Overview

The international community confronts a daunting array of transnational threats and challenges that no country can hope to resolve alone. As political leaders in the United States and abroad grapple with this global agenda and seek to forge international partnerships in addressing it, for a variety of reasons they must consider the opinions of those from whom they represent. But what, precisely, do citizens in the United States and abroad think about such matters?

To answer this question, the International Institutions and Global Governance program has produced Public Opinion on Global Issues, a comprehensive digest of existing polling data on U.S. and global public attitudes on the world's most pressing challenges — and the institutions designed to address them. Developed in partnership with the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, the digest consolidates global and U.S. public opinion across ten major issue areas: elements of world order, international institutions, violent conflict, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, energy security, the global economy, economic development, and human rights.

Until recently, global public opinion was essentially a black box. But in the last few years, large-scale polls have sampled countries from around the world. We can thus begin to see the outlines of world public opinion on a wide range of issues. This digest is the first effort to integrate all publicly available data into a coherent analysis.

The digest draws on hundreds of surveys from a wide array of polling sources. But it is organized for easy navigation between levels of detail. Under each topic, you will find a series of brief summaries on particular subtopics. With one click, you can read a full analysis of the findings. And with another click one can see the exact wording of each survey question and full country-by-country breakouts of the answers given. In each case, you can look at "World Opinion" or "U.S. Opinion."

Why It Matters

Foreign policy analysts often discount the impact of public opinion — but doing so is a mistake. To be sustainable, national decisions must be informed by an accurate reading of what the public wants. Indeed, policymakers' assumptions about what citizens think frequently inform, constrain, or enable foreign policy choices. This is most obvious in established democracies, but is also true to some extent in more closed societies. Even authoritarian states require some consent from their citizenry. State policies that veer too far from public opinion produce tension that the state then has to spend resources to relieve.

This is not to suggest that public opinion is always right — or that it cannot be shaped by determined leadership. But it should not be ignored. The future of global governance is not viable if it is left only to foreign policy elites, disconnected from the aspirations and sentiments of the broader citizenry.

In practice, national leaders — and foreign policy elites — sometimes misperceive what their publics really believe. In the United States, for instance, politicians often portray the American people as innately isolationist (despite evidence (PDF) to the contrary). Such misperceptions can lead national leaders to believe that they are more politically constrained than they actually are.

In launching Public Opinion on Global Issues, we hope to shed greater light on how U.S. citizens and their counterparts around the world conceive of some of the central problems of world order, and how they think about the main institutions that have been created to advance global cooperation.

What We Found

The digest paints a striking portrait of global and American attitudes on international institutions and an array of global issues including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and human rights. The data suggest significant overlap between global and U.S. opinion, along with a few noteworthy differences. A few of the big-picture highlights:

Views on World Order: Publics around the world — including in the United States — are strongly internationalist in orientation. They believe that global challenges are simply too complex and daunting to be addressed by unilateral or even regional means. In every country polled, most people support a global system based on the rule of law, international treaties, and robust multilateral institutions. They believe their own government is obliged to abide by international law, even when doing so is at odds with its perceived national interest. Large majorities, including among Americans, reject a hegemonic role for the United States, but do want the United States to participate in multilateral efforts to address international issues.

The United Nations: Globally, national publics believe that the United Nations plays a positive international role, although they are often disappointed by the UN's actual performance and support its reform. Majorities in most countries — including the United States — regard the UN Security Council as the premier institution for conferring legitimacy on the use of armed force. Publics around the world believe the UN Security Council has not only the right but also the responsibility to prevent or end gross human rights abuses such as genocide. Majorities or pluralities in all nations polled want the UN to actively promote human rights — and they reject the argument that this would be improper interference in sovereign affairs. There is strong popular support for adding new permanent members to the Security Council and (even among publics of most permanent members) for giving the Council the power to override a veto by a permanent member.

Nuclear Proliferation: Large majorities around the world, including in countries with nuclear arms, favor an international agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons, with stringent inspection provisions. Publics worldwide also favor a new UN regime that would stop new countries from creating nuclear fuel, and instead supply them with the fuel they need for energy production. Publics in the United States and other countries polled support the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and most also favor the UN Security Council having the right to authorize military force to prevent a country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

World Trade: International polls find strong support for globalization, tempered with anxiety that its pace is too fast. Majorities in most countries view international trade as positive for their nation, support the World Trade Organization, and believe their government should comply with adverse WTO decisions. At the same time, overwhelming majorities globally support including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.

Global Finance: In the wake of the global recession, most publics around the world — with the exception of the United States — strongly support the idea of a global regulatory body to ensure that big financial institutions follow international standards. Assessments of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are mildly positive in most (though not all) countries. Support for foreign aid is robust, and there is consensus in both developed and developing countries that wealthy nations are not doing enough to help poorer ones.

Climate Change: In every international poll, majorities in all countries, including the United States, say that global warming is a threat, that action needs to be taken, and that such an adjustment will entail lifestyle changes in their own country. Majorities in developing as well as developed countries think that developing countries have a responsibility to limit their emissions in an effort to deal with climate change. Among most countries — developed and developing — there is also a consensus that developed countries should provide aid to help developing countries limit their greenhouse-gas emissions.

American Exceptionalism?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the digest suggests substantial consistency in the views of Americans and their counterparts abroad regarding the importance of international law, international institutions, and multilateral cooperation to address global challenges. Far from being insular or obsessed with sovereignty, Americans convey support for internationalist principles and a willingness to compromise for effective multilateral cooperation.

A few headlines are particularly striking. Most Americans favor a world order that is multipolar or led by the United Nations, rather than based on U.S. hegemony or a bipolar balance. They believe that all nations must abide by international law even when doing so is at odds with their national interest. A large majority of Americans express support for U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court, even after hearing past U.S. government objections. And most Americans believe that the United Nations plays a necessary role in the world, including in legitimating the use of armed force. They also favor giving the United Nations stronger powers to investigate human rights violations and to regulate the international arms trade (though not, significantly, to impose any taxes). At the same time, surveys show significant dissatisfaction with the UN's actual performance in fulfilling its missions, contributing to erratic overall evaluations of the UN as an institution.

A few distinctive differences in U.S. attitudes do emerge. Compared to many Europeans, for example, the U.S. public is slightly more inclined to countenance the use of military force and other coercive methods by the United Nations and multilateral alliances. Americans also show slightly greater skepticism than residents of other developed nations about international regulation, for instance in international finance or climate change, and they reveal relatively more trust in the private sector. And yet these differences tend to be shadings at the margin, rather than wholesale divergences.

Many of the results in the digest are surprising, and they challenge long-held stereotypes about attitudes toward world order and international cooperation, both in the United States and abroad.

A Few Caveats

Polling data should never be taken at face value — it needs to be interpreted, contextualized, and explained. We offer three caveats to bear in mind as you read through this digest.

  1. Findings like these naturally raise questions about the intensity and resilience with which respondents feel their sentiments. Americans may express support for internationalist principles in polls, but it is always possible that they will back peddle if they begin to see real U.S. power diminish.
  2. In every case, the digest draws on the most recent data available on global and U.S. public attitudes. In most instances, this means polling that has occurred in the last few years. Where such data is missing, or where we seek to document continuity (or, more rarely, discontinuity) in public attitudes, the digest relies on older survey findings, dating back 5-10 years.
  3. Because the digest draws on multiple polling organizations, it necessarily relies on a diverse set of survey methodologies, rather than any single, consistent approach. But each of the original polls is provided for your review, so you can see for yourself how each poll was framed.

This digest represents a compilation, analysis, and synthesis of existing polling data, rather than new survey research. Its value added lies in its comprehensive coverage of major issue areas, as well as its juxtaposition of global and U.S. attitudes toward each area. Getting a clearer picture of what citizens in the United States and abroad want is important for policymakers, because public attitudes will shape prospects for effective multilateral cooperation in the twenty-first century.