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US Role in the World

Rejection of Hegemonic Role

A large majority is opposed to the way it perceives the US playing the role of hegemon or dominant world leader. Americans express surprisingly modest concern for preserving the US role as the sole superpower.

As discussed above, while the majority clearly rejects the idea that the US should withdraw from the world, and supports the US playing a leadership role, there is nonetheless criticism of the current perceived US role. This may well be related to widespread feelings that the US is playing the role of the hegemonic or dominant world leader more than it should be.

Only a small minority supports the idea that the US should take the preeminent leadership role in the world. Gallup has frequently asked about "the role the US should play in trying to solve international problems." In February 2007, only 15% said the US should take "the leading role," while 58% said the US should "take a major role but not the leading role." Another 25% said the US should take a "minor role" (21%) or "no role" (4%). There was a slight bump up in support for the US playing the leading role after September 11, rising to 26% in February 2002, compared to just 16% in February 2001. However, a majority (52%) continued to endorse only a major role in 2002, similar to the 57% who held this view in early 2001.[1]

A majority feels that the US is playing the role of 'world policeman' too much. In the July 2006 Chicago Council poll, 76% agreed that "the US is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be." This is nearly the same as the 80% who held this view in the 2004 Chicago Council poll, and significantly up from 65% in the 2002 Chicago Council poll and 68% in a June 2000 PIPA poll. [2]

Majorities reject the idea that the US has an obligation to play such a role. Asked, "Do you think that the United States has the responsibility to play the role of 'world policeman,' that is, to fight violations of international law and aggression wherever they occur?" only 22% said yes while 75% said no in the July 2006 Chicago Council poll. This is consistent with findings from 2004 and even more emphatic than in 2002 when the Chicago Council found 34% saying yes and 62% saying no. [3] Polls also find the public rejecting the idea that the US has the "ability" to be world policeman: in a February 2003 Time/CNN poll, 56% said it does not.[4]

This rejection of a world policeman role for the US has been in place for some time. Even at the height of the Gulf War in March 1991, when respondents were asked whether "the US should be playing the role of world policeman," 75% said "no," with just 21% saying "yes" (Time/CNN). While the "world policeman" idea fared a little better on later repeats of this question, it was always rejected by healthy majorities (60% no, February 1992; 57% no, January 1993; Los Angeles Times). In a June 1995 ATIF poll, when asked who should be "the policeman of the world," only 19% said United States, while 76% said the United Nations.[5] Rejection of the world policeman role is sustained by a belief that other countries have grown overly dependent on the US for their defense. When asked by PIPA in November 1995, "Do you feel that countries that receive protection from US military capabilities are doing enough to protect themselves, or do you feel that they rely too much on the US?" an overwhelming 89% said that these countries "rely too much on the US." [6]

Furthermore, in PIPA's June 1996 poll, 80% rejected the view that "as the sole remaining superpower...the US [should] spend a larger percentage of its...GNP on defense than its allies," in favor of the notion that "all of the industrialized countries should spend about the same percentage." [7]

However if poll questions only offer the two options of the US taking the leading role or refraining from doing so, Americans' support for international engagement is strong enough to prompt many to endorse the leading role-and this number appears to be rising. From May 1999 through April 2003 Gallup and CBS News asked, "Do you think the United States should or should not take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts?" The percentage endorsing the US playing a leading role has risen from 38% in May 1999, to 41% in May 2000, to 45% in September 2002, and for the first time to a plurality of 48% in April 2003, the month after US forces invaded Iraq. In October 2004 Gallup, for CNN/USA Today asked whether the US should "take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international problems" and a slight majority-53% said that it should, with 45% saying it should not. Similarly when asked to choose between the US taking a leading role in world affairs or staying out of the affairs of other countries, Americans give a divided response. Forty-seven percent said the US should take a leading role, while 45% said it should "stay out of the affairs of other countries" in the September 2006 Public Agenda poll. In all these cases the questions do not really offer the options that elicit a clear majority response.[8]

This desire for the US to not play a domineering role was also reflected in a Beldon and Russonello poll in January 2000. It posed an interesting pair of questions, in which the first one asked: "Which of these best describes the role you think the US currently has in the world?...Bully, teacher, good neighbor, banker, relief worker, policeman." The most popular response was "policeman" at 30%, followed by good neighbor (21%), banker (17%), teacher (13%), bully (9%), and relief worker (8%). When asked what role they would like to see the US play, the big favorite was "good neighbor" at 53%, with "teacher" at 36% and all other options in the single digits-- including policeman at 5%.[9]

The Potential Emergence of Another Superpower

When asked abstractly whether the US should try to maintain its role as the only superpower a plurality or slight majority says that it should. But when asked specifically about the prospect of the European Union or China becoming a comparable power Americans are remarkably sanguine.

When the Chicago Council asked in 2006 whether the US should "make active efforts to ensure that no other country becomes a superpower," 49% said that it should, down from a slight majority of 52% in 2004. Similarly, only a slight majority (55% in 2006 and 50% in 2004) said that "maintaining superior military power worldwide" should be a very important foreign policy goal, ranking seventh out of fourteen goals in both 2006 and 2004.[10]

When asked about sharing military dominance on a global scale, half of Americans prefer to maintain the United States' status as the sole superpower, but this is not strongly felt as the position is rather easily abandoned. In an October 2005 Pew poll a plurality (50%) said that that in the future US policies should "try to keep it so America is the only military superpower." However, only 23% said that this should be the policy even if it "risks alienating our principal allies," while 22% would not want to pursue this policy in that situation. Thirty-five percent initially take the position that it would be acceptable "if China, another country, or the European Union became as militarily powerful as the US."[11]

The prospect of the European Union becoming a parallel superpower elicits a plurality positive view. The German Marshall Fund in May 2005 asked whether they agreed more that "the US should remain the only superpower" or "the EU should become a superpower like the US," Only 36% said that the US should remain the only superpower. Rather a plurality of 47% said that the EU should become a superpower.[12]

The prospect of China rivaling the US elicits more concern but most are still not clearly opposed. For example when asked by the Chicago Council in July 2006 about the possibility of China catching up with the US economically only one in three said this would be mostly bad. A majority (54%) said this would be equally good and bad. However the development of Chinese military power is something that does concern Americans. [See China: China's Growing Economic and Military Power]



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