A large majority of Americans think the world is a more dangerous place than it was several years ago. And a terrorist group that was not even on the public’s radar a year ago – the Islamic militants known as ISIS or ISIL – today ranks near the top of its list of U.S. security threats.
As the public’s views of global threats have changed, so too have opinions about America’s role in solving world problems. On balance, more continue to think the United States does too much, rather than too little, to help solve world problems. But the share saying the U.S. does too little to address global problems has nearly doubled – from 17% to 31% – since last November, while the percentage saying it is doing too much has fallen from 51% to 39%.
Republicans, Democrats and independents all are more likely to say the U.S. does too little to solve world problems, but the shift among Republicans has been striking. Last fall, 52% of Republicans said the U.S. does too much to help solve global problems, while just 18% said it does too little. Today, 46% of Republicans think the U.S. does too little to solve global problems, while 37% say it does too much.
The new national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted August 20-24 among 1,501 adults, finds that 65% say the world is more dangerous than it was several years ago; just 7% say the world has gotten safer while 27% say things have not changed much.
Public perceptions of the global threats confronting the United States have changed since the Pew Research Center released its major study of foreign policy attitudes – America’s Place in the World – in December 2013. Currently, 71% view “Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda” as a major threat to U.S. well-being, about the same as last year. But nearly as many (67%) say “the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS,” represents a major threat.
The public generally supports U.S. airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq. A survey earlier this month by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY found that 54% approve of airstrikes against the militants while 31% disapprove.
Other ongoing international crises also draw public concern. About half (53%) regard growing tension between Russia and its neighbors as a major threat to the U.S. Last fall, when asked about growing authoritarianism in Russia, just 32% viewed that as a major threat.
As the death toll from the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa grows, 52% say the rapid spread of infectious diseases is major threat to the U.S.; that is about the same percentage that views tensions between Russia and its neighbors as a major threat.
Meanwhile, the public expresses less concern about some long-standing foreign policy issues. The percentage rating Iran’s nuclear program as major threat has fallen by nine points since last November (from 68% to 59%), while the share saying North Korea’s nuclear program is a substantial threat has declined by 10 points (from 67% to 57%). And somewhat fewer think that China’s emergence as a world power poses a major threat to the U.S. than did so last year (54% then, 48%
Public views of U.S. global power continue to be close to a four-decade low, though these opinions also have changed modestly since last fall.
Currently, 48% say the U.S. is a less important and powerful world leader than it was 10 years ago; 34% think the U.S. is as important and powerful as it was a decade ago while 15% think it is more important. In November, 53% said the U.S. was less important globally, while 27% said it was as important (17% said it was more important).
In 2009, President Obama’s first year in office, opinions about U.S. global power were more mixed: 41% said the U.S. was less powerful and important than it was a decade earlier, 30% about as powerful, while 25% said the U.S. was more powerful.
Obama’s approach to foreign policy continues to be viewed as not tough enough: 54% say Obama is not tough enough in his approach on foreign policy and national security issues, while 36% say his approach is about right and just 3% say he is too tough.
Obama gets his best rating for handling race relations; nearly half approve of how he is handling race relations (48%) compared with 42% who disapprove. His ratings for handling other issues – including policy toward Israel (37% approve), the situation involving Russia and Ukraine (35%) and the situation in Iraq (35%) – are more negative than positive. (For more on opinions about the Middle East, including views of Obama’s handling of the situation, see this report.)
Views of U.S. Global Role and Power
Since last fall, there have been declines in the percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents who think the U.S. does too much in the world, while increasing shares of all three groups say it does too little. But the biggest shift in opinion has come among
Nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats now think the United States does too little to help solve world problems (46% vs. 24%). Last fall, there were virtually no partisan differences in these opinions; just 18% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats said the U.S. did too little to solve world problems.
Tea Party Republicans’ views of the U.S. role in solving world problems have changed dramatically since last November. Today, 54% of Republicans and GOP leaners who agree with the Tea Party say it does too little to help solve world problems; just 33% say it does too much. Last year, opinions were nearly the reverse: 54% of Tea Party Republicans said the U.S. did too much global problem-solving while 22% said it did too little.
By contrast, there has been far less change in the opinions of non-Tea Party Republicans. Today, a 46% plurality of non-Tea Party Republicans say the U.S. does too much to help solve world problems; last November, 52% expressed this view.
Meanwhile, the public’s views of U.S. power and importance have changed only modestly since last year. Currently, 48% say the U.S. plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did 10 years ago; 34% say it plays as important a role while 15% think it is more important and powerful.
Partisan differences in perceptions of U.S. global power remain large. Most Republicans (64%) and about half of independents (53%) think the U.S. is less powerful globally than it was a decade ago (when George W. Bush was president). Among Democrats, just 30% think the U.S. is less powerful and important than it was 10 years ago, while 46% say it is as important.
Among Tea Party Republicans, fully 82% think the U.S. is a less important and powerful world leader than it was a decade ago. That compares with 61% of non-Tea Party Republicans.
ISIS Emerges as Major Threat
Following the beheading of American journalist James Foley, two-thirds of the public (67%) cite ISIS as a major threat to the U.S. About two-in-ten (21%) name the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria as a “minor threat” and just 5% say it is not a threat.
Half of the sample was asked about ISIS and the other half was asked about the broader threat of “Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda,” which registered similar concern (71% major threat, 19% minor threat, 6% not a threat).
In light of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, roughly half (52%) believe the spread of infectious diseases between countries is a major threat and four-in-ten (40%) label it a minor threat. However, the public shows less concern today about the international spread of diseases than it did in May 2001: About two-thirds (66%) then said it was a major threat, following an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. and the ongoing “mad cow disease” .
About half (48%) label the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as a major threat to the U.S. The same share rates China’s emergence as a world power and global climate change as major.
The public’s concerns have shifted over the past nine months. Today, more than half (53%) say that growing tension between Russia and its neighbors poses a major threat to the U.S. Last November, months before Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region, just about one-in-three (32%) named “growing authoritarianism in Russia” as a threat.
Since November, concerns about Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs have decreased. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) say Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat, down from 68% in November. And concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program have dropped 10 points, from 67% labeling it a major threat to 57% today.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats and independents to see Islamic extremist groups, Iran’s nuclear program, China’s emergence as a world power and the Israel-Palestinian conflict as major threats to the U.S. On the other hand, global climate change registers for Democrats as among the greatest threats to the U.S. (68% major). By comparison, just 25% of Republicans see global climate change as a major threat to the U.S.
As in prior surveys on international threats, most Republicans say that global climate change is either a minor threat (32%) or not a threat (40%) to the U.S. Among Republicans and GOP leaners, most (62%) who agree with the Tea Party say that global climate change is “not a threat.” Non-Tea Party Republicans are divided: 39% think global climate change is a minor threat, 33% say it is a major threat and 25% say it is not a threat.
Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans (78%) label ISIS as a major threat, compared with 65% of Democrats and 63% of independents. Among Republicans and those who lean Republican, Tea Party supporters are the most concerned — 91% say ISIS is a major threat, compared with 72% of those who do not agree with the Tea Party.
As with many other international concerns, adults ages 50 and older are more likely than younger adults to call ISIS a major threat. About three-quarters of older adults say ISIS is a major threat, compared with 61% of adults 30-49 and 57% of those younger than 30.
Aside from the specific threat posed by ISIS, most Americans think that militant forms of Islam are on the rise in the Middle East. Nearly six-in-ten (63%) say that, in thinking about the long-term future of the Middle East, they expect militant forms of Islam to grow in influence. Just 25% say militant Islam will decline in influence.
As with opinions about ISIS, there are age and partisan differences in views of whether militant Islam will grow in influence. Two-thirds of those 65 and older (66%) anticipate that militant forms of Islam will grow in influence, compared with 54% of those under 30. And while 75% of Republicans and 67% of independents think militant Islam will grow in influence, only about half of Democrats (53%) agree.
Obama’s Approach on Foreign Policy
Overall, 54% say Obama’s approach to foreign policy and national security issues is not tough enough, while 36% say the president’s approach is about right and just 3% say it is too tough. The share saying Obama’s approach to security issues is not tough enough has increased 13 points since Sept. 2012.
Majorities of whites (60%) and independents (56%) say Obama is not tough enough in dealing with foreign policy and national security. Older Americans also are skeptical of Obama’s approach to foreign policy issues: Among those 30-49, 50-64 and 65 and older, more view his national security policy as not tough enough than about right. Those younger than 30 are divided: 45% say his approach is not tough enough, while 42% say it is about right.
Liberal Democrats offer strongly positive assessments of Obama’s foreign policy: 66% say his approach is about right while just 26% think it is not tough enough. But among conservative and moderate Democrats, 52% say Obama’s policies are about right and 40% say they are not tough enough.