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How Americans See the US

The recent Pew Survey polled a wide cross-section of Americans for their views on, among other issues, the state of the US today, the performance of the Bush administration and the role of their country in world affairs. The survey report noted that this was the most "negative national assessment" in nearly a decade.

Letter from America

academics, and state and local government officials now see it as a top priority.

How Americans See the US

The recent Pew Survey polled a wide cross-section of Americans for their views on, among other issues, the state of the US today, the performance of the Bush administration and the role of their country in world affairs. The survey report noted that this was the most “negative national assessment” in nearly a decade.


very four years the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press does a survey on what Americans think about their country and its place in the world. The most recent one was released in November. It polls decisionmakers from the media, covering newspapers, magazines, television and radio, the foreign policy and international security policy elite, a sample of governors of American states and mayors of major cities, the heads of think tanks and leaders of universities, religious leaders, scientists and engineers, the military, along with the public. It contains a wealth of material about the present moment and longer term trends.

The new survey found that about twothirds of Americans were dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country today, while 29 per cent of Americans said they were satisfied. The report notes that this is “the most negative national assessment in nearly 10 years”. In 1997, 45 per cent were satisfied and 49 per cent dissatisfied. Even more Americans are dissatisfied about the state of the world, over three-quarters are gloomy.

An important part of this unease is the sense Americans have of the current standing of their country in the world. Twothirds of them say the US is less respected by other countries than in the past, while 21 per cent say things haven’t changed, only 9 per cent say it is more respected now. An overwhelming majority of Americans (71 per cent) and opinion leaders (87 per cent) believe the war in Iraq is a major factor in this. Where the elite sees US support for Israel as a major cause of the problem, over half the public thinks one of the important causes is the war on terrorism. The elite and public in roughly equal measure (50-60 per cent) sees America’s wealth and power as a significant source of global discontent about the US. One-third of the American public identifies globalisation as a source of international discontent about their country.

The public has very different priorities from the Bush administration. There are signs of a growing isolationist sentiment. The percentage of Americans who say the US should “mind its own business internationally” has risen to 42 per cent; in December 2002, just 30 per cent believed this. The proportion of Americans who support the use of military force against other countries that threaten the US has fallen from 60 per cent a year ago to just over 50 per cent.

For the public, protecting the jobs of American workers is as important as defending the nation against terrorism (84 per cent vs 86 per cent). More of them think jobs are a top priority than preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. No more than 30 per cent in any elite group or the public rates US promotion of democracy in other countries as a major long-term goal. The Bush administration’s declared aim of bringing democracy to west Asia is seen as a good idea but one that will not succeed by 36 per cent of the public, slightly more than those who think it is an effort that will probably work. A substantial 22 per cent think the whole notion is a bad idea. Elite opinion is far more pessimistic about the possible success of the Bush goal of promoting democracy.

Dealing with climate change and the global environment has become increasingly important for many in the elite as a longrange foreign policy priority of the US. Over half the news media, foreign affairs and security elite, think tank leaders, Scientists and engineers are the most concerned (86 per cent see this as critical), religious leaders are less concerned (44 per cent), and the military give it even lower importance (only 26 per cent see it as a top priority). The public however sees it as becoming less of a priority, the proportion that sees it as a top priority has fallen from 56 per cent in 1993 to 43 per cent now.

Rating the Government

The Bush administration fares badly. About half (51 per cent) disapprove of Bush’s handling of the nation’s overall foreign policy, and 57 per cent disapprove of his handling of Iraq. The war on terrorism since September 11, 2001 is seen as having achieved little: about 41 per cent say terrorists have the same ability as then to launch a major strike on the US, 26 per cent believe terrorists are even more capable of mounting a major attack, and only 29 per cent say terrorists’ capabilities have been curtailed. The public sees luck (45 per cent) rather than government policy (33 per cent) as the most likely cause of why there has been no attack on the US since September 11.

The public response is to want the government to do more; 48 per cent are more concerned that the government has not gone far enough to protect them, while 34 per cent worry more that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties. A large fraction of Americans are even supportive of the use of torture against suspected terrorists. Nearly half of the public (46 per cent) says this can be justified. The elite are much more opposed. About half the elite (except those in the news media and in state and local government) think torture can never be justified, with security experts being the most opposed (59 per cent).

The survey probed an important question about the future. It asked “In the future, should US policies try to keep it so that America is the only military superpower or let another power grow to be as powerful?” The answers were interesting: 50 per cent of the public believed the US should try to stay the most powerful

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

state in the world while 37 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women were willing to accept another state becoming as powerful. But this support for a dominant US varied with age – among Americans under 30 years of age, only 45 per cent wanted the US to be the most powerful state and 40 per cent would accept another state as powerful. Among those over 66 years old, 56 per cent wanted the US to be the most powerful state and only 24 per cent were comfortable if another state were to become as powerful.

Education, and by implication class, matters too. Among college graduates, a majority 45 per cent (as compared to 43 per cent) were not concerned if another state were to become as powerful as the US. Religious commitment makes a big difference too. White evangelical Christians (63 per cent) and Catholics (55 per cent) were much more in favour of having the US stay on as the sole superpower. In comparison, among those who described themselves as secular, only 35 per cent wanted the US as the dominant power, and 50 per cent were willing to see another states as powerful.

Almost three-out-of-four Americans wanted the US to share its leadership role in the world, with about 10 per cent wanting the US to behave as the single leader in the world, slightly more than those who wanted the US to play no leadership role at all. This echoed a 2004 poll that asked “Since the US is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying too much about whether other countries agree with us or not”, and found that 79 per cent of Americans disagreed. This was apparently the highest number that has ever disagreed with this question, at least as far back as 1964.

US in the World

Since 1993, the Pew survey has asked those who believed in shared leadership “should the United States be the most assertive of the leading nations, or should it be no more or less assertive than other leading nations?” It has found that consistently over these 20 or so years a quarter of the public has believed that the US should be the most assertive state, while twice as many (around 50 per cent) believed the US should be no more or less assertive than other states. This does not translate into greater support for the UN.

Today, only about half of the public have a favourable opinion about the UN and believe the US should cooperate more fully with the UN. In the early 1990s, this was the opinion of about 70 per cent of Americans.

On nuclear weapons, 70 per cent of the public supports signing an international treaty to reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons, including those of the US. This is both encouraging and discouraging. It suggests nuclear abolition would meet with widespread public support. But it also highlights that Americans do not know their government has already signed such a treaty – the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A 2004 poll found almost 60 per cent of Americans did not know that a commitment to disarmament was part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This study also found that most Americans have little idea of the size and character of the US nuclear arsenal. When asked “How many nuclear weapons do you think the US has in the US, or on submarines, that are ready to be used on short notice”, more than half offered an estimate of 200 weapons or less. The real number is over 6,000 nuclear warheads, with more than 2,000 on high alert. Less than one in five thought the US had 1,000 weapons or more.

There is considerable ignorance about which other states have nuclear weapons. Large majorities of the public know Russia and China have them. But the list then moves to North Korea (74 per cent) and Pakistan (59 per cent). More of them (55 per cent) mistakenly think Iran has nuclear weapons than know that Britain (52 per cent), India (51 per cent), Israel (48 per cent) and France (38 per cent) actually have these weapons. The poll shows over 40 per cent of Americans believe Japan and Germany have nuclear weapons.

To test how knowledge about international affairs correlates with opinions, the survey asked the respondents three fairly straightforward factual questions about North Korea, Israel and Palestine and Russia. Only 28 per cent answered all three questions correctly, while 38 per cent could answer one or two of the questions correctly, and 34 per cent got none of the questions right. The poll found that those who are most knowledgeable about international affairs (i e, answered the questions correctly) have a more internationalist perspective. Those who offered the wrong answers to all the questions by and large saw the world as more dangerous, were concerned more about terrorism, feared other states becoming more powerful, worried less about how the US is seen by others, and wanted American jobs to be protected. American politics will play itself out on this ground of widespread and fearful ignorance and insecurity.



[The Pew survey is at reports/display.php3?PageID=1016.]

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Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

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