Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index

by Ana Maria Arumi and Scott Bittle with Steve Farkas and Jean Johnson

A Report from Public Agenda with support from Ford Foundation

Americans Perplexed and Anxious About Relations with Muslim World According to First Confidence Index

The American public sees the web of issues surrounding relations with the Islamic world as the fundamental foreign policy problem facing the nation — but they have little idea what to do about it. So far, public thinking is a disquieting mix of high anxiety, growing uncertainly about current policy, and virtually no consensus about what else the country might do.

The inaugural edition of the Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index finds the public's concerns are dominated by issues that all lead back to the central theme of Islam and the West: the Iraq war, the global war on terrorism, and the public image of the United States abroad. Even before the London bombings, these worries rose without prompting in both our survey and focus groups.

But there is confusion and contradiction when the public is asked about possible strategies for dealing with the Muslim world. No single survey question holds the key to public attitudes; rather, we have reviewed and synthesized many questions to reveal a pattern. The aggregate findings show that there is still no consensus on our problems in the Middle East region. And like the motif in an unfinished Turkish rug, the growing image in the public mind has yet to develop fully.



The Public Agenda 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 nation-wide 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. This first baseline study was based on a series of expert interviews, four focus groups of the general public and telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,004 adults over the age of 18 between June 1 and June 13, 2005. It covered more than 25 different issues in more than 80 different survey questions. The margin of error for the overall sample of 1,004 is plus or minus three percentage points. Full survey results can be found at, or

The Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index reveals several foreign policy issues that have attracted less attention from leadership elites, but that the public cares about deeply and expresses stronger unanimity. The problems of illegal immigration and protecting American jobs in a global economy resonate strongly with the public. Political leaders usually determine which foreign policy issues deserve high priority and which deserve less — since the public usually looks to leaders for guidance here. But results from this first Foreign Policy Index strongly suggest that attitudes on these problems are reaching a point where the public's concerns will be too strong to be ignored.

Currently, half the public is dissatisfied with America's current global position — 49% said there were "too many things worrying and disappointing" them about relations with the rest of the world, compared to 40% who said the U.S. is "generally doing the right things." People are both dissatisfied with our position generally, and they give failing grades to many of the specifics of our foreign policy.

Historically, many Americans resist thinking about foreign policy at all. With the brief, traumatic exception of the Vietnam years, domestic issues have consistently trumped international affairs for the public, both in terms of their own interest and their desired priorities for government attention.

Should the U.S. government give more attention than it does now to international issues?

  2000 2005
A lot more 13% 21%
Somewhat more 25% 30%
Somewhat less 31% 27%
A lot less 15% 9%
Same [volunteered] 13% 9%


Belden Russonello & Stewart 2/00; Public Agenda 6/05

Today we live in the midst of another exception to that rule. In January 2000, before 9/11 took hold of the nation's consciousness, only a minority of Americans wanted the U.S. government to place more attention on international issues than they were at the time. Remarkably, now, even with the greater public attention paid to global concerns, Americans want more: half the public (51%) wants the government to place even more emphasis on international issues.

Since the invasion of Iraq, multiple surveys have found that the Iraq war and terrorism rival or outstrip the economy as a public concern. When people were asked in an open-ended question — one where respondents give their own answers rather than picking from alternatives — to name the most important international problem facing the U.S., Iraq and terrorism dominated, although there were some surprising other choices. In addition to more partisan critiques of the role of the Bush administration and the degree to which we focus on foreign versus domestic policy, concerns about how we relate to other countries and how they view us bubbled up.

Most important problem facing the U.S. in its dealings with the rest of the world

Iraq war 17%
Terrorism/security 11%
Negative view of the U.S. 9%
Should focus on domestic issues 8%
Relations with foreign countries 6%
The current administration 6%
U.S. is arrogant/bullying 5%
Economy 4%
Immorality and lack of religion 3%
Immigration 2%


Public Agenda 6/05


Level of worry about U.S. perception abroad

  Worry a lot Worry somewhat Don't worry
There may be growing hatred of the U.S. in Muslim countries 40% 34% 25%
The U.S. may be losing the trust and friendship of people in other countries 40% 35% 25%
Accusations of U.S. torture and abuse of suspected terrorists may damage our reputation in the world 29% 32% 39%


Public Agenda 6/05

The U.S. and the Islamic World: Concern and Confusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom that the American public doesn't know and doesn't care how it is seen abroad, strong majorities of the public believe the view of the United States is suffering abroad and large majorities are worried about it. Three-quarters say they worry that "the U.S. may be losing the trust and friendship of people in other countries" and that "there may be growing hatred of the U.S. in Muslim countries." In both cases, four in ten say they worry "a lot" about this, compared to the one-quarter who say they don't worry at all. A smaller majority, six in ten, say they're at least somewhat worried that accusations of torture against the U.S. will hurt our reputation.

There is a strong impression that this image problem is primarily, but not exclusively, an issue with our dealings with the Muslim world. When asked to grade the nation's performance on foreign policy, nearly two-thirds (64%), give the U.S. a "C" or worse on having good relations with Muslim countries. By contrast, only 52% give the U.S. such bad grades in having good relations with other countries in general, and 45% give the U.S. an "A" or "B".

What grade would you give the U.S. when it comes to achieving the following goals?

  A B C D F
Having good relations and reputation with Muslim countries 7% 21% 32% 19% 13%
Having good working relations with other countries 11% 34% 32% 14% 6%


Public Agenda 6/05

There are also vivid indications in the survey about why the public believes we are viewed negatively. When asked an open-ended question on how the rest of the world sees the U.S., nearly two-thirds said the world has a negative view. Fully one in ten, the largest single group, actually used the words "bully" or "bullying."

How Americans think the rest of the world views the U.S.

Negatively (unspecific) 18%
A bully 11%
Aggressive 8%
Materialistic and spoiled 6%
Powerful 6%
Mixed viewpoints 6%
Arrogant 5%
Benefactor 4%
Envious of the U.S. 4%
Wealthy 4%
Free and democratic 3%
Positively (unspecified) 3%


Public Agenda 6/05

Hinting at what might lie behind this assessment, in a different question some 63% said the criticism that the U.S. has been "too quick to resort to war" is at least partly justified (35% say it is "totally justified").

"The U.S. has been too quick to resort to war." Is the accusation justified?

Public Agenda 6/05

Yet even as people say it, there is reason to believe they do not accept it. A number of respondents and focus group participants said, in some form, that "the world may see us this way, but we're really not that domineering." When asked if the U.S. is only concerned with itself and ignores the interests of other countries, only 19% say that charge is "totally justified," while 44% say it's not justified at all.

"The U.S. is only concerned with its own interests and disregards the interests of other countries." Is the accusation justified?

Public Agenda 6/05

The public also believes strongly in the United States as a force for humanitarian good. Fully 83% gave the U.S. an "A" or "B" for helping other countries during natural disasters, by far the highest grade in the survey. Half give the U.S. "A" and "B" grades for helping to create democracy overseas.

When it comes to what should be done about America's image, or indeed, on the grim business of fighting terrorism in general, there are contradictions in the survey results. Public Agenda's founder, Daniel Yankelovich, has a theory of the stages public opinion travels through on its way to firm conclusions. One of the stages involves the public acknowledging the problem but not being ready to make the difficult choices necessary to achieve a solution. In some ways, that may be where the public is now: they want to be harsh and simultaneously diplomatic, to be both hard and soft.

Showing more respect for the views and needs of other countries would enhance security . . .

Public Agenda 6/05

For example, in many ways the public endorses the more diplomatic, so-called "soft power" approach to terrorism and the Islamic world. Some 87% say showing more respect for the needs of other countries would enhance U.S. security at least "somewhat" (half say "a great deal"). Some 64% say the government should put more emphasis on diplomatic and economic efforts to fight terrorism. Six in ten say improved communication and dialogue with the Muslim world would reduce hatred of the U.S.

To fight terrorism, in your opinion, should the government put more emphasis on . . .

Public Agenda 6/05

Do you think improved communication and dialogue with the Muslim world will reduce hatred of the U.S.?

Public Agenda 6/05

The public's doubts about the Iraq war, documented in this and other surveys, may also fall into this pattern. Indeed, they may help explain the public's interest in non-military options. More than half (56%) say they worry "a lot" that there are too many casualties in the Iraq war, with another quarter (26%) at least "somewhat" worried. Forty-three percent say they worry a lot that Iraq is distracting the U.S. from other threats, with 34% somewhat worried.

Is this something you worry about?

  Worry a lot Worry somewhat Don't worry
The war in Iraq is leading to too many casualties 56% 26% 18%
The war in Iraq is requiring so much money and attention that it may be distracting the U.S. from other threats in the world 43% 34% 23%


Public Agenda 6/05

Yet in other areas there is a strong sense that harsh tactics may be necessary and a skepticism about defeating terrorism by doing good deeds. A substantial majority (64%) says it's "wrong but sometimes necessary" to cooperate with harsh, undemocratic governments to fight terrorism. Half doubt that reducing poverty in the world will also reduce terrorism.

Given these crosscurrents, it is hard to draw a roadmap for political leaders. The public has not coalesced around a specific solution to the problems of America's image abroad and the Iraq war. In reviewing the breadth of the public's anxiety and their relative disenchantment with current foreign policy approaches, we find they are not only unhappy with the war, but they also question the degree to which we can help other countries become democracies or whether they need to come to this on their own. The Foreign Policy Index suggests that the public considers these major issues, and political leaders ignore that at their peril.

Jobs: Frustration and Fatalism

The areas where the public displayed the greatest dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs lay closer to home — they are concerned about the export of American jobs and illegal immigration. In particular, when it comes to American jobs and the global economy, the best words to sum up public attitudes are frustration and fatalism. The public doesn't believe the government is protecting U.S. jobs, but then again, it seems cynical about whether anyone can.

Half of Americans give the U.S. a "D" or "F" grade on protecting American jobs from going overseas (and three in ten chose "F"). The grades are better, but hardly great, on making international trade agreements that benefit the U.S. Slightly more than half (53%) give the U.S. a grade of "C" or worse.

At the same time, strong majorities believe cheap labor is hard to resist. Some 78% said it's unrealistic to believe U.S. firms will keep jobs at home "when labor is cheaper elsewhere." About half (52%) say it's unrealistic to expect American companies to have the same standards abroad as they do at home. This shows a great deal of dissatisfaction. Again, the findings don't point to a particular solution, but they do point to a public desire for leaders to come up with one.

Immigration is a Hot Button Issue

There is marked dissatisfaction over illegal immigration and deep concern over its implications. Some but not all of this is driven by concern about terrorism — a number of surveys have shown support for limiting immigration surged after 9/11.

Three-quarters of the public give the U.S. a "C" grade or worse in "protecting our borders from illegal immigration," with nearly one-quarter giving an "F." Roughly as many say it worries them that "it may be too easy for illegal immigrants to come into the country," with four in ten saying it worries them a lot.

Even more striking is that 58% say tighter controls on immigration would strengthen national security "a great deal." Another 30 percent said tighter immigration would at least "somewhat" strengthen security. Of all the security proposals cited in the survey, this is second only to improving U.S. intelligence operations (65% said that would help a great deal). Another 41% think it would improve security a great deal to have tighter controls on foreign students in American universities.

However, conflicted feelings about immigration are nothing new. Security fears may be pushing public attitudes toward a tipping point on immigration, but they build on longstanding economic and social concerns. It's also vital to remember that the public has historically made a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, with surveys finding far more favorable attitudes toward those who "play by the rules." At the same time there are longstanding concerns with the strain that both kinds of immigrants may place on our infrastructures.

Still, the idea that people can enter and live in the United States without permission is of tremendous concern to the public. Leadership elites may well be daunted by the enormous administrative, social and economic problems involved in controlling the nation's borders, but the public's patience with illegal immigration may be wearing thin.

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.






Don't know

Helping other countries when natural disasters strike 54 29 11 2 2 1
Making sure we have a strong, well-supplied military 30 37 19 8 5 2
Giving the war on terror all of the attention it deserves 23 35 23 9 6 3
Hunting down anti-American terrorists 19 35 25 10 7 4
Helping to create democracy in the rest of the world 19 31 30 10 7 4
Doing our best to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians 16 29 30 11 7 7
Helping improve the lives of people living in poor countries 15 27 28 16 9 4
Living up to our ideals of human rights and justice in the way we conduct our foreign policy 15 29 29 12 10 5
Stopping countries or groups from getting nuclear weapons 13 27 29 15 8 7
Succeeding in meeting our objectives in Iraq 13 26 24 17 16 4
Succeeding in meeting our objectives in Afghanistan 13 27 28 14 9 10
Protecting people or nations that are threatened with genocide or ethnic cleansing 12 24 28 16 10 10
Making the changes needed to improve U.S. intelligence and spying 12 29 30 9 5 16
Having good working relations with other countries 11 34 32 14 6 4
Working with other countries to protect the global environment 10 27 27 16 13 8
Making international trade agreements that benefit the United States 9 28 27 17 9 9
Stopping illegal drugs from coming into the country 7 16 24 24 26 3
Having good relations and reputation with Muslim countries 7 21 32 19 13 7
Protecting our borders from illegal immigration 7 18 29 21 24 2
Protecting American jobs from moving overseas 4 14 26 21 31 5


Some people say they are worried about various things, while others are not. I am going to read you several statements. For each statement, please tell me if this is something that you worry about a lot, is this something you worry about somewhat, or is this something you do NOT worry about.

  Worry a lot

Worry somewhat

Don't worry

Don't know

The War in Iraq is leading to too many casualties 56 26 18 *
Terrorists may obtain biological, chemical or nuclear weapons to attack the U.S. 48 40 13 *
The war in Iraq is requiring so much money and attention that it may be distracting the U.S. from other threats in the world 43 34 23 *
Problems abroad may hurt our supply of oil and raise prices for American consumers 42 39 19 --
It may be too easy for illegal immigrants to come into the country 42 31 27 1
There may be growing hatred of the U.S. in Muslim countries 40 34 25 1
The U.S. may be losing the trust and friendship of people in other countries 40 35 25 1
The U.S. is so concerned with its national security that it sometimes ends up violating the rights of its own citizens 38 32 30 1
There may be another major terrorist attack against the U.S. in the near future 37 42 21 --
The U.S. may owe too much money to other countries 32 31 36 2
The growing power of China may be a threat to the United States 29 37 33 1
Accusations of U.S. torture and abuse of suspected terrorists may damage our reputation in the world 29 32 39 1
The U.N. may be ineffective 27 37 34 2
The U.S. can recruit enough military troops without a draft 25 38 35 3
The U.S. may not be doing enough to prevent contagious diseases like SARS, lethal flues and Mad Cow that come from other countries 23 37 39 1


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 indispensable input on the questionnaire;

Daniel Yankelovich, Richard Danzig, Bobby Inman and all of our other board members who helped steer this project;

Amber Ott, Lara Saxman, Nancy Cunningham and Will Friedman, our colleagues, who also contributed to this research;

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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