FPI National Survey: Foreign Policy Matters in 2012

September 27, 2012

While some political leaders are now calling on America to focus more on domestic matters—for example, President Obama asserted last month that “it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home”—a recent national survey conducted by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) found that an overwhelming majority of Americans (92.2% of respondents) believe it is important for the United States to continue playing a significant role in world affairs.  Indeed, more than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a very strong majority of Americans (85.7%) say that the United States is a “force for good in the world.”
 
The national survey on Foreign Policy Matters in 2012 was conducted by Basswood Research from September 15-17, 2012, on behalf of the Foreign Policy Initiative.  The survey’s margin of error is 3.1 percent on a sample of 1000 likely voters.  Respondents passed a series of screens to indicate that they are very likely to be voting in the November 2012 general election.  In terms of party affiliation, 37.9 percent of respondents identified themselves with the Republican Party, 39.9 percent identified with the Democratic Party, and 20.0 percent identified either as Independent or with no party at all.

The national survey’s questions and detailed crosstabs can be downloaded in PDF format.  Key findings are outlined below, and can also be downloaded in PDF format.


Americans Say Iran Poses “Most Danger” and Support Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran, If Necessary, By Force
 
When asked in an open-ended question to name the country in the world that poses “the most danger” to America’s national security interests, respondents most frequently (45.1%) said the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Indeed, Iranian leaders—who have publicly threatened to wipe Israel “off the map”—have continued to improve their country’s ability to build a nuclear weapon on short notice, while repeatedly rejecting a decade’s worth of international diplomacy and economic pressure by the United States and others aimed at persuading them to change course.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now warns that Iran is quickly nearing a so-called “zone of immunity,” a technical state in which it will be difficult for U.S. or Israeli conventional airstrikes to degrade, delay, or destroy Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
 
A majority of Americans (62.0%) favor preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons—even if this option means the use of military force—over the alternative of avoiding armed conflict and accepting the likelihood that Iran gets nuclear weapons.  In particular, a strong majority of self-identified Conservatives (78.6%) and a majority of self-identified Moderates (57.8%), in addition to 44.6 percent of self-identified Liberals, support U.S. military action to stop a nuclear-armed Iran.
 
Strong Majority of Americans Support Israel
 
Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, continues to enjoy strong U.S. public support.  A strong majority of Americans (70.0%) view Israel favorably.  Israel’s support is most pronounced on the Right and in the Center.  Whereas 80.9 percent of self-identified Conservatives and 68.5 percent of self-identified Moderates hold a favorable view of Israel, 62.9 percent of self-identified Liberals shared that view.  When asked in an open-ended question to name the country that is “America’s best ally in the world today”, Israel (15.9%) came second only to the United Kingdom (54.0%).
 
Few Believe “Too Much” is Being Spent on Defense Spending
 
Americans strongly reject the claim that the United States spends an excessive amount on national defense.  A strong majority of respondents (63.1%) say current levels of defense spending are either “about right” (40.1%) or “too little” (23.0%).  Only 28.6 percent of Americans say that “too much” is spent on the military.  This strong support of Americans for current or stronger levels of defense spending is timely given that starting in January 2013, the U.S. military will automatically suffer “sequestration” cuts—$500 billion in across-the-board spending reductions over the next decade—unless the President and Congress quickly change current law.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that sequestration will be “devastating” to the military, and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cautioned that further defense cuts of this magnitude will be “very high risk” to national security.
 
Americans are especially aware of the impact that defense spending has on local communities.  Indeed, 75.3 percent of respondents said that military spending has an impact on jobs and economic growth in their local communities, and 39.9 percent described military spending as having a “large impact.”  Respondents in the New England region (85.7%), South Atlantic region (81.5%), and Mountain region (79.1%) were most likely to view defense-related spending as a critical component of local economies. 
 
Such public concern tracks with recent third-party studies on the impacts of sequestration on the U.S. economy.  For example, according to a July 2012 impact study authored by George Mason University economics professor, Dr. Stephen S. Fuller, sequestration cuts on national defense “would reduce GDP by $86.5 billion and result in the loss of 1,006,320 direct, indirect and induced jobs across all sectors of the U.S. economy impacting every state and representing a decline of personal income (salaries and wages) totaling $59.4 billion.”  Other studies, such as those by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP), offer comparable order-of-magnitude estimates of the sequestration’s impact on the U.S. economy at the national, state, and local levels.
 
Entitlements—Not Defense—Seen as Key Driver of Debt and Federal Spending
 
A strong majority of Americans (69.7%) do not blame defense spending for the country’s fiscal woes.  While 42.0 percent of respondents believe spending on mandatory entitlements is the biggest contributing factor to America’s nation debt problem, only 14.5 percent view defense spending as the largest contributor.
 
Whereas 50.0 percent of respondents believe that either entitlement spending (36.7%) or domestic spending (14.3%) has grown the most out of any part of the federal budget over the past sixty years, only 32.8 percent cite defense spending.  Here, the results of FPI’s national survey accord with the historical record.  When outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the so-called “military-industrial complex” in 1961, 51 cents out of every dollar spent by the federal government went to national defense, while 37 cents went to mandatory entitlements and discretionary domestic programs. In contrast, today less than 19 cents of every dollar spent by the federal government goes to national defense, while more than 72 cents now goes to mandatory entitlements and discretionary domestic programs.
 
America Still a “Force for Good in the World”
 
A very strong majority of Americans say that the United States plays a positive role in international affairs.  In particular, 85.7 percent of respondents believe that the United States is a “force of good in the world”.  Moreover, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92.2%) say it is either very important (56.0%) or somewhat important (36.2%) for America to play a significant role in world affairs.  In short, Americans flatly reject isolationism.
 
Recent Events in Middle East Boost Importance of National Security
 
A plurality of respondents (49.0%) named the economy as their number one concern in determining whom to vote for in the 2012 presidential election.  However, given that the survey was conducted several days after the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials, it appears that this event and recent anti-American protests in the Muslim world have increased the importance of national security to the November 2012 general elections.
 
In particular, 59.8 percent of respondents now believe that recent events in the Middle East have made national security issues more important in their deliberations over whom to vote for in the upcoming presidential election.   Also, an overwhelming majority of Americans (97.3%) said that being prepared to be Commander-in-Chief is either the single most important qualification (18.9%), a very important qualification (67.7%), or a somewhat important qualification (10.7%) for a candidate running for President.
 
Support for Intervention in Syria
 
The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a state sponsor of international terrorism, a possessor of chemical and biological weapons, and Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world.  Over 20,000 Syrian civilians have died since the Assad regime began its campaign of indiscriminate violence to crush the country’s internal political and armed opposition groups in March 2011. 
 
Despite the Obama administration’s reluctance to directly intervene in Syria, a strong majority of Americans (65.8%) support the United States working “with our allies to establish no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians and help ensure a transition to a more pro-Western government instead of the current terrorist-supporting regime of Bashar al-Assad.”  Support for a more active policy towards the Assad regime held strong across party lines, with 62.9 percent of typically Democratic voters and 69.5 percent of typically Republican voters supporting intervention in Syria.  Remarkably, of the respondents who say that recent events in the Middle East make national security issues less important in this year’s presidential election, 75.0 percent of them still believe Washington and its allies should impose no-fly zones to protect embattled civilians and safeguard the emergence of a friendly post-Assad Syria.
 
Terrorism Remains Top Security Concern Eleven Years after 9/11
 
Despite the May 2011 killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Secretary of Defense Panetta’s subsequent claim that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda,” FPI’s national survey shows that Americans continue to view the world as a dangerous place.  Indeed, beyond the Obama administration’s triumphalist rhetoric, the United States is continuing, in reality, to pursue policies specifically designed to isolate, disrupt, and defeat terrorist groups that target the United States and its interests abroad.  That said, President Obama has been loath to publicly say that terrorism remains a significant threat, as illustrated by his administration’s shifting story line regarding the September 2012 terrorist attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya.
 
A majority of Americans (61.2%) do not think that the threat of “additional terrorism on American soil” has decreased since September 11, 2001, with 44.0 percent of respondents saying that threat actually has increased and 17.2 percent saying the threat has stayed constant.  The level of concern about future terrorist attacks against America appears to vary along partisan lines.  Whereas 55.7 percent of self-identified Republicans and 43.0 percent of self-identified Independents say the threat of foreign terrorism within the United States has increased, only 33.3 percent of self-identified Democrats share that view.
 
Afghanistan Still Important
 
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which had aligned itself with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, in order to ensure that the country is never again used as a safe haven for America’s enemies, and also to counter terrorists, insurgents, and their supporters operating inside neighboring Pakistan and elsewhere in the region.  However, President Obama’s June 2011 decision to withdraw the “surge” force of 33,000 U.S. troops by September 2012 complicates efforts by the United States and NATO to sustain and expand security gains in Afghanistan.  With Afghanistan set to assume lead responsibility for its security by 2014, it remains uncertain what U.S. military presence, if any, will remain in the country.
 
According to FPI’s national survey, a plurality of Americans (47.9%) believe the United States “should maintain our troop presence Afghanistan” to ensure that the country does not become a safe haven for terrorists, with only 43.0 percent of respondents supporting withdrawal.  It is significant that public support for success in Afghanistan persists despite the Obama administration’s apparent desire to disengage U.S. troops from the country on a strict publicized timetable.  Moreover, the public’s strength of support for continued military efforts in Afghanistan appears to correlate strongly with political ideology.  Whereas 60.3 percent of self-identified Conservatives support maintaining U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, only 38.2 percent of self-identified Liberals share that view.
 
Support Effective Use of Foreign Assistance
 
Historically, U.S. foreign assistance has played a key role in helping to stabilize post-conflict nations, encourage allies and partners to assume more representative forms of government, and expand economic markets and trade opportunities.  Although Americans now appears skeptical of foreign aid, certain reforms could greatly improve their support for U.S. foreign assistance. 

On the one hand, 53.6 percent of respondents are skeptical of foreign assistance, believing that U.S. foreign aid money is often wasted and unsuccessful in improving U.S. relations with foreign governments.  In particular, a majority of self-identified Moderates (50.6%) and Conservatives (62.7%) are critical of such expenditures—a view articulated during the GOP presidential debates throughout 2012 and perhaps exacerbated by recent events in the Middle East.  In contrast, only 37.5 percent of total respondents say that U.S. foreign aid money serves America’s long-term national security interests by supporting allies and partners.

On the other hand, reforms to improve foreign aid’s efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability may be the key to increasing public support for U.S. foreign assistance.  According to FPI’s national survey, 68.1 percent of self-identified Moderates and 75.0 percent of self-identified Conservatives would support foreign assistance if programs were better reformed and used more efficiently.  This underscores the need for policymakers and lawmakers to adequately fund successful foreign aid programs that not only advance America’s strategic goals, economic interests, and moral values, but also provide greater accountability and transparency to the aid-giving process.  For example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which was established by President Bush in 2004, posts online all assessment reports, program expenditures, and selection criterions in an effort to maximize public transparency and accountability.

Majority of Americans Support U.S. Foreign Trade
 
At a time when the U.S. economy is stagnating and unemployment hovers above 8 percent, a majority of Americans still hold a favorable view of U.S. foreign trade.  According to the survey, 61.9 percent of respondents believe that trade between the United States and foreign countries opens markets to American businesses and helps create jobs at home. 
 
Free trade pacts open America’s market access to foreign countries, which in turn can increase U.S. exports and create new jobs for American workers.  In addition to boosting economic opportunities, strategic trade agreements also can enhance U.S. security by strengthening ties to key global partners.  For example, free-trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia—signed into law in 2011 after much delay—solidified long-term economic ties with major democratic partners in Asia and South America.  The Obama administration expects the U.S.-South Korea agreement to increase American exports by roughly $10 billion annually.
 
While a majority of self-identified Democrats (64.2%), Republicans (59.1%), and Independents (64.0%) view foreign trade as beneficial, responses differed slightly by geographical area.   Voters in the West (71.3%) and the East (65.8%) of the United States were more likely to support trade as a tool to expand American business than voters from the Midwest (57.9%) and the South (57.8%).
 
Liberals Hold More Favorable Views of China and Russia
 
As the People’s Republic of China continues to grow economically and militarily, China tends to elicit more unfavorable opinions (50.9%) than favorable opinions (36.8%) from the American people.  However, self-identified Liberals tended to view China favorably (48.6%) rather than unfavorably (35.1%)—even despite the Communist country’s often illiberal domestic policies, including opposition to free speech, aggressive Internet censorship, actual or de facto state-control of many economic sectors, and disregard for human rights.  In contrast, 52.8 percent of self-identified Moderates saw China unfavorably and 36.6 percent of them favorably.  While 59.5 percent of self-identified Conservatives have an unfavorable opinion of China, only 31.1 percent have a favorable opinion.  In addition, Americans who think the United States is headed in the right direction, or who generally support or plan to vote for President Obama, also tended to view China in a more favorable than unfavorable light.
 
Similar dynamics held with the Russian Federation, which the American people tended to view more unfavorably (50.0%) than favorably (35.0%).  Self-identified Liberals more often held a favorable opinion (43.8%) than unfavorable opinion (38.2%) of Russia, a country that has seen the return of strongman Vladimir Putin to the presidency.  In contrast, while 63.4 percent of self-identified Conservatives have an unfavorable opinion of Russia, only 25.4 percent have a favorable opinion.  As in the case of China, Americans who think the United States is headed in the right direction, or who generally support or plan to vote for President Obama, also tended to view Russia in a more favorable than unfavorable light.
 
Americans Still View Europe Positively
 
Some political candidates like to cite “Europe”—which continues to suffer financial and economic difficulties—as an example of what America risks becoming.  However, FPI’s survey shows that Americans nonetheless continue to positively view Europe.  An overwhelming majority of respondents (92.1%) said that they have a favorable opinion of the United Kingdom.  While 71.2 percent of respondents said they view France favorably, only 19.0 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion.
 
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Greece.  Despite the Mediterranean country’s financial and economic crisis—which has made it a symbol of the euro zone’s problems—nearly half of Americans (49.6%) say they still see Greece favorably, while only 22.6 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view.  Greece’s favorability advantage generally endured regardless of the respondent’s party/ideological affiliation, age, gender, education, or other demographic factors.
 
Americans Strongly Concerned about National Security Leaks
 
Americans uniformly expressed deep concern about reports of widespread leaking of classified program and military options.  Overall, 84.1 percent of respondents—including 75 percent of likely voters firmly undecided between Obama and Romney—expressed a “great deal” or “modest amount” of concern over national security-related information leaks.
 
Conclusion:  Foreign Policy Matters in 2012
 
The conventional wisdom in the United States appears to be that matters of foreign policy will be marginal to the public in the upcoming November 2012 elections.  However, the findings of FPI’s recent national survey make clear that, even despite continuing concerns about the economy and other domestic issues, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92.2%) assign importance to the United States continuing to play a significant role in global affairs, and a very strong majority of Americans (85.7%) still see the United States as a “force for good in the world.”  In short, FPI’s national survey helps to challenge the conventional wisdom by reminding politicians, policymakers, and the American public that Foreign Policy Matters in 2012.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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