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Journalists’ Roundtable: Council on Foreign Relations/Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Foreign Policy Poll

Speakers: Andrew Kohut, director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, James M. Lindsay, vice president and director of studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy, Council on Foreign Relations
August 17, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations


Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, D.C.

(Note: The following is a transcript of the speakers’ opening remarks.)

LEE FEINSTEIN: And we’re very lucky to have Andy Kohut with us for this excellent poll. This is part of a long-standing link that Andy and the Council have, and here Andy prepares his polls and we discuss some of the content. Andy then disregards anything we have to say and we get to say we’re [working] in collaboration with him. [Laughter.] But seriously, it makes a major contribution to the debate, and this is a particularly important poll because it’s one of a series that looks at how Americans view their role in the world. And we’re really delighted that you could join us today.

We also have Walter Russell Mead, Jim Lindsay, and myself. And after Andy walks us through the poll, each of us will make some brief comments. This is on the record, but the poll is embargoed until noon tomorrow, which means that those of you who write the daily papers are writing for Thursday’s paper. And Council fellows, whosever ears we may whisper into at one time or another, we’re all speaking obviously in our Council on Foreign Relations capacities.

Before we start, why don’’t we just go around the room and introduce ourselves. Lee Feinstein, Council on Foreign Relations.

ANDREW KOHUT: Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

BARBARA SLAVIN: Barbara Slavin of USA Today.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Robin Wright, The Washington Post.

ELIZABETH GROSS: Elizabeth Gross, the Pew Research Center.


SHARON OTTERMAN: Sharon Otterman from the Council on Foreign Relations.

TYLER MARSHALL: Tyler Marshall with the Los Angeles Times.

LISA TODOROVICH: Lisa Todorovich, ABC News.

JAMES LINDSAY: I’m Jim Lindsay with the Council on Foreign Relations.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Walter Mead, Council on Foreign Relations.

MARIE HORRIGAN: Marie Horrigan at UPI [United Press International].

KASIM CINDEMIR: Kasim Cindemir, Turkish daily Hurriyet.

BARRY SCHWEID: Barry Schweid, Associated Press.

WILL LESTER: Will Lester with Associated Press.

BILL ROBERTS: Bill Roberts with Bloomberg News.

SAID ARIKAT: Said Arikat with Al Quds Daily.

NADIA BILBASSY: Nadia Bilbassy with Al-Arabiya Television.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Carroll Doherty, Pew Research Center.

MELINDA ARONS: Sorry, I’m late. I’m Melinda Arons, ABC News.

FEINSTEIN: Well, with that, why don’t we turn it directly over to Andy.

KOHUT: OK. Let me just give you a few of the highlights. First, let me tell you, as background, these are— this is a survey series that started in the early 1990s, when Tyler, Robbie, and I were all working— [laughs]--for the same organization. And our collaboration with CFR [Council on Foreign Relations] has been a very important one to us and has extended over the past four or five years, I guess. And contrary to what Lee said, we took a lot of counsel in developing these questions and focusing [inaudible] his comments and those at CFR.

The read on the poll is that for the first time since the Vietnam era, national security issues are looming larger than economic concerns in a presidential election year. If you look at the long-term Gallup [poll] trend compared to what we are finding this year and what Gallup is finding in this year that should be abundantly clear.

Now the September 11 attacks have raised the stakes for the American public as to who’s elected president. And as people consider their choices for president, with respect to foreign policy, at least, and many domestic issues as well, we see deep divisions and conflicting sentiments within the public. And this is shown in this poll of more than 2,000 people that we conducted nationwide in July. We updated it with a survey just last week or the week before of 1,500 adults, to get more contemporary attitudes toward Iraq and attitudes towards approval of [President George W.] Bush [since] the Democratic convention.

I think the most important thing to— that comes out of this survey is that dissatisfaction with Iraq is shaping opinions about foreign policy attitudes as much, if not more, than people’s concerns about— continuing concerns about terrorism. Both attitudes, however, informed the public’s views on foreign policy and domestic— foreign policy and security issues, and domestic issues as well. Looking at this tension between Iraq and concerns about terrorism, I was struck by one factoid, and that is, when we asked people what are some of the qualities they want to see in the foreign policy, about as many people chose a decisive foreign policy as chose a cautious approach to foreign policy. And the Republicans opted for decisive and the Democrats opted for cautious, one over the other.

Now more generally, on the Iraq side of the ledger, so to speak, Americans have become acutely aware and are troubled by the loss of international respect for the United States all around the world. We have 67 percent saying the United States is less respected. There’s another form of the question that shows that people say that America is less well-liked. But I think the respected dimension, or the respected issue, is more important than our popularity around the world, and most people who hold this view say it’s an important problem. And holding this view is strongly related to how you feel about Iraq.

Overall, a majority of Americans rate improving relations with the allies as a top foreign policy priority. And as we did— as we found in the surveys that we took pre-9/11 attacks, a majority of the public or plurality of the public holds the view that the nation’s foreign policy should strongly take into account the views of U.S. allies, rather than be based mostly on the national interests of the United States. Now, when we asked that question in a different form, with respect to terrorism, we still find, however, a slim plurality saying U.S. interests should come first or ahead of taking into account the interests of our allies. And there is this tension between foreign policy and the way the public looks at terrorism.

And the threat of terrorism continues to inform public attitudes. Despite reservations about the war in Iraq, despite the fact that 60 percent say the Bush administration was too quick to use force and doesn’t try diplomatic solutions enough, we still see sustained support for the doctrine of pre-emption. You can have a 60 percent majority saying they believe that the use of military force can at least be sometimes justified against countries that threaten us but have not attacked us. That is not a lot different than we got in certain surveys that we did when Iraq was being judged a success. But the fact that the numbers aren’t different hides an essential finding: that is, Republicans are [now] more supportive of the notion of pre-emption [than] a year ago and Democrats are much less. So on balance, we have the same national attitude, but a wider gap on this very fundamental issue with respect to national security.

We also see support for hard-line antiterrorism measures both domestically and overseas. By a 49 to 29 percent margin, people are more concerned that the government has not gone far enough to protect the country from terrorism than are concerned that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, when we posed the two. The poll also finds 43 percent think that torture can, at least sometimes, be justified in gaining important information from suspected terrorists. Yeah, that was my reaction too.

[There are] big partisan gaps on these issues. On the terrorist-civil liberties trade-off, 56 percent of Bush supporters are more concerned that we haven’t gone far enough; [Democratic nominee John] Kerry supporters are divided on this question. Similarly, 52 percent of Republicans think that torture can often be, or sometimes be, justified; just 38 percent of Democrats hold that view. And a growing number of Democrats and independents believe that U.S. wrongdoing in dealings with other countries might have motivated the 9/11 attacks. That was not their point of view in the months following the September 11 attacks. But Republicans reject that view, even more so than they did back on September 11. We’ve written a lot, talked a lot about polarization, the differences between Republicans and Democrats on big issues. And I was struck by how much bigger these numbers are than the numbers we found a year ago when we wrote our report about evenly divided and increasingly polarized; it’s remarkable.

Republicans and Democrats also see America’s place in the world differently. Increasing numbers of Republicans and independents, but not Democrats, believe the United States is more powerful than it was a decade ago. Democratic perceptions haven’t changed. More Republicans think that the United States should be a leader of the world, or at least play a first-among-equals role. This is a minority point of view among Democrats. And there are different points of view on foreign policy priorities. Democrats rate protecting jobs— the jobs of American workers— and combating terrorism about equally. For Republicans, combating terrorism is by far the most important foreign policy priority. Likewise, more Republicans than Democrats view preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] as a top priority. But Democrats attach greater urgency to strengthening the U.N. [United Nations], dealing with world hunger, and reducing the spread of AIDS.

I might add that generally— which means Democrats as well as independents and even some Republicans— reflect more support for dealing with global social problems than we found in the polls that we conducted right after the 9/11 attacks. There’s higher priority for dealing with AIDS [and] there’s higher priority for dealing with world hunger than we found in late 2001.

Public opinion on international issues unrelated to terrorism in Iraq, such as China, the impact of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and other trade agreements, have been reasonably stable in recent years, but on trade, people are far less positive about the personal impact of trade deals such as NAFTA on their own personal situation than they were two, three, and four years ago. Further, protecting jobs now ranks as highly as a foreign policy priority as it did in the early 1990s, when it was a very politically potent issue, and it is that again today. There’s a lot in this poll, a lot I, obviously, haven’t mentioned. But I’m going to stop here. These are the things that struck me as most important.

FEINSTEIN: Andy, that’s a great overview. And I’ll now turn it over to Walter.

MEAD: Well, this is really a terrific poll and extremely useful. And I wanted to just kind of raise a couple of things that came to my mind. And one of them is on the torture issue. What I thought was even more interesting— you said that 43 percent of the population sometimes backs— sometimes or often thinks torture can be justified. Actually, another 15 percent, I believe, said they thought it could rarely be justified. So that actually gives you a 55 percent very solid majority which thinks that there are circumstances that would justify the use of torture. I don’t know how that compares with populations in other countries. It would be interesting to see. I’m sorry we don’t have a longer history on that to see whether September 11 has—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Maybe you should be happy we don’t have a longer history on that. [Laughter.]

MEAD: Well, of the polling, of course. And, you know, again, I think rarely is an ambiguous word, because rarely could either mean the urgency of a situation, or there might be people who would think the possibility a terrorist would use WMD against civilian targets was precisely [an acceptable reason]--so they might actually— under current circumstances, that might be an argument for frequently. The cause should be restricted, but currently we have a lot of incidents like that. It would be interesting to follow that one.

It’s— generally this parallels polling that seems to show, in spite of all the kind of reactions, that there’s still a— there’s not a lot of support in the United States for sort of international law conceived as a kind of a, you know, as a set of actually existing laws, like speed limits and domestic law; that Americans tend to think that pre-emption [and] a number of other things that are frowned upon by some are very much necessary; and that this is true in a fairly bipartisan way. Even though, you know, as you say, there have been some numbers— and that that’s a kind of enduring quality.

Then I think the— I mean, I agree with you that the polarization is important. I would also— you know, I’m interested in the way that there’s a polarization, not simply do you favor this or that, but in terms of priorities; that WMD, which really for the last 10 years of anti-proliferation had topped virtually all surveys of the public, has now dropped among Democrats, off the list of top— down to fifth in the top five. That’s actually quite interesting. And then the final thing that strikes me as new and interesting— and I’d like to know more about this— is the way that evangelicals are kind of emerging in, you know, some surprising ways. I think the increase in [concern about] AIDS on the Republican side or the concern about AIDS and social work seems even just to come from evangelicals. I’d like to know more about how that’s going to be shaping public opinion as we go forward.

FEINSTEIN: Well, when we drew lots, I was second, and Jim will play— will bat third, or cleanup, I guess.

MEAD: I didn’t even— I wasn’t even there when we drew lots, so this will tell you how my lot was drawn.

FEINSTEIN: Let me just comment, in the same spirit as Walter, on a few things, maybe just a couple of things that seem not to have changed as a result of the Iraq war. Walter mentioned pre-emption as a principle that American foreign policy— obviously, it’s been a long-standing principle of American foreign policy, but unspoken in the past. There’s continued support for high levels of military spending. There is this continued interest in the United States playing a global role, although the way it’s described is this tension of a world leader, but [not the] only country bearing the burden or paying the freight.

There is almost no support for isolationism. It seems to be a nonexistent force. There were— I think the number is 9 percent in the poll favored the United States playing no leadership role, and that, I think, is significant, particularly given the tribulations in Iraq. And speaking of Iraq, the numbers on favoring cutting and running have remained pretty constant over the course of the last year or so, which is to say that a solid majority of Americans want to stay in Iraq until the war is brought to a successful conclusion, whatever that is. [Laughter.]

And let me just say a couple of other brief things about the divisions that Andy discussed, and he outlined them quite well. But it is very, very striking, the party disparities. Andy chided me correctly that they’re not exactly red-blue divisions, but for the purposes of being colorful, the red-blue divisions have— do seem to have bled into foreign policy, and red and blue see the world very differently. This is especially the case on Iraq.

Nine in 10 Kerry voters, self-described Kerry voters, say the president has no clear plan to bring the war to a successful conclusion, and eight in 10 Bush supporters say he does. And then, on the question of helping versus hurting terrorism, it’s the same pattern. Eight in 10 Bush supporters say the Iraq war has helped, and an almost equal number— but a slightly lower number, 74 percent— of Kerry supporters say it hurt.

But this extends even beyond Iraq, and it goes to a broader debate. And the interesting thing is that, you know, a debate about soft and hard power is a debate that has happened at this table for many years, but it’s surprising that this would be now a generalized debate with the public. And I think Iraq has driven that and surfaced some of these divisions, and I think a lot of that— that comes out, to a degree, in the poll.

And particularly on the point about respect— and if you had to say in a word what soft power is about, it’s about American respect and standing in the world. And here, under half of Republicans say the United States has lost respect. But I think the more important figure here is that only 22 percent say that that’s [inaudible]. And if you look at Democrats, it’s quite a different picture. Eight in 10 Democrats say the United States has lost respect, but 60 percent of them say that’s a major issue. So— and I’ll conclude with this. In some ways, the debate about whether it’s better to be loved or feared is shaping up as one of the major issues. Jim?

LINDSAY: Thank you, sir. On behalf of the Council I want to say, Andy, thank you very much for allowing us to participate in this review. It’s another of what is, as you know, a very long list of very good, very distinguished, very well-done and executed polls. You covered a lot of important points. I’m just going to just sort of throw three additional things on the table.

One, I would say, as we’re looking at the sort of top-line results of the poll, I would describe Americans as wanting a Goldilocks foreign policy, one that is neither too hot nor too cold. If you’re a Republican, I guess it is that you want to be cautiously decisive, and if you’re a Democrat you want to be decisively cautious. But be that as it may, Americans are neither eager to take on the mantle of empire, nor are they eager to retreat to the protective tower of isolationism.

And I think what comes through in this poll is that the American public is pretty prudent; that is, on the one hand the American public is often accused of being oblivious or ignorant of public affairs. I think what’s clear from the top line that Andy led off with is that Americans do pay attention to what happens overseas and what they see troubles them now, that Americans have lost respect. And they think that that has meaningful consequences, and that gets to Lee’s points about the debate between hard power and soft power. But I think Americans also understand that the world is a complicated place and that retreat or withdrawal is not a realistic option. Lee pointed out that support for the idea of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq has not gained credence.

What’s also interesting is the questions on trade, which shows people have mixed feelings— the American public has mixed feelings on trade issues, but understands that trade is not something that we can easily walk away from.

The second thing, I would say in looking at these results, is that while the American public wants Washington to play a leadership role in world affairs— and while, particularly among Democratic voters, there is a desire to factor in the interests of allies in making foreign policy— Americans, at least to judge by what they say should be Washington’s foreign policy priorities, are fundamentally interested in issues that affect their material interests, and afford much lower value to what might be called the social welfare aspects of foreign policy; this chart Andy has on page 17 of foreign policy priorities.

And most of the priorities that rank very high with the public— protect against terrorist attacks, protect American jobs, reduce the spread of AIDS and other diseases, stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, ensure adequate energy supplies— are all [related to] things, bad things, that could happen to us, and we don’t want them to happen. Whereas you go to the bottom of the list, the issues that are given lowest priority by your average American, are bad things that happen to other people: human rights abroad, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spreading democracy abroad and what have you. And that, I think, is a long-standing sentiment in the American public. Now that doesn’t mean that people don’t care about values; it’s just that they have a hierarchy that first off— and the first responsibility of government is— we’ll call it loosely— to provide for the common defense, as a famous national document once said.

Third basic point. Lee began by noting that foreign— that the red-blue division has leached into the foreign policy debate. I would offer up an extension, which is that foreign policy, I think, is also leaching into other issues. That what has happened is the public’s concern about Iraq is not contained just to Iraq; it’s uneasiness over America’s exposure in foreign affairs. It’s not limited to just those issues, but this is really what’s creating a problem for President Bush.

I remember a series of polls I saw done immediately after September 11, in which people were asked the question, “How do you think the economy’s doing?” If you look at those polls, what you discover in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was that people gave the healthy economy a bigger thumbs-up than before 9/11, even though by all objective indicators, the economy was doing much less well. That there was in some sense a rally ’round the economy effect; or the rally around the flag effect wasn’t simply the president’s. And I think part of the problem for the White House now in its re-election campaign is getting that in reverse. That is, concerns about Iraq tend to be almost like sort of a fog of gloom that is starting to envelope other issues. I think it’s one of the challenges for the Bush White House as it seeks— or let’s say the Bush-Cheney Re-election Committee ’04? Is that what— BCR? See, I read Lisa’s— the newsletter every morning, and I always trip over it.

TODOROVICH: [Inaudible]--call it BC’04-RNC.

LINDSAY: Yes. So I think that’s one of the major challenges for the administration, that Iraq is now about more than just Iraq.




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