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US Role in the World

Multilateral Cooperation and International Institutions

A very strong majority favors a US role in the world that puts a greater emphasis on US participation in multilateral efforts to deal with international problems and on a cooperative approach wherein the US is quite attentive to the views of other countries not just US interests. Very strong majorities favor the US working through international institutions (especially the United Nations) and support making international institutions more powerful. Strong majorities favor international law and strengthening international judicial institutions. Americans support US participation in collective security structures and are reluctant to use military force except as part of multilateral efforts. A large majority favors the US using multilateral approaches for dealing with terrorism, addressing international environmental issues, and giving aid for economic development.

So if the majority feels that the US is too domineering and hegemonic, but does not want the US to withdraw from the world, what does it want? The answer is actually fairly clear: Americans strongly support the US putting greater emphasis on actively participating in multilateral efforts to solve international problems.

In a July 2006 Chicago Council poll, respondents were presented three options for America's role in the world. Only 10% embraced the idea that "as the sole remaining superpower, the US should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems." But just 12% chose the option that "the US should withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems." However, an overwhelming 75% endorsed the view that "the US should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries," This was nearly the same level of support as in June 2004 and a larger majority than when the Chicago Council asked the same question in June 2002. In October 2006 WPO asked the same question, but with a different preface: "I would like you to imagine that you heard three Congressional candidates make the following statements." Seventy-two percent said the candidate proposing that the US do its share together with other countries would be most likely to get their support.[1]

As mentioned above, Gallup has repeatedly asked whether the US "in trying to solve international problems" should take "the leading role...a major role but not the leading role...a minor role, or take no role at all" Most recently (February 2007), a 58% majority wanted the US to take a major role, but only 15 percent said the US should take "the leading role". However, support for the US having a considerable role far outweighs the preference for the US having a smaller role: just 21% felt the US should have a "minor role" while only 4% said it should have "no role at all." This majority favoring the US taking a major role has been present since the question was first asked in February 2001, and has been growing since 2005.

Similarly over the past several years, Pew has asked respondents what kind of leadership role they would like to see the US play in the world. In October 2005, a strong majority of 74% said that the US should play "a shared leadership role," while just 12% felt that the US should be "the single world leader." These numbers have remained largely consistent, with the largest majority of 79% believing that the US should have a shared leadership role coming in October 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. At that time, only 3% embraced the isolationist position that the US "shouldn't play any leadership role," growing a bit in in recent years, to 9% in July 2004 and 10% in October 2005.

In all years, those who opted for a shared leadership role were also asked if they wanted the US to be the most active, or about as active as other leading nations. In October 2005 47% of the total sample preferred the US be "about as active" while 25% said it should be the most active of the leading nations." When Pew asked this question in previous years, it elicited similar responses, reaching the greatest preference for the US to be "the most active" in October 2001 (33%) and June 2003 (30%).[2]

Americans show strong support for working in conjunction with allies. The GMF Transatlantic Trends poll from June 2006 showed 91% agreeing (65% strongly) that “when our country acts on national security issues, it is critical that we do so with our closest allies.” The Los Angeles Times asked respondents to choose between two statements: "The United States has a responsibility to fight violations of international law and aggression around the world, even without the cooperation of its allies;" and "the United States should work only in a coordinated effort with its allies to fight violations of international law and aggression around the world." In January 2006, 63% said the US should work only with its allies, up slightly from September 13-14, 2001, when 59% took this position.

Large majorities say that the US should take into account the interests of other countries. Most recently, in September 2006 90% said it was very (49%) or somewhat (41%) important to US foreign policy to "[take] into account the views and interests of other countries" (Public Agenda). In Pew's December 2006 poll, 82% agreed that, "In deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies." This was the same as levels found by Newsweek in March 2003. In June 2002, the Chicago Council found 61% saying that, "In general, in responding to international crises...the United States should...not take action alone, if it does not have the support of its allies." [3]

Further, when the US considers whether to join an international agreement, a majority is likely to take into account what most other countries have chosen to do. In November 2006 WPO asked, "If a large majority of countries in the world have signed an agreement on how to address a major global issue and the United States is considering whether to sign, how much should the United States take into account the fact that a majority of countries have signed the agreement? Sixty-eight percent said either "a lot" (31%) or some (37%); only 27% said "just a little" (16%) or "not at all" (11%).

On the other hand, Americans do think that sometimes the US must act on its interests irrespective of the views of other nations. In the September 2006 Public Agenda poll 79% said it was important to do "what we think is best for our own interests even if other nations oppose us." [3a]

When a dichotomy is posed between taking into account the views of others against simply acting on US interests, a preference for the cooperative approach prevails, though by varying margins. Asked by NBC/Wall Street Journal whether US government leaders "should generally try to consult and work with leaders of other countries before acting" when it comes to foreign policy, or "do what they think is best without worrying about other countries' interests," 73% chose the former. Asked twice in 2003 by Newsweek, overwhelming majorities (78% in March and September) supported working "with major allies and through international organizations" to achieve foreign policy goals, as opposed to extremely small numbers who favored the US "acting mainly on our own." In July 2004, Pew asked how the US should determine its foreign policy, and found a plurality (49%) saying it should "strongly take into account the interests of its allies" as compared to 37% saying it "should be based mostly on the national interests of the US." In December 2004, a Pew poll found 53% agreeing that "In foreign policy, the U.S. (United States) should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them" as opposed to 37% agreeing that "In foreign policy, the U.S. should follow its own national interests even when its allies strongly disagree." [3b]

Finally, as discussed elsewhere Americans are generally quite reluctant to take military action without multilateral approval and/or allied participation except in a small range of circumstances.

Dissatisfaction With Current Policy

Americans tend to express dissatisfaction with the level of diplomacy and cooperation in US foreign policy. In October 2006 only 32% thought that "in its dealings with foreign countries...the Bush administration tries hard enough to reach diplomatic solutions-65% said it "is too quick to get American military forces involved." (WPO/KN).

Consistent with this, for some years a majority has said the Bush administration should put more emphasis on diplomatic and economic methods, compared to military methods. Those wanting this change in emphasis rose from 58% to 67% between September 2003 and October 2006 (WPO/PIPA).[4]

Asked, "When it comes to making decisions on treaties and other policies about the role of the US in the world today, do you think President Bush should pay more attention or should pay less attention to the views of other countries?" Fifty-six percent said that he should pay more attention, (38% said less) in April 2006, while when asked in October 2004, 65% had said pay more attention (just 26% said less). However, 57% felt that the Bush administration should pay more attention even when the question was first asked in August 2001(CNN/USA Today).[5]

Public discontent with the Bush administration's consideration of US allies in the foreign policy making process is also evident. Asked in January 2005 if they thought the Bush administration was "taking into account the interests and views of our allies" too much, too little, or about the right amount, only 44% said it was about the right amount, while 34% said their views were not taken into account enough (Pew). This sentiment has remained consistent from previous years, reaching a near even divide in July 2004. Fewer than 20% each time have felt that the Bush administration takes our allies views into account too much in making foreign policy.[5a]

In September 2003, PIPA asked whether, "thinking about how the Bush administration has been acting in relation to other countries over the last two years," the Bush administration has tended to be "too assertive" or "too cooperative." Fifty-four percent found the Bush administration too assertive; 28% thought the administration "has the balance just right"; and 14% said the administration was too cooperative.[5b]

Numerous polls show strong support for the US cooperating with other countries to solve international problems. In fact, a PBS study conducted in June 2004 found that 45% considered "increased cooperation between the US and Cold War enemies like Russia and China" to be the most important foreign policy success of the United States in the past 15 years, more than double any other item offered.[5c]

When respondents are exposed to budget information about US spending for foreign policy, defense, and security, on average they increase funding for items that include cooperative and multilateral activities. WPO presented a budget exercise in October 2006 in which every item was part of the national foreign policy and security budget. (Respondents were not allowed to increase the overall amount allocated.) On average, respondents increased funds for the UN and UN peacekeeping more than four-fold, and funds to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons "such as helping other countries secure nuclear weapons" more than fifteen-fold.[5d]

International Institutions

Americans also show strong support for the US working through international institutions. When presented, in October 2006, two statements on methods for dealing with international problems like terrorism and the environment, 69% agreed that to address such problems "it will be increasingly necessary for the US to work through international institutions," while only 23% agreed with the one that argued that it is better for the US to act on its own because "international institutions are slow and bureaucratic, and often used as places for other countries to criticize and block the US," (WPO/PIPA). This majority has grown steadily since October 1999, when 56% agreed with the former statement.[6]

Americans also show a readiness for the US to abide by the decisions of international institutions, even when they go against the US. When the Chicago Council asked in June 2006, "If another country files a complaint with the World Trade Organization and it rules against the U.S., as a general rule, should the U.S. (United States) comply with that decision or not?" 73% said that the US should comply. (The Chicago Council asked this question in June 2004 and June 2002, and WPO/PIPA in January 2004 and October 1999, with support for compliance increasing steadily.) [7]

Americans are particularly supportive of working through the United Nations. Numerous polls show overwhelming majorities supporting the existence of the UN and US participation in it. [See United Nations: General Attitudes Towards the UN]

The UN plays a very central role in Americans' thinking about the legitimacy of its using military force. In the event that it is necessary for the US to use military force, whenever possible, a strong majority prefers to act through the UN. A plurality even prefers acting through the UN over acting through NATO. Except when it comes to acting in self-defense, Americans are quite resistant to using military force without UN approval. [See United Nations: The United Nations and the Use of Military Force]

Americans show strong support for strengthening international institutions-something that could create greater pressures and constraints on US action. For example in June 2002, the Chicago Council asked about the option of strengthening a number of international institutions. Though the question mentioned that some people "say that this would only create bigger, unwieldy bureaucracies," majorities favored strengthening the World Health Organization (80%), the United Nations (77%), the World Trade Organization (63%), and the World Court (56%).[8]

When Americans are asked about enforcement mechanisms for international treaties that would apply to all signatory countries, this can get a positive majority, while vague questions about general compliance may not. For example, an August 2004 National Opinion Research Center survey found no clear response to such controversial statements as "International organizations are taking away too much power from the American government." Only 34% agreed with the statement, while 31% disagreed and 30% neither agreed nor disagreed. Similarly, when given the statement, "In general, America should follow the decisions of international organizations to which it belongs, even if the government does not agree with them," respondents were nearly evenly divided among agreement, disagreement, or indifference.[8a] However, when NORC asked about the ability of international organizations to enforce compliance with their rulings on certain issues like environmental pollution, a clear majority (60%) agreed that "international bodies should have the right to enforce solutions" for certain problems, like environmental pollution, while just 17% disagreed. Giving a concrete circumstance where an international body might override national government generates more support than blanket US government compliance with international organizations' rulings.[8b]

Numerous polls have found that Americans would like the UN to be stronger. Only a small minority are concerned that a stronger UN might compromise US sovereignty. Even some proposals for giving the UN the power to tax receive majority support. [See United Nations: General Attitudes Towards the UN]

A strong majority is even ready to support international intervention in the internal affairs of countries, especially when atrocities are being committed or civilians are suffering as a result of war. [See Globalization: International Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States]

International Law and Treaties

Consistent with, and perhaps underlying, their support for multilateral institutions and approaches is support for the idea of international law-again, something that could constrain US action. Perhaps the highest test of support for an idea is the willingness to put US troops in harm's way. When the Chicago Council asked respondents in June 2002 about their support for using US troops for a number of possible purposes, one of the highest scoring, endorsed by 76%, was to "uphold international law."[9]

Americans also show support for developing new international judicial institutions. In the July 2006 Chicago Council poll, 71% favored US participation in the International Criminal Court. When in October 2006 WPO presented pro and con arguments, including the administration's argument that US troops may be dragged in front of the court on trumped up charges, support was still 68% in favor of participation. [10]

Support for the World Court is also fairly strong. Fifty-six percent favored strengthening the World Court (Chicago Council, June 2002). In the June 2004 Chicago Council poll 57% supported granting compulsory jurisdiction.[11]

Americans show strong support for the US participating in arms control treaties-which inherently constrain US options. An October 2005 Pew study showed that 70% favored the US signing a treaty to "reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons, including our own."[12] In the 2006 Chicago Council poll 86% supported the US participating in the comprehensive test ban treaty and in the 2004 Chicago Council poll 80% supported US participation in the land mines treaty.[13] In May 2002 82% approved of the "agreement between the United States and Russia to substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each of these countries" (Gallup).[14]

Perhaps the most important of all arms control treaties is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, that the United States signed in 1968. An overwhelming majority endorses US participation in the NPT, even when informed that this commits the US to seek to eliminate its nuclear weapons together with other nuclear weapon states. In November 2006 WPO found only a bare majority (51%) aware that the US and most countries of the world had signed the NPT, but this was up sharply from March 2004 when just 39% knew. Nonetheless, when respondents were told that "according to this treaty, the countries that have nuclear weapons have agreed to actively work together toward eliminating their nuclear weapons" while "countries that do not have nuclear weapons, including Iran, have agreed not to try to acquire them," 78% approved of US participation.[14a]

More specifically, 82% supported the "goal of eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons, which is stated in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." When asked "Do you approve of the United States continuing to be a member...or do you think the US should withdraw?" 79% thought the US should remain in the NPT. When asked how well the United States was fulfilling its obligation to "actively work together" with other members of the NPT "toward eliminating nuclear weapons," 15% said the US was doing very well, 40% somewhat well, 28% not very well and 9% not at all well.[14b]

Collective Security

A cornerstone of American support for the multilateral use of force is the principle of collective security. In November 1995, PIPA presented the following question:

The UN was established on the principle of collective security, which says that when a UN member is attacked by another country, UN members should help defend the attacked nation. Some say the US should contribute its military forces to such UN efforts, because then potential aggressors will know that aggression will not succeed. Others say the US should not contribute troops to such efforts, because American troops may be put at risk in operations that are not directly related to US interests. Do you think the US should or should not contribute troops to UN efforts to help defend UN members if they are attacked?

Sixty-nine percent said that the US should contribute troops to such UN efforts, while 23% said the US should not.[15]

Americans continue to support US participation in the collective security structure of NATO. In the June 2004 Chicago Council poll, only 20% wanted to either decrease the US commitment to NATO (14%) or withdraw from it (6%). However, 72% favored either keeping the commitment the same (58%) or increasing it (14%). As of June 2006, 61 percent said that NATO is still essential (GMF).[16]

Support for NATO expansion also reflects the support the general principle of collective security and cooperative multilateral approaches. In the February-April 1998 PIPA poll that found 61% in support of expanding NATO, the most popular argument in support of doing so (rated as convincing by 80%) was that "It is better to include Eastern European countries rather than to exclude them, because peace is more likely if we all communicate and work together." The second strongest pro argument was based on a core principle of collective security--76% found convincing the argument that "it is important for potential aggressors to know that they cannot get away with conquering countries."[17]

While the public's support for following through on bilateral commitments to use military force to protect countries from aggression is quite soft, support for doing so as part of a multilateral effort is quite strong. The Chicago Council poll found that when respondents were asked about defending countries against aggression without mention of the UN, support was quite low for protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraq, for protecting South Korea from North Korea, and for protecting Israel from Arab forces. But when asked about participating in a UN operation to protect these countries, support was much higher. This greater readiness to contribute to multilateral effort and also for the US to be constrained from using military force without UN approval is discussed in-depth elsewhere. [See United Nations: The United Nations and the Use of Military Force]

Americans also favor sizing US defense capabilities to the assumption that the US will fulfill its commitments to protect other countries in a multilateral fashion. In a February 2005 PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll, offered three options, just 17% wanted the US to "spend enough so that it can protect itself and other countries on its own," while just 11% wanted the US to "only spend enough to protect itself but not to protect other countries." A strong majority of 69% wanted the US to "only spend enough to protect itself and to join in efforts to protect countries together with allies or through the UN." [18]

In general, for the US to take the kind of multilateral approach to the use of military force that Americans say they want, it would be necessary to put more reliance on the other members of a cooperative multilateral system. There is evidence that Americans are ready to do so. In a November 1995 PIPA poll respondents were presented with some of the complexities of relying on allies to carry part of the responsibility for protecting shared interests. They were asked:

Right now the US has a world-wide military presence which protects its interests, such as oil in the Persian Gulf region. US allies who share these interests, like the Europeans and Japan, also benefit from this US military presence. Some people feel that these allies should contribute more military forces to protect these interests so that the US can reduce its burden. Others do not like this idea because, they say, we cannot be fully confident that allies will effectively protect shared interests. Do you favor or oppose the idea of allies taking over some of these responsibilities so that the US can reduce its presence abroad?

An overwhelming 79% favored having the allies take over some of these responsibilities, with only 19% opposed.[19]

To test this attitude with a concrete case, respondents were asked to consider the possibility of having the Persian Gulf policed by "a multinational naval patrol with ships from different countries as well as the US." The complexities of this idea were also introduced with the comment, "Most likely this would reduce the burden on the US but also mean having shared command with other countries." Nevertheless, 72% said they would favor such a multinational naval patrol over the US doing the patrolling on its own.[20]

Respondents also showed strong support for putting more emphasis on acting multilaterally to maintain US commitments to protect other countries. When presented four different options for dealing with US commitments to protect other countries only 7% wanted to "withdraw" US commitments, while only 5% wanted to maintain its commitments by acting "primarily on its own." An overwhelming majority favored more multilateral approaches. The largest number, 49%, favored the US maintaining its commitments but "whenever possible" acting "together with allies or through the UN." Thirty-eight percent wanted to see the US "change its commitments to protect countries so that it is only committed to protecting them together with allies or through the UN." [21]

Dealing with Terrorism

A very large majority favors the US dealing with the problem of terrorism in a multilateral fashion. When an October 2006 poll by WPO asked "What do you think is the more important lesson of September 11th",72% answered that "the US needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism," while 24% said that "the US needs to act on its own more to fight terrorism." This is up from 61% favoring a multilateral approach in the June 2002 Chicago Council poll.

In the October 2006 WPO/KN poll 94% thought it was important "for the war on terrorism to be seen by the world as an effort of many countries working together, not just a US effort" (73% very important-up from 67% in September 2003). A September 2003 Ipsos-Reid poll also showed 70% felt that "the war on terrorism should be a cooperative effort involving many countries that agree on goals and war plans," as opposed to only 27% who identified more with "the war on terrorism is something the US should conduct according to its own plan and goals, regardless of what other countries think."

(It should be noted that if a question sets up a dichotomy between US interests and the interests of allies, the public has no majority view. In August 2003 Pew asked whether the US should "determine its policy [on] the war on terrorism...based mostly on the national interests of the US, or should it strongly take into account the interests of its allies?" This wording is confusing because it implies that the interests of the US and its allies are inherently opposed-begging the question of why they are allied with each other. Forty-eight percent picked national interests, 35% picked allies' interests, and 9% percent volunteered "both").[22]

Americans not only prefer a multilateral approach to addressing terrorism-they also perceive that a unilateral approach can be counterproductive. A December 2004 Opinion Research Corporation poll found 71% agreed (44% strongly) with the statement that "When the United States acts alone against terrorism, it makes itself a bigger target than when it cooperates with other nations in a coordinated crackdown on terrorism." [22a]

The support for the multilateral approach is evident in questions that offer different approaches to take against international terrorism. The Chicago Council found in 2004 that 88% supported "working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them," and 82% wanted to see the "trial of suspected terrorists in an International Criminal Court." Likewise, in September 2003 79% wanted to make "setting up an international system to cut off funding for terrorism" a higher priority, and 76% said the same about "setting up a UN database of terrorists to which all countries would contribute" (PIPA, September 2003).[22b]

These attitudes were very strong in late 2001, only a few months after the September 11 attacks. Overwhelming majorities favored seeking UN Security Council approval for military action against terrorism. In a September 19-24, 2001 Harris poll, 84% said that it was important (54% very, 30% somewhat) to "get the support of the United Nations--including a vote of the Security Council--supporting our response to the attacks, even if this means exercising more restraint than we'd like." [22c]

Contrary to US policy at the time, a very strong majority favored including other countries' forces in the military action in Afghanistan. In the November 1-4, 2001 PIPA poll, only 24% thought it would be better to not get more countries involved and then have to make joint decisions with them; 73% said "it would be better if more countries would join with us, because then it would be an international effort, not just an American one." In a September 14-18, 2001 Associated Press poll, an extraordinary 90% said that the United Nations should "play a major role in pulling countries together to fight against terrorism." [22d] Overwhelming majorities supported the UN Security Council being able to require UN members to allow a UN-sponsored police force to enter countries and conduct investigations (70%), to freeze the assets of suspected terrorist groups (86%), to provide intelligence on them (88%), to arrest them (87%), and if the member country refuses to do so, to send in an international military force to capture suspected terrorists (82%) (PIPA, November 2001).[22e]

International Environmental Issues

A strong majority thinks there should be international agreements on environmental standards, and that the US should abide by them. Americans nearly unanimously recognize the importance of cooperating on environmental problems.[23] When given arguments for and against making more international agreements on the environment, a strong majority finds arguments in favor to be convincing, while a majority rejects arguments against the idea as unconvincing. [See Globalization: International Environmental Agreements]

A very strong majority of the US public embraces the idea that global warming is a real and serious problem. [See: Global Warming: The Reality and Urgency of Global Warming]. A strong majority of Americans supports an international approach to the problem and favors the US abiding by and ratifying the Kyoto Treaty. [See Global Warming: Kyoto Treaty].

Giving Aid in a Multilateral Framework

When it comes to giving foreign aid, a majority also prefers to give aid through the UN rather than doing so bilaterally. The benefits of making sure that other countries do their fair share and that efforts will be coordinated outweigh the benefits of the US having more control over how the money is spent and getting more credit and influence over the country receiving the aid.

Given two statements in a November 2000 PIPA poll, a solid majority expressed a preference for giving aid through multilateral institutions rather than bilaterally, even when the potential advantages of bilateral aid were pointed out. Fifty-seven percent agreed with the following statement:

When giving foreign aid, it is best for the US to participate in international efforts, such as through the UN. This way it is more likely that other countries will do their fair share and that these efforts will be better coordinated.

Only 39% preferred the statement:

When giving foreign aid it is best for the US to do so on its own because that way the US has more control over how the money is spent and will get more credit and influence in the country receiving the aid.[24]

In the context of a multilateral effort Americans even express a willingness to increase spending on aid-something they are not willing to do in purely unilateral context. This has been demonstrated in regard to increasing spending to meet the Millennium Development Goals and to reach the 0.7 percent of GDP standard.

In a June 2005 PIPA poll, respondents were told, "As you may know, the US and other wealthy countries have set for themselves a series of goals, called the Millennium Development Goals. These call for reducing hunger by half, providing basic sanitation in poor countries, and other goals by the year 2015." They were then asked to assume that the costs would either be an average of $15, $30 or $50 "a year per taxpaying household in the wealthy countries" and that "other countries were willing to give this much." [See note explaining these cost estimates.] Overall 71% said that the US should be willing to give the $15, $30 or $50. There was no significant difference in the level of support depending on the amount assumed. Democrats were only slightly more likely to approve than Republicans.[25]

Another similar idea is that wealthy countries should commit to spend seven-tenths of one percent of their GDP to address world poverty, especially in Africa. The 0.7 percent target was first established in a UN General Assembly Resolution in 1970, and it has been reiterated by other international agreements. However, the only countries that are currently meeting this target are Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Sixty-five percent of Americans favored the US making such a commitment, provided that the other wealthy countries do so as well (PIPA, June 2005). In October 2005 GMF poll proposed the same idea and asked if "this level of development assistance [is] too high, too low or about right." A 59% majority said it was either about right (40%) or too low (19%).[25a]



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