American Public Opposes Arming Rebels in Syria

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

With the conflict in Syria well into its fourth year, Chicago Council Survey results from May 2014 show that a majority of the American public does not see the conflict in Syria as a critical threat to the United States. While the Obama administration has proposed $500 million to train and arm rebel groups in Syria, Americans oppose sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. Instead, a majority of the public favors increasing diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria and half say they would support enforcing a no-fly zone.

One in four Americans see conflict in Syria as a critical threat

At the time of this survey, only a quarter (24%) of Americans saw the continuing conflict in Syria as a critical threat. A majority (61%) considered it an important but not critical threat. This is far lower than other threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, placing 19th out of 20 threats to the U.S.


While some politicians have called for a greater US role in Syria, only one in four Americans think the United States is not doing enough (26%). Half (50%) think that the US government is currently doing about the right amount on Syria, with two in ten (20%) saying it is doing too much.

Continued opposition to arming rebels

Americans remain opposed to providing material support to rebel groups in Syria. One in four (25%) say that they would support the United States and its allies sending arms and supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, while seven in ten (70%) oppose doing so. Americans said much the same in 2012, when 67 percent opposed arming rebel groups.

Support for arming rebel groups in Syria is highest among those Americans who say the US is not doing enough, but a majority of this group still opposes sending arms and supplies (40% support, 57% oppose). Larger majorities among those who say the US is doing the right amount (74%, 23% support) or too much (85%, 15% support) oppose sending weapons and supplies.

Solid majority endorse increased sanctions on Syria

After asking for assessments of the US government’s current approach to Syria, respondents were presented with several specific options that could be taken. Two in three Americans (67%) support increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. This is a slight increase from 2012, when 63 percent of the public supported increasing sanctions on the Assad regime.

Americans divided on Syrian no-fly zone

Though Americans seem fairly satisfied with the current approach to Syria, there is a relatively high level of public support for enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, including bombing Syrian air defenses. On this issue, the public is evenly divided, with 48 percent in support and 47 percent opposed. This level of support is consistent whether the operation is part of a United Nations Security Council authorized military mission or if done as part of a coalition of like-minded allies (48% support for each).

As might be expected, support for enforcing a no-fly zone is highest among those Americans who say the US is not doing enough on Syria (65%, 32% oppose). Meanwhile, Americans who say the government is doing about the right amount on Syria are divided on the issue (50% support, 46% opposed). ). Those who say the government is doing too much oppose a no-fly zone (71%, vs. 28% in support).


Few want to send troops into Syria, but more support peacekeeping mission

Many Americans are also open to the idea of contributing US troops to a peacekeeping mission in Syria if a peace agreement is reached. A sizable minority (44%) say they would support sending troops to enforce that agreement, with 55 percent opposed. Other than for peacekeeping, though, the idea of sending US troops to Syria is unpopular with the American public: fewer than two in ten (17%) support the US sending troops to Syria. Even those Americans who say the US is not doing enough on Syria are hesitant to put boots on the ground: only a quarter of this group favor sending troops.

Support for sending troops appears to be linked to a sense of moral obligation, national interest and a belief that US intervention would make a difference. When those who supported sending troops to Syria were asked the reason for their support, they most frequently cited that the US had a moral obligation to act, it would make a difference in stopping the war, or that it was in our national interest to act. Fewer said they supported sending troops to Syria because the mission was likely to succeed, people around the world would view it as a legitimate action, the risk of American lives would be low, or the financial cost would be acceptable. Those opposed to sending troops to Syria cited the risks to American lives, doubts that the situation is vital to US national interest, potential financial costs, and skepticism that US intervention would make a difference.

Public opposes accepting Syrian refugees into United States

A majority of Americans (55%) oppose accepting Syrian refugees into the United States, while four in ten (42%) support doing so. This opposition appears to reflect American concerns about immigrants and refugees more broadly. Indeed, Americans who see large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US as a critical threat are far less likely to support accepting Syrian refugees (19%) than those Americans who see it as an important but not critical threat (51%), or not an important threat at all (61%).

There are also differences among age groups when it comes to admitting Syrian refugees into the United States: a majority of Americans under the age of 45 support taking in refugees (52%; 45% opposed), while a majority of Americans older than 45 oppose doing so (64%; 32% support).

Democrats more likely to support peacekeeping; Republicans more opposed to refugees

As is generally the case with peacekeeping missions, Democrats are more likely to support sending troops (54%, vs. 38% of Republicans and Independents). Republicans, meanwhile, are more likely to support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (55%, vs. 49% of Democrats and 42% of Independents). Americans who say they identify as part of or sympathize with the Tea Party movement are more likely to support a no-fly zone as well (59%, vs. 47% of non-tea partiers). Note that among those who consider themselves a part of or identify with the Tea Party movement (12% overall), 49 percent identify as Republicans, 18 percent as Democrats, and 31 percent as Independents.

When it comes to refugees, there are strong partisan divisions as well. A majority of Democrats (55%) support taking in refugees from Syria, though only a quarter of Republicans (27%) and four in ten Independents (40%) agree. This fits with partisans’ differing levels of concern about immigrants and refugees coming to the United States, which a majority of Republicans (55%) see as a critical threat. In contrast, only two in ten Democrats (21%) say the same, while Independents split the difference (42%).

On other issues, as is usually the case in foreign policy, partisans agree. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents oppose sending troops into Syria, oppose arming anti-government groups, and support increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria.

About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey

This analysis is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points.

A full report on the results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey will be released on September 15.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the United States-Japan Foundation.


Americans Prefer Neutrality in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

Chicago Council Survey results from May, before the recent outbreak of fighting in Gaza, show that Americans did not see the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to be a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States. A solid majority continued to want the United States to remain neutral in the conflict, even though their sympathies tended to lie more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Americans opt for neutrality

Over the last decade of Chicago Council Surveys, a majority of Americans have consistently advocated for a neutral approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Chicago Council results from May 2014 found that six in ten (64%) said the United States should not take either side, while three in ten (30%) favored taking Israel’s side (3% favored the Palestinians’ side).

Neutrality in Conflict

While these recent data were collected prior to the June kidnappings that sparked outbreak of fighting in July, previous data suggest that these incidents would most likely not have a dramatic effect on Americans’ preference for the United States to stay neutral. For example, results from the identical question in a 2000 Gallup Poll fielded just prior to the beginning of the Second Intifada found that a majority said the United States should not take either side. Two years later, the 2002 Chicago Council Survey found a majority continued to prefer that the United States remain neutral, just after an outbreak of fighting in Jenin and an extended standoff at the Church of the Nativity. And in 2010, a year after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza ended in Israeli forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire, a majority of Americans continued to support not taking either side in the conflict.

Continue reading

Russia Reality Check

By Kjell Engelbrekt

US-Russia relations appear to be at an all-time low ever since the establishment of the Russian Federation in the fall of 1991. The new Chicago Council Survey figures clearly demonstrate this general trend, even without accounting for the presumable further damage done by the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17th. That incident may very well have been a horrible mistake by pro-Kremlin separatists. Yet while consistent efforts by the Kremlin to conceal its role in supporting the separatists and furnishing them with heavy weapons, such as sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems, might succeed in keeping Russians misled, they will deepen distrust in the United States and the West at large.

There are various interpretations as to how US-Russia relations evolved from the initial attempt by the first Obama administration to improve ties through selective engagement on issues of common concern (the ‘reset’ approach) to the mutual frustration of the mid-2010s. In fact, the deterioration accelerated sharply over just 12 to 18 months. As long as Dmitry Medvedev occupied the presidential post (that is, until early 2012), some aspects of the bilateral relationship—such as cooperation on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—were actually moving in the right direction.

But in 2013-2014 presidents Putin and Obama repeatedly misjudged each other at critical junctures. Putin appears to have believed he would have a free hand at bullying neighbors into accepting higher prices on Russian gas and coercing them to accept his own deeply asymmetric version of the European Union. Supposedly, he also thought his insistence on placing Ukraine at the center of his strategic vision would be tolerated by Western governments.

Few political leaders in the transatlantic community recognized the full potential for conflict inherent in Ukraine’s Maidan movement. Obama and his advisors were also slow to realize that Putin not only sought to rebuild Russia, but a Soviet Union–minus the ideology yet including its international political prominence. Putin’s diplomatic envoys have in fact been working overtime to create conditions that would blunt US influence not just in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ but in the Middle East, Europe, as well as in Latin America.

The realization that the Kremlin is not just ‘sticking it to the Americans’ (in extending asylum to Edward Snowden, for instance) but is actively trying to undermine US primacy in world affairs is gradually catching up with American public opinion. And Russia’s covert military operations in eastern Ukraine—after already having conquered Crimea through a well-executed stealth operation in mid-Spring—and the ongoing cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the downing of flight MH17 now provide a sobering reality check for many others in the international community, not least those preoccupied with international law and order. To the extent that leaders in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere respond adequately to this situation, the US government will be in a better position to limit the Kremlin’s opportunities to further exploit Western and international benevolence and neglect.

Kjell E. Engelbrekt was a visiting fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Illinois at Chicago this past spring. He is currently working on a manuscript that examines the impact of a changing distribution of power on the diplomatic practices of great powers in international institutions, especially the UN Security Council and the G8/G20. His recent writings have focused on NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, the US-Russia ‘reset’ policy, and evolving relations between Asia’s great powers and the United States and Europe. Engelbrekt holds a PhD in political science from Stockholm University. He is associate professor at the Swedish National Defense College and member of the Swedish Royal Academy of War Sciences. He has served as a research fellow at Columbia University (New York), Humboldt-Universität (Berlin), and the European University Institute (Florence). In addition to his academic record, Engelbrekt has served as secretary-general of the Swedish North Atlantic Treaty Association, research analyst at the RFE/RL Research Institute, and consulted for the UN Development Program and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

From Reset to Regret: Views of Russia Fall to Levels Not Seen Since Cold War

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura
The New York Times and other news outlets reported today on President Obama’s remarks about the delays surrounding the international investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. He  urged Russia to pressure the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to open access to the crash site.  He also went further, saying “if Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and to back these separatists,” then “Russia will only further isolate itself from the international community and the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase.”

New Chicago Council Survey results (collected between May 6 and 29, before the Malaysian plane was shot down on July 17) show that American views of Russia have become less positive now than at any time since the Cold War. Yet few consider Russia’s territorial ambitions a critical threat to the United States. This helps to explain why only 30 percent of Americans support a US military intervention in Ukraine if Russia invades the rest of the country.

American views of Russia at lowest point since Cold War

Likely as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Americans’ feelings toward Russia have fallen to their lowest levels since the Cold War. On a scale of 0 to 100, with lower ratings representing less-favorable views, Americans rated Russia a 36 on average. This is just above the ratings Americans gave to the Soviet Union during the Chicago Council’s Cold War-era surveys of 1978-1986 and is the lowest rating ever given to Russia since the dissolution of the USSR.


Views of Russian influence unchanged

Reflecting Russia’s new belligerence in the region, Americans rate Russian influence in the world an average of 6.2 out of 10, an increase from the average rating of 5.8 that Americans gave Moscow in 2012. By comparison, Americans rated the United States an average of 8.6 and China a 7.4. A rating of 6.2 places Russia just below Japan (6.5) in terms of global influence. Overall, perception of Russian influence over the past decade has remained fairly stable, as seen in the figure below. Nor do many expect Russia to be significantly more influential in the future. When asked to rate its influence ten years from now, Americans gave Russia an average of 6.3 out of 10.


Russia’s ambitions not seen as critical threat

Four in ten Americans (38%) say they see Russia’s territorial ambitions as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States, while half (50%) say they are an important but not critical threat. This places the threat of Moscow’s ambitions well behind other threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey (it ranked 15 out of 20 items in terms of being a critical threat).

There are generational differences in these threat perceptions as well as in views of Russia. Almost half of those over the age of 60 saying Russian territorial ambitions are a critical threat (46%). Older Americans also have less favorable views of Russia overall. But even younger Americans, who would have no memory of the Cold War, have an unfavorable view of Russia.

Broad support for US government spying on Russia

While not a high level threat, Americans still want to keep a close eye on Russia. Nearly eight in ten Americans (77%) support the US government secretly spying on the Russian government. This is a higher level of support than in 1994 when 63 percent of Americans supported such espionage.

Americans oppose sending US troops to Ukraine

In part because Americans do not see Russian ambitions as a threat to US vital interests, a majority of the public opposes using US troops to defend Ukraine in the event of Russian invasion (68%). Overall three in ten (30%) favor sending troops. Even those who perceive a critical threat tend to oppose using US troops for this purpose (51%, with 48% in favor).

Though low, this overall level of support is actually higher than in the past. In 1994, only one in five Americans (20%) supported using US troops to defend Ukraine from Russian invasion (59% opposed, 22% not sure).


Negative views of Russia and opposition to using U.S troops in Ukraine cross partisan lines, though Republicans (36%) are somewhat more likely to support sending US troops to defend Ukraine than Democrats (27%) or Independents (29%). In addition, Republicans (48%) are more likely than Democrats (35%) or Independents (34%) to consider Russia’s territorial ambitions a critical threat.

Despite the fact that most Americans who consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement identify as Republicans, Tea Party supporters are actually less likely to support sending US troops to defend Ukraine in the event of Russian invasion (21%, vs. 32% of non-Tea Party members) [1]. This is consistent with the generally non-interventionist views of prominent Tea Party leaders.

Instead of military action, Americans would favor the United States increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia. According to an April 2014 Pew Research Center/USA Today poll, 53 percent of Americans support sanctioning Putin’s government in response to the Ukraine crisis, while 36 percent oppose such a move (one in ten are unsure) [2].

Bipartisan support for economic aid to Ukraine

Despite their opposition to sending US troops to Ukraine in the event of Russian invasion, a plurality of Americans (43%) say that economic aid to Ukraine should be kept about the same, while an additional 15 percent support increasing that aid. That’s good news for Ukraine. The beleaguered country was recently approved for a $17 billion loan from the IMF, owes $9 billion in foreign-currency payments this year, and has seen the value of the hryvnia plummet against international currencies.

Americans may see this economic aid as a counterbalance to Russian ambitions. Those who see Russia’s territorial ambitions as a threat to the United States are more likely to support increasing or maintaining economic aid to Ukraine.


Support for economic aid to Ukraine is also correlated with support for sending troops to the Eastern European nation in the case of Russian invasion. Majorities of those who favor military action (73%), as well as those who oppose sending troops (59%), support increasing or maintaining economic aid to Ukraine.

However, according to an April 2014 Pew Research Center/USA Today poll, this support does not extend to sending arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government. While three in ten (30%) support providing military aid to Ukraine, six in ten (62%) oppose doing so.

About the 2014 Chicago Council Survey

This analysis is based on data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey and previous Chicago Council Surveys of the American public on foreign policy. The survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their large-scale, nationwide research panel between May 6 to May 29, 2014 among a national sample of 2,108 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error for the overall sample is ± 2.1 percentage points.

The 2014 Chicago Council Survey is made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Korea Foundation, and the United States-Japan Foundation.



[1] Among those who consider themselves a part of or identify with the Tea Party movement (12% overall), 49 percent identify as Republicans, 18 percent as Democrats, and 31 percent as Independents.

[2] Pew Research Center, April, 2014, “Bipartisan Support for Increased U.S. Sanctions against Russia.”

Ann Coulter, the World Cup and What the Polls Show

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter probably didn’t watch the US play Belgium on Tuesday afternoon. But that didn’t stop her from tweeting “Doing the job Americans just won’t do: Immigrants fill up roster of ‘U.S.’ soccer team.” This tweet extended her rant from last week in which she blamed Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law for a possible increase in soccer viewership in the US [she also railed against the sport because it is collectivist, foreign, and boring]. In her words:  “I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.”

While I don’t agree with Coulter’s position on soccer (or anything else, for that matter), there is indeed greater interest in soccer among Hispanic Americans than the rest of the public. A Pew survey conducted June 26-29 found that a majority of  Hispanic Americans (55%) are following the World Cup very or somewhat closely, compared to about a third of Blacks (32%) or Whites (32%). The Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg poll results from June 27-30 found a similar pattern (47% of Hispanics are watching the World Cup very or somewhat closely, compared to 33% among Black Americans and 26% among White Americans). And an Ipsos poll from April 7-11 found that one-third of Hispanic Americans said they would be following the tournament or some teams closely, double the percentage for respondents overall. Continue reading

Is the public really learning to love globalization?

Guest post by Daniel Maliniak and Ryan Powers, first posted on The Monkey Cage.

Responses from our May 2014 TRIP Snap Poll of international relations (IR) scholars present an interesting contrast to public opinion on NAFTA’s effect on the U.S and Mexican economies over the past 20 years. Scholars overwhelmingly agree that NAFTA has been good for both the U.S. (79 percent) and Mexican (71 percent) economies. The public’s assessment – from a 2013 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – of NAFTA’s effect on the Mexican economy is similarly optimistic (70 percent good) but is split on its effect on the U.S. economy (49 percent good, 46 percent bad).


One reason that scholars may be so bullish on the economic benefits of NAFTA and free trade more generally is that they tend to be familiar with economic teachings, which show that  free(r) trade and international trade agreements tend to be welfare enhancing. The educated public may be similar. Indeed, Jens Hainmueller and Michael Hiscox, two prominent scholars of trade and public opinion, argue that those who have attended college are “likely to be far more informed than others about the aggregate efficiency gains associated with expanded trade, especially if they have had any contact at all with economics courses and with the theory of comparative advantage.” Thus, they claim, college education is not correlated with pro-trade sentiment among the public for material reasons but because, at least in the United States, students are generally taught that trade has beneficial impacts.

If Hainmueller and Hiscox are right, we would expect college-educated individuals to look more like IR scholars than those who did not attend college. To make this comparison as clear as possible, we focus our attention on respondents in the public and scholarly samples who view NAFTA as zero sum (bad for U.S. and good for Mexico) and those that view NAFTA as mutually beneficial (good for both U.S. and Mexico). We see these two groups as representing protectionist and free-trade factions of the public. In this sense, we are comparing those who see NAFTA as something of a beggar-thy-neighbor policy, benefiting the Mexican economy at the expense of Americans, to those who see NAFTA as a means to grow the economic pie.

The graph below shows the proportions of individuals at each level of education who said NAFTA has been good for Mexico but bad for the United States in the top panel and those who said NAFTA has been good for both United States and Mexico in the bottom panel. The black lines represent 95 percent confidence intervals.


Scholarly Opinion

IR scholars — as highly educated and economically literate individuals — look a lot like the kind of people Hainmueller and Hiscox describe. Just 3 percent of scholars view NAFTA as a zero-sum game that benefits the Mexican economy but not the US economy. Additionally, a large majority of IR scholars view NAFTA as being good for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. In the overwhelming view of IR scholars, the rising tide of NAFTA has lifted all boats.

 Notably, we find relatively little variation across scholars in different subfields and/or paradigms. While IPE scholars (71 percent) do fall slightly above their colleagues (65 percent) in terms of viewing NAFTA as being beneficial to both nations, the gap is not statistically meaningful. With a crude proxy for income, an individual’s rank in their department, we find no systematic difference across full professors, associate professors, assistant professors or visiting/adjunct professors and other non-tenure track instructors. What variation we do find comes from respondents’ theoretical priors. Those who characterize their research as paradigmatically liberal or realist are more likely (75 percent and 74 percent, respectively) than those with other paradigmatic commitments (64 percent) to see NAFTA as a win-win.

Public Opinion

The most educated members of the public (those with a PhD, MD or JD) see NAFTA as increasing the size of the pie. Among the broader public, however, the findings are less clear. Again, consistent with Hainmueller and Hiscox’s expectations, the proportions in the good-good portion of the population are trending upward with education level. That said, those who have attended college are more, rather than less, likely than those with at most a high school education to view NAFTA as bad for United States but good for Mexico. (This effect does not disappear once we account for the fact that college attendants are somewhat less likely to answer “don’t know”).

Beyond the more intuitive crosstab above, we find that, in a multinomial logit regression model predicting the four potential combinations of economic assessments, education is not a systematically meaningful determinant after controlling for income, age, gender and party ID. Just the act of attending college does not seem to make individuals in the public less likely to view NAFTA as a zero-sum game [See results]. Only the possession of a PhD or professional degree has a consistent and statistically significant, negative effect on an individual’s likelihood to see NAFTA as bad for either country’s economy. It may be that holding a PhD or professional degree is simply an indicator of working in a non-tradeable, relatively high-paying sector of the economy. This group of highly educated individuals stands to gain economically from more open trade, and their demographics map very closely with our sample of scholars.

The results above suggest that many college-educated Americans are not internalizing the implications of free-trade models that they were presumably exposed to in their course work or that other considerations are more salient when it comes to NAFTA in particular. With close to 20 years of news coverage touting both extremes of the NAFTA story, perhaps it is not surprising that substantial portions of the educated American public are skeptical of NAFTA and its implications for the U.S. economy.

Daniel Maliniak is a PhD candidate at University of California at San Diego. Ryan Powers is a PhD candidate at University of Wisconsin at Madison. Maliniak and Powers are co-PIs on the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project.

Bruce Jentleson: The Prudent, Not Isolationist, Public

Get ready for some new public opinion data from the 2014 Chicago Council Survey in the coming weeks.  We will publicly release the full results in September, but will be offering previews on hot topics over the summer.

In the meantime, Bruce Jentleson of Duke University recently posted a piece on incorporating some preliminary numbers from our poll.  He characterizes the American public as “prudent, not isolationist.”  Here are some excerpts:

 “There’s a lot of hue and cry these days about the American public turning isolationist, seeking to retreat from the world. That, though, is both a misreading of the polls and, frankly, reflects a too-readily dismissive view of what pioneering pollster Elmo Roper once called ‘the common sense of the common man.’

Two recent polls have been the main impetus for the yet-again isolationist public. An April 2014 NBC-Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Hart Research Associates poll found 47 percent saying the U.S. should be “less active in world affairs”; 19 percent, “more active,” and 30 percent, “at current level.” A December 2013 Pew poll found 52 percent agreeing that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally.” While both of these were much higher than prior polls, three factors make their meaning less clear-cut than claimed.

One is the very different data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) surveys. The CCGA 2012 poll found 61 percent saying “stay active” in world affairs and only 38 percent saying to “stay out.” While the smallest differential since their 1982 poll, it still is a pretty solid number. And preliminary results for their 2014 poll have 62 percent for staying active.

The public is not seeking to retreat from the world. It is not going through a mood swing, as some scholars and commentators portray it, as if there were a societal biorhythm periodically shifting between internationalism and isolationism. It is being prudent about what commitments it will support and what role the U.S. should play. And what is unreasonable about that?”

I recommend reading the whole piece – it’s a solid assessment of American internationalist sentiment rooted in the data. As Bruce notes, these are preliminary results from our 2014 Chicago Council Survey, but they fit with a long trend of Americans’ support for taking an active role in the world. Given all that’s happened since 1947, the stability of public support for an active role in world affairs is striking.



We’ll be releasing new findings on attitudes toward Ukraine, Russia, Syria, climate change, energy and more over the summer. So stay tuned for the latest data on American views of the world and of US foreign policy.

A Tree Grows in Yasukuni

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan has received a lot of attention in the past year, and not just from visitors.  The shrine is controversial because it commemorates Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal.  Japanese officials’ visits to the memorial stir up emotions in China and South Korea, who view the Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression and feel that the Japanese have shown insufficient remorse for wartime atrocities.  In fact, Chinese officials have likened Japanese politicians’ visits to the shrine to the idea of German politicians laying flowers on Hitler’s bunker.

Yesterday – just a day before President Obama’s arrival in Japan – about 150 Japanese lawmakers visited the shrine as part of Yasukuni’s spring festivals. Prime Minister Abe decided not to visit the shrine, opting instead to send an offering of the “masakaki,” a ceremonial tree used in Shinto rituals. 

This is a good move on the part of Abe.  His last visit to the Yasukuni shrine in late December 2013 – the first such visit by a Japanese Prime Minister in seven years –  heightened tensions with China and South Korea and even drew criticism from the United States.  Many people in Japan were also critical of the Prime Minister’s December visit to the Yasukuni shrine, according to Asahi Shimbun polls conducted after Abe’s visit.  Many Japanese also expressed concerned about Abe’s policies toward China and South Korea.

According to a January 25-26 Asahi Shimbun telephone survey (questions translated by The Mansfield Foundation), slightly more among the Japanese public said that Prime Minister Abe was “wrong” (46%) than “right” (41%) to visit the shrine, and a majority thought the visit had a negative influence on Japan’s foreign policy (56% vs. 36% not a negative influence).   By a 5 to 4 margin, more Japanese said that it is important to take “seriously” the strong criticisms of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni from China, South Korea, the United States and Russia (51% to 40%).

These results are a bit different from those reported in an August 2013 survey conducted in Japan by Genron NPO/Public Opinion Research Institute Corporation.  That survey, conducted before Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, found that nearly half thought there was “no problem” if a Japanese Prime Minister wanted to visit the shrine (46%) and an additional 28 percent thought it was ok “as long as the visit was made as a private citizen.”  Only one in ten (10%) thought it was not ok, whether as an official visit or as a private citizen.

Looking to the visit’s broader impact, a February 15-18, 2014 Asahi Shimbun poll showed that a majority of the Japanese public were concerned ["thought that it matters"] a lot (28%) or to some degree (50%) if Japan’s relations with China and Korea deteriorate.  Asked about Abe’s policies toward Japan and South Korea, about half said they opposed (48%) Abe’s approach, compared to a third who favored (33%).   And at least in February, half of the Japanese public thought that Abe should “rush to hold a summit conference with China and Korea” (52%) versus a third who thought the Prime Minister should not (34%).

Hold that thought.  One of President Obama’s purposes for his stops in Asia is to see if he can persuade Japan and South Korea to set aside their differences and cooperate, much as he tried to do in March when he orchestrated a  trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Abe and South Korean President Park on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit at The Hague.

At the very least, more around the world are becoming aware of the sensitivities regarding the Yasukuni shrine.  Just today, Justin Bieber apologized to his fans in China after he posted a photo of his visit to Yasukuni to >15 million beliebers on Instagram this week. According to TIME magazine, he responded today (via Instagram): “While in Japan I asked my driver to pull over for which I saw a beautiful shrine. I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer. To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry. I love you China and I love you Japan.”

Less is More: American Views on Ukraine

By Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura

In today’s post, we would like to highlight two surveys that were conducted in late March that have not been amplified as much as Pew, Gallup, and other polls about American attitudes on the situation in Ukraine. One survey was conducted by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute between March 26-31, and the other was conducted by the Reason Foundation and the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation (the Reason-Rupe poll; fieldwork by Princeton Survey Research Associates International) between March 26-30. While the Reason Foundation’s mission statement includes “advancing a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles,” their survey questions are objective and do not lean libertarian, and PSRAI is an excellent polling firm.

Approval Ratings

Robert Kagan’s recent editorial “President Obama’s Foreign Policy Paradox” in the Washington Post (explaining why Americans dislike the foreign policy they desire) left us wondering what Americans think of the President’s management of the situation in Ukraine. Specifically, how do American approval ratings of Obama’s policy on Ukraine mesh with actions they would actually applaud him for doing (or not doing) in this particular case.

The Quinnipiac poll found that more disapprove (47%) than approve (41%) of the way the president has handled “the situation involving Russia and Ukraine.” The Reason-Rupe survey similarly found just slightly more disapproving (40%) than approving (37%) of the “way Barack Obama is handling the situation in Ukraine.” There are wide partisan differences on this question, as you might expect. In both cases, solid majorities of Democrats approve of the President’s management of the Ukraine crisis, while solid majorities of Republicans disapprove (a plurality of Independents also disapprove).


According to Reason-Rupe data, there is a great deal of overlap between the portion of Americans who approve of Obama’s job performance as president (overall, 43% approve and 51% disapprove) and assessments of his handling of the Ukraine situation. Seven in ten of those who approve of his performance as president also approve of his policy on Ukraine; seven in ten of those who disapprove of his performance as president also disapprove of his policy on Ukraine. Only one in ten Americans differs from this pattern.

Too Tough, Too Weak, or Just Right?

The problem with approval-disapproval type questions is that it is difficult to discern from toplines alone whether people are critical because they feel the US should be doing more, less or something different. Fortunately, the Quinnipiac survey asked a separate question and found that Americans think it is more important to avoid getting “too involved” in the situation (54%) than it is “to take a firm stand against Russian actions” (39%). Similarly, another Quinnipiac question found that a plurality say that Barack Obama’s dealing with the situation has been about right (45%), versus not tough enough (36%) or too tough (6%). In a standoff between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama, Americans are equally divided on who is the stronger leader (42% for both).

Let’s look more closely at support for the possible array of options available (or at least, those available in polling questions).


The Quinnipiac poll found that 69 percent of Americans support the US and its European allies imposing economic sanctions against Russia, while slightly smaller majorities supported sanctions in this case in March 5-9 CNN/ORC (59%) and in March 7-9 ABC News/Washington Post (57%) surveys. But ABC/WP reported that only 40 percent supported sanctions if they were imposed by the US alone. The CNN/ORC poll also found a majority opposed to canceling the summit meeting between “Russia and the US and its Western allies” (58% oppose, 40% favor).

Beyond Sanctions

Few Americans support more forceful action. One in three (31%) says they would prefer the US to continue imposing economic sanctions given Russia’s “invasion of Ukraine,” though 58 percent say they would prefer to stay out of the situation between Russia and Ukraine altogether (8% prefer to send US military troops).

Other polls show similar results: The CNN/ORC survey showed large majorities opposed to sending US ground troops (88%), US airstrikes but no ground troops (82%), or the US sending weapons and other military supplies to the Ukrainian government (76%). None of these questions asked about a multilateral military action, however, which is a far more likely option than unilateral US military action.

This doesn’t mean that Americans don’t care about the situation in Ukraine. Several surveys show that majorities of Americans are following the situation at least somewhat closely and a majority in the Quinnipiac survey express concern that the current situation “could develop into a larger regional conflict that could lead to the US military getting involved” (80%, including 39% very concerned). But while a plurality consider Ukraine a friendly country (47%), only 17 percent consider Ukraine to be an “ally” according to a March 22-23 Gallup poll.

With an eye to the future, the Reason-Rupe poll asked respondents about possible actions if Russia invades additional parts of Ukraine. In this case, 61 percent would favor imposing stricter economic sanctions, but no more than a third would favor sending US military aid and weapons to the Ukrainian government (33%) or sending US troops (20%).

Unpacking Disapproval

Recapping the range of results, then, roughly 40 percent of Americans seem to disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Ukrainian situation. Yet, no more than about a third of Americans would support sending troops or military equipment, and multilateral sanctions are the only tool that Americans seem to endorse at this point. Furthermore, only 17 percent of Americans characterize Ukraine as an ally.

On the surface, it seems that some of the criticism about US policy on Ukraine must be based either on a desire to stay out of the situation altogether and/or on partisan disdain for the President overall. Thankfully, the Reason-Rupe poll also released a number of crosstabulations, letting us look a bit deeper into the data.


As the figure above illustrates, whether or not Americans approve of the President’s handling of the Ukraine situation, they are more inclined to want to stay out of the conflict altogether; this is especially true of those who disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the situation (47% among those who approve, 61% among those who disapprove). Those who approve of his policy are more likely than those who disapprove to support continuing sanctions (42% among those who approve, 26% of those who disapprove). Only about one in ten of those who approve and disapprove supports sending US military troops and assets.

Looking at the options by partisan divides, opinions are even more similar, with nearly six in ten among Republicans, Democrats and Independents opting to stay out of the conflict (see figure below). So in this case, why don’t American’s like the President’s foreign policy on Ukraine? Very few seem to disapprove because they want the President to do more. Rather, it seems that they either want him to do even less–or they just might not like the President.



A little more nuance about US, European public opinion on Syria

Marc Lynch of George Washington University recently debuted his arrival at the Monkey Cage with an analysis of  281 polling figures on American attitudes on Syria on The Monkey Cage (see “The Problem with #WithSyria”).  Based on these survey results, he concluded that many Americans are following the situation in Syria,  care about the situation but do not feel the US government has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, and  want to help by providing humanitarian aid – but they don’t support the US government taking more forceful action.

I agree with these conclusions, but wanted to highlight a few other findings as well.

At least earlier in the crisis, there was some American support for action beyond humanitarian efforts

Though not necessarily majorities, some surveys showed that earlier in the crisis, a substantial portion of the American public were willing to do something more than humanitarian efforts, especially if there was proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its people. In a Pew survey conducted April 2013, more Americans favored (45%) than opposed (31%) the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Syria, “if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups” (23% didn’t know).  It’s important to note that this question was also presented as a multilateral action, which is typically more palatable to Americans.  A May 2013 CNN/ORC survey found that two in three (66%) Americans said that the US would be justified in using military action against the Syrian government “if the US were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country.”  And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2012 reported majority (63%) support for military action in Syria if it used chemical weapons against its own people. A majority also supported US military involvement if Syria attacked neighboring US allies (69%) or lost control of its chemical weapons (70%).

The same December 2012 ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that six in ten (62%) of Americans supported the use of US military aircraft to create a no-fly zone, if no ground troops were involved. And while dated at this point, the 2012 Chicago Council survey found that Americans were willing to support sanctions against Syria, and possibly more.  Even before the violence spread into Damascus in 2012, a majority supported increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Syrian regime (63%).  Nearly as many said they would support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (58%), though a majority opposed bombing Syrian air defenses (72% opposed)- which in this case, would likely be necessary to impose a no-fly zone. Despite this disconnect between supporting a no-fly zone and opposing strikes against Syrian targets, in my view, these numbers represented an underlying desire (at least back then) across partisan differences, to move a step in between sanctions and what it would take to enforce a no-fly zone.

Later, when possible military action became closer to a possible reality, public opposition toward forceful action increased.  Though Pew did not repeat the same question they asked in April 2013 when a plurality supported taking multilateral military action, they did find that opposition to US airstrikes against Syria had increased dramatically from 48 percent in August 2013 to 63 percent in September 2013. In this case, the response was presented as a US unilateral response, which was being discussed at the time, and is always less popular than a multilateral initiative. In another example, ABC News/Washington Post surveys from August and September 2013 similarly reported an increase in opposition to US missile strikes (from 59% to 64%).

Some European support for similar types of engagement   

The German Marshall Fund’s 2013 Transatlantic Trends asked Europeans and Americans whether their countries should either intervene in Syria, where the government had  been using military force to suppress an opposition movement, or stay out completely.  Not surprisingly, when presented with just these two options, majorities in the US and Europe wanted to stay out.  But when given a wider range of alternatives, there was some more variation in opinion.

CNN commissioned an online survey in the UK, France and Germany in August 2013, after accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.  While online surveys in Europe (as well as most in the US) are not yet up to the standards of a random, representative surveys,  their findings can be suggestive.  In this case, when prompted with the Syrian government’s possible use of chemical weapons in the question, a majority in Germany (55%) and substantial minorities in the UK (46%) and France (39%) supported tightening economic sanctions.  There was some support for “Western nations” establishing a no-fly zone  (41% in Germany, 34% in UK, 31% in France). But as in the US case, fewer favored airstrikes against Syrian military targets (32% in France 20% in Germany, 16% in the UK).  Three in ten in the UK (30%) and France (27%) and somewhat fewer in Germany (22%) preferred to do nothing. [Poll respondents were allowed to choose more than one option from a list of "most appropriate responses," which included tightening sanctions, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, striking Syria with missiles, invading with a ground force, and doing nothing]. 

Americans supported the Russian-brokered deal regarding Syria’s chemical weapons

While a slim majority of Americans in several surveys say they disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the Syria crisis, we can’t tell whether this disapproval is because people think the US is not doing enough or whether it has done too much. No doubt, this assessment is also highly partisan in nature.  Nevertheless, majorities in several surveys show overall approval for the deal to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. A September 2013 Quinnipiac University Poll found that 71 percent supported a “plan to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons” (19% opposed).  And a September 2013 CBS News/NYTimes poll similar found that 82 percent of Americans favored the plan reached by Russian officials “that would involve the government of Syria turning over all of its chemical weapons to international weapons inspectors” (15% opposed). That said, a majority (66%) thought it was unlikely that the Syrian government would turn over all of its chemical weapons to international inspectors.

All this to say that earlier in the crisis, when it was perhaps easier to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys, there was some segment of public support for perhaps doing more.  Sadly, Syria seems to be off the public radar these days with more recent attention on Ukraine.  Stay tuned for a posting on that topic next.