climate change should be a top priority, compared with 35% of independents and 23% of Republicans. And while just 36% of Democrats view helping to improve living standards in developing nations as a top priority, it is even a less important goal for Republicans (14%).

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