Americans Wary of Creating Democracies Abroad

by Ana Maria Arumi and Scott Bittle with Amber Ott, Alison Kadlec and Lara Saxman

The second edition of the Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index finds new concerns pushing their way into public consciousness even as worries identified in the first edition persist. In the first edition of the Foreign Policy Index, we examined the public's attitudes about the U.S. role in the world; with the second edition, we begin to probe trends and changing perceptions. Public concern seems to have moderated in some cases, as with America's image in the Muslim world. By contrast, public concern over oil prices and their impact on national security has gone from "zero to 60" in just a few months.

The Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index is a joint venture with Foreign Affairs, America's most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy, conducted by Public Agenda with major support from the Ford Foundation. To create the Foreign Policy Index, Public Agenda will regularly interview a nationwide random sample of adult Americans to track the changing state of mind of average Americans toward our foreign policy-what worries people most, where they support or resist present foreign policy, what their priorities are and what foreign policy initiatives make sense to them.

Each edition of the index asks the public what worries them most about the international challenges facing the nation, to grade (on an "A" to "F" scale) the U.S. government on its efforts to address them and what they believe the most effective strategies and priorities might be. Based on our experience with the first edition, we added additional questions to explore energy, outsourcing of jobs and global warming in greater depth. Another new battery of questions examines the public's level of trust in the U.S. government and finds substantial minorities doubt they're being told the truth about various foreign policy matters by the nation's leadership. Another asks the public whether they think it's realistic to believe the government and business can solve some of the challenges in international affairs.

Events in the news always provide a context to survey results on foreign relations. This edition of the index was in the field after last fall's dramatic increase in oil prices but before President Bush raised the issue of energy independence in the State of the Union. The survey also followed December's successful Iraqi elections but predates the surge in sectarian violence in Iraq and the victory of the hard-line group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary voting.

Democracy, Disaster and Priorities

The American public has always been reluctant to be the world's policeman, but the latest Public Agenda Confidence in Foreign Policy Index suggests that on some level, the country might prefer to be the world's firefighter, charging to the rescue when natural disaster or disease strikes. Even so, this is one of the few foreign policy goals most Americans seem comfortable with just now. Only one American in five sees creating democracies as a very important goal. About half say traditional goals such as improving the treatment of women or helping people in poor countries get an education are very important. The results suggest that Americans are reevaluating the country's effectiveness in many areas-viewing some kinds of help, such as promoting democracy, as both beyond the reach of the United States and less effective in improving security. They may also be yearning for roles that are less controversial, have limited responsibility and where, at least in the public's judgment, the country can be successful.

If the public had its way, the first priority of U.S. foreign policy would be helping other nations recover from natural disasters like the Asian tsunami, as well as cooperating on problems like the environment and controlling diseases. A wide cross section of all Americans, seven in 10, considers dealing effectively with these natural disasters to be "very important" foreign policy goals. Battling Mother Nature outstrips other humanitarian goals such as improving the treatment of women internationally (57 percent consider that "very important") and helping people in poor countries get an education (51 percent). At the same time, the public appears to be satisfied with their most salient concerns. When asked to grade the United States' performance on international affairs, the public hands out its best grades for helping other countries when natural disasters strike. Nearly half give the United States an "A" in that area, far more than in any other category.

While majorities of the public see some importance in all of the policies presented, the strategies that stress cooperation with other countries are ranked higher than more unilateral approaches. Most (87 percent) regard "taking into account the views and interests of other countries" to be important for our foreign policy versus 69 percent who judge "minding our own business and getting less involved with global issues" as important.

Not every means of helping other countries resonates with the public. Six in 10 say that "with all the problems we have, we're already doing more than our share" for poorer nations. Only 22 percent think it is very important to encourage U.S. business to invest in poor countries, and even less than that (20 percent) say it is very important to actively create democracies.

Promoting democracy has become a major goal of U.S. policy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, where the Bush administration argues that in the end, democratic reform is the best way of undermining Islamic extremists. This edition of the Foreign Policy Index was conducted after the successful Iraqi elections but before the hard-line group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament.

Even so, most of the public ranks promoting democracy in other countries as the least important of the foreign policy goals we asked about and seems to doubt the United States can achieve it. Significantly, Americans are divided on whether it will make the United States more secure even if we pull it off. Only 36 percent believe the United States can actively help other countries become democracies, while 58 percent say that "democracy [is] something that countries only come to on their own when they're ready for it." Six months ago, 50 percent thought the United States was doing well at promoting democracy; this time the number is trending downward to 46 percent. The public is just as skeptical when asked specifically about Iraq. While six in 10 say the United States can at least do "something" to create a democratic Iraq, only 22 percent say it can do "a lot." In a more general sense, about half (53 percent) say that when more countries become democratic there will be less conflict in the world.

However, there are significant concerns about what we are currently doing-73 percent worry that our actions in the Middle East are aiding the recruitment of terrorists. As to what else might be done, the public is evenly split on whether reducing poverty will also reduce terrorism (49 percent say no, 47 percent say yes). When asked what strategies might make the United States more secure, only one in five says helping Muslim countries develop economically and building roads, dams and bridges in developing countries would enhance security "a great deal."

By contrast, the strategies the public endorses for improving national security tend to be near-term and more traditional approaches. Six in 10 say improving intelligence operations and becoming less dependent on foreign energy supplies would enhance U.S. security "a great deal." Half believe tighter controls on immigration would help, while 45 percent say showing more respect for the views of other nations would do a great deal for security.

Energy: From "Zero to 60"

In the six months since we last fielded the Foreign Policy Index, gasoline prices spiked sharply across the nation. Not surprisingly, Americans have grown much more worried that problems abroad may affect the price of oil. The portion of those who "worry a lot" about this occurring has increased from 42 percent to 55 percent-putting oil dependence at the top of our "worry scale" of 18 policy issues. The public is highly critical of the job the United States is doing to become less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy. Nearly half give a "D" or "F" (46 percent), while only 9 percent give the United States an "A" for its efforts to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy. Notably, more than half (55 percent) are worried "a lot" about problems abroad potentially jeopardizing our supply of oil and raise prices for American consumers.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush declared that the United States is "addicted to oil" and that our economic competitiveness requires finding ways to become less dependent on oil, particularly on foreign sources of oil. According to our survey, the American public agrees wholeheartedly with the president's assessment. But although the president spoke of energy dependence and oil in economic terms, the public views these issues as grave matters of national security.

Virtually all Americans surveyed (90 percent) see the United States becoming less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy as important for strengthening our nation's security. In fact, when asked about a variety of proposals for bolstering national security, reducing energy dependence ranked second only to improving the effectiveness of our intelligence operations.

Interestingly for those in Washington, while so many gave such poor grades to the United States for it's current energy dependency, an overwhelming majority think the U.S. government has the power to decrease our reliance on other countries for our supply of energy-a full 50 percent believe the United States could do "a lot" to reduce our energy dependence. The gap between the poor grades given and the belief in the capacity of the United States to address the problem suggests that public dissatisfaction is now acute. The public seems to believe quite strongly that the U.S. government is failing to do all that it can to address the problem of energy dependence.

While it is not particularly surprising that a solid majority of the public (65 percent) says that it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. government to continue providing a stable supply of oil at affordable prices, it is perhaps more surprising that a large minority (35 percent) of the public thinks it is realistic to expect that.

Over the last 30 years, public concern about energy has been closely linked with gas prices. While it is hard to predict how the public will react, if gas prices were to fall, public concerns about energy might recede. On the other hand, if gas prices were to remain high, public pressure on leaders to focus on energy issues would probably continue to build.

A Question of Trust

The bitter debate over the Iraq war has taken its toll on public opinion in one regard: Substantial minorities of the public, up to half in some cases, don't believe the government has told them the truth on foreign policy.

We added a battery of questions to this survey about trusting what the government tells the public in foreign policy matters. In a general sense, the public is evenly divided on the government's honesty. Forty-eight percent say they trust the government "very much" or at least "somewhat" to tell the public the truth about relations with other countries. But 51 percent say they trust the government "not too much" or "not at all."

When the public is asked about specific areas of foreign policy and the war on terrorism, however, the government often gets better grades. Six in 10, for example, believe the government has been "somewhat" or "completely" truthful about why the U.S. waged war in Afghanistan and how much progress has been made on improving homeland security. More than half (55 percent) say the government has been truthful about how well we are doing in the war on terrorism and on who is responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq (53 percent). But 50 percent say the government has been at least somewhat untruthful about why the U.S. invaded Iraq.

What Would You Say?

Below you'll find the national survey results for selected questions drawn from Public Agenda's Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index. The margin of error is +/- 4 percent. Complete details are available in the Methodology.

What grade would you give the U.S. when it comes to achieving the following goals? Please give an A, B, C, D or F for Fail. If you don't know, just say so. A B C D F Don't know
Helping other countries when natural disasters strike 49% 31% 14% 4% 3% 1%
Making sure we have a strong, well-supplied military 32% 33% 20% 8% 4% 2%
Giving the war on terror all of the attention it deserves 26% 32% 20% 9% 9% 4%
Hunting down anti-American terrorists 18% 28% 27% 10% 7% 6%
Helping to create democracy in the rest of the world 16% 30% 28% 12% 7% 6%
Doing our best to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians 15% 29% 24% 12% 9% 10%
Helping improve the lives of people living in poor countries 14% 31% 28% 11% 11% 6%
Living up to our ideals of human rights and justice in the way we conduct our foreign policy 14% 31% 27% 11% 10% 7%
Stopping countries or groups from getting nuclear weapons 14% 27% 27% 14% 10% 7%
Succeeding in meeting our objectives in Iraq 11% 22% 23% 15% 23% 6%
Succeeding in meeting our objectives in Afghanistan 11% 21% 28% 14% 15% 11%
Protecting people or nations that are threatened with genocide or ethnic cleansing 13% 24% 25% 15% 11% 11%
Preventing the spread of contagious diseases from around the world 23% 32% 23% 7% 8% 7%
Having good working relations with other countries 10% 32% 37% 10% 6% 4%
Working with other countries to prevent global warming 11% 19% 24% 13% 15% 18%
Making international trade agreements that benefit the United States 11% 27% 25% 14% 12% 12%
Stopping illegal drugs from coming into the country 7% 13% 22% 20% 31% 6%
Having good relations and reputation with Muslim countries 6% 19% 28% 19% 17% 9%
Protecting our borders from illegal immigration 6% 13% 27% 20% 30% 4%
Protecting American jobs from moving overseas 4% 11% 24% 22% 35% 4%
Conducting effective U.S. intelligence operations 11% 26% 28% 11% 10% 13%
Becoming less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy 9% 11% 30% 23% 23% 5%
Limiting the amount of money we owe other countries 6% 14% 25% 16% 17% 21%

Methodology and Sponsors

This second edition of the study was based on interviews with a national random sample of 1,000 adults over the age of 18 between January 10 and January 22, 2006. It covered more than 25 different issues in more than 110 different survey questions. The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus four percentage points. The margin of error is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion surveys and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inject the public's voice into crucial policy debates. Public Agenda seeks to inform leaders about the public's views and to engage citizens in discussing complex policy issues.

Since 1922, the Council on Foreign Relations has published Foreign Affairs, America's most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy. Foreign Affairs has a circulation of 140,000 and was ranked No. 1 in influence by U.S. opinion leaders in last year's national study of publications conducted by Erdos & Morgan, the premier business-to-business research firm. Inevitably, articles published in Foreign Affairs shape the political dialogue for months and years to come.

The Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index has major support from the Ford Foundation.


The authors of the Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index would like to thank the following people for their support and assistance during the preparation of this report:

Our partners at Foreign Affairs and the Ford Foundation for offering us the opportunity to conduct this research and for providing the freedom to explore the issues without constraint or bias. Special thanks to James F. Hoge, Jr., of Foreign Affairs, and David Chiel, at the Ford Foundation, for their counsel and support;

Dan Yankelovich, Robert Shapiro, Richard Haass, Bobby Inman, Richard Danzig, John Doble, Ramon Daubon, Nancy Roman, Michele A. Flournoy, Allan Rosenfield, David Frum and Nancy Soderberg for their help in the conception of this project;

Claudia Feurey and Michael Hamill Remaley for their work in bringing our work to the attention of a broad audience;

David White, of Public Agenda Online, for producing a distinctive and highly informative online version of this report;

And Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden for her vision, insight and guidance.

About Public Agenda

Founded in 1975 by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich, and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Public Agenda works to help the nation's leaders better understand the public's point of view and to help average citizens better understand critical policy issues. Our in-depth research on how citizens think about policy has won praise for its credibility and fairness from elected officials from both political parties and from experts and decision makers across the political spectrum. Our citizen education materials and award-winning web site offer unbiased information about the challenges the country faces. Recently recognized by Library Journal as one of the Web's best resources, Public Agenda Online provides comprehensive information on a wide range of policy issues.


Daniel Yankelovich


Sidney Harman

Chairman, Executive Committee


Cyrus R. Vance



Frank Stanton

Former President, CBS Inc.


Ruth A. Wooden



Richard Danzig

Former Secretary of the Navy

Alice S. Huang

California Institute of Technology

Bobby R. Inman

Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)

David Mathews

Kettering Foundation

Lloyd Morrisett

Former President, Markle Foundation

Judith Davidson Moyers

Public Affairs Television, Inc.

Peter G. Peterson

The Blackstone Group

Lois Dickson Rice

The Brookings Institution

Alice Rivlin

The Brookings Institution

Max Stier

Partnership for Public Service

Deborah Wadsworth

Senior Advisor, Public Agenda

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