CREDIT: 2020 <a href=>survey of attitudes</a>, U.S. Global Engagement program. Map provided by <a href=>Pixabay (CC)</a>.
CREDIT: 2020 survey of attitudes, U.S. Global Engagement program. Map provided by Pixabay (CC).

What Do Americans Think . . .

Mar 9, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The U.S. Global Engagement project at the Carnegie Council has been conducting a survey of attitudes about U.S. foreign policy with an eye to understanding where Americans are prepared to accept risks or prioritize tradeoffs with competing clusters of values and interests.

While the survey is still running, I'd like to share some preliminary tabulations (I referred to some of the results on a recent podcast as well). At a later point, we'll break down the data by age, location, etc. but these are some of the overall figures.

First, nearly half of the respondents believe that the world has become more dangerous during their lifetimes, with a little over a third taking the opposite tack, that the world has become safer. Almost eight in 10, however, believe that the United States will face a major cataclysm in the next two decades—economic, environmental, etc.

Second, the results were split on the question of whether the default setting for world affairs was competition, cooperation or confrontation. Only about 11 percent saw confrontation as the norm, but there was an even split between viewing the international system as competitive versus cooperative.

In keeping with other surveys we have seen—the Vox Populi from the Eurasia Group Foundation, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, etc., the Carnegie survey respondents rejected isolationism by an overwhelming majority, and wanted the United States to continue to play a leading role in world affairs. But, in keeping with the conclusions found in the 2019 report The Search for a New Narrative, respondents want to amend or fine-tune that role. Three-quarters of respondents felt that the U.S. over-relied on the military instrument of power. We saw a good deal of uncertainty with the extent to which U.S. foreign policy ought to always prioritize values, or when, in pursuit of a foreign policy objective, domestic interests ought to be subordinated.

For me, two questions which touch on ongoing events were quite fascinating. Given the crisis in Idlib, the question of intervening in Syria has returned to the table. 44 percent supported intervention, but the remaining answers were split between a definitive "no" or being unsure whether to support that option. Similarly, asked about a peace deal in Afghanistan that would not secure equal rights for women, 41 percent would support, 31 percent would oppose, and the remainder were unsure.

On the question of accepting higher energy prices to encourage de-coupling from Saudi Arabia, however, an overwhelming majority—some 83 percent—indicated a favorable response. And there were similar levels of support for the option of the U.S. accepting limits on its preferences if it would secure tangible support from other countries to pursue a multilateral approach to problems.

How will this translate at the ballot box? 91 percent said that the foreign policy stances of presidential and Congressional candidates were important to them, but on the question of whether a respondent would vote for a candidate whose domestic agenda they supported but with whose foreign policy they disagreed, the picture was far less clear: roughly 1/3 said disagreements on foreign policy would prevent them from casting a favorable vote, 1/3 said they would still support on the basis of the domestic agenda, and 1/3 were unsure.

We'll continue to monitor and see how these survey results track with real world observations.

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