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Poll: Americans urge diplomacy but like projecting military power, too.

After 20 years of war, only a limited number say they would decrease the overseas footprint. Most want a “shared leadership role” globally.

Most Americans believe that Washington’s continued influence on international affairs depends more on strengthening its domestic institutions and civic culture than on maintaining global military superiority, according to the latest in a biennial series of public-opinion polls released Thursday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Asked to rate the importance of 12 factors that would help maintain U.S. influence around the world, “improving public education” was rated as “very important” by 73 percent of the survey’s respondents. That was followed by “strengthening democracy at home” (70 percent), and “maintaining U.S. economic power” (66 percent) — all three ahead of “maintaining U.S. military superiority” (57 percent). 

Slightly fewer percentages — but still 50 percent or more of the 2,086 adult respondents — identified “preventing political violence such as the January 6 insurrection,” “reducing racial inequality at home,” and “reducing economic inequality at home” as “very important.”

Despite the apparent priority given to domestic issues as the best way to maintain U.S. influence, majorities of respondents indicated they were generally comfortable with the current state of U.S. military deployments around the world, including commitments to defend U.S. allies in Europe and Northeast Asia. 

And, for the first time since the question was first posed back in 1982, a majority (52 percent) of respondents said they would support dispatching U.S. troops to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. 

Indeed, anti-Beijing hawks are likely to cheer several of the report’s findings, one of the most striking of which was the perception, held by strong majorities of respondents, that Beijing has either equaled or surpassed the United States in both the economic and military realms. A 40 percent plurality said that China’s economy was stronger than the U.S. economy, while 31 percent said the two economies were “about equal.” (The World Bank reported that the U.S. gross domestic product came to about $21 trillion dollars in 2020, about 25 percent larger than China’s.)                                                                                                                                                        

And, while a 46 percent of respondents agreed that Washington was still militarily superior, 35 percent said the two countries’ military power was about equal, while 18 percent said Beijing — whose military spending last year came to only about one third of the 2020 U.S. defense budget — had the stronger military. Nonetheless, the percentage of those respondents who asserted that China was either ahead of or had drawn even with the United States in military spending grew by a total of 12 percent since the previous Chicago poll was taken two years ago.

And, while overall a large majority of respondents (at 68 percent, the highest level since the Council first posed the question) said that foreign trade and globalization is “mostly good for the United States,” a 58-percent majority said that U.S.-China trade does more to weaken U.S. national security than to strengthen it. Just two years ago, two-thirds of respondents agreed with the proposition that national security was strengthened by trade with China. A 62 percent majority said they favor increasing tariffs on Chinese goods even if it increases prices here.

At the same time, however, “limiting China’s influence around the world” rated relatively poorly among 14 foreign policy goals respondents were asked to rate in importance. While half of respondents cited “limiting China’s influence” as “very important,” “preventing cyberattacks” (83 percent), “protecting the jobs of U.S. workers” (79 percent), “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (75 percent),” “combating international terrorism” and “preventing and combating global pandemics (66 percent each), and “limiting climate change” (54 percent), all scored higher as priorities. Among the 14 listed goals, those that were favored least were “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (32 percent) and “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (18 percent).

The survey, which was conducted in July –before the chaotic U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan — found broad support (64 percent) for the proposition that the United States should “take an active part in world affairs,” as opposed to “stay(ing) out of world affairs” (35 percent) — a finding that was well within the ranges of the Chicago survey and similar polls over the last four decades. 

As to how Washington should engage, 69 percent of respondents said they wanted Washington to play “a shared leadership role” in the world, as opposed to the 23 percent who said they wanted the United States to be “the dominant world leader,” and the eight percent who opposed “any leadership role.” Those opting for “shared leadership” increased by seven percentage points compared to 2016. The preference for “shared leadership” was strongest among self-identified Democrats at 77 percent and weakest, albeit still a majority, among Republicans at 53 percent.

Asked to choose from a list of five global issues in which Washington should play a leading role, “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons” was chosen by 76 percent of respondents; “combating international terrorism” by 67 percent; sending COVID-19 vaccines to needy countries by 62 percent; “limiting climate change” by 58 percent; and combating world hunger by 54 percent.

One of the more striking findings of the survey, which focused in major part on President Biden’s promise to make U.S. foreign policy serve the middle class, suggested that most Americans see foreign policy as disproportionately benefiting elites and the military. Majorities identified “large companies,” “the U.S. government, and “wealthy Americans” as benefiting “a great deal” from U.S. foreign policy, while 42 percent cited the “U.S. military.” Majorities of between 54 and 60 percent, on the other hand, said “working-class Americans,” “middle-class Americans,” and “small companies” benefited “not very much” or “not at all.

Despite these concerns and the strong focus placed on the importance of strengthening the U.S. economy and civic institutions and the lower priority accorded by respondents to maintaining U.S. military superiority, the survey’s findings suggest that public opinion does not favor a major retrenchment in Washington’s global military posture as the respondents understood it. Only 15 percent of respondents said they wanted to decrease the size and geographical spread of the U.S. military, while 52 percent think it should remain about the same. 

On the other hand, 45 percent said Washington is not using enough humanitarian assistance and other diplomatic tools, including participation in international agreements and organizations, in its conduct of foreign policy.

Majorities expressed support for intervening with U.S. troops if Washington’s perceived or treaty allies come under attack. A near-record high of 63 percent of respondents said they support using U.S. troops to defend South Korea if it is invaded by the North. A record-high 59 percent of respondents support deploying U.S. troops to protect “a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia in the event of a Russian invasion, while 53 percent said they would support sending U.S. troops to protect Israel if it came under attack “by its neighbors.” In these scenarios, no additional context was provided to respondents. Pollsters noted that “(t)here has been some discussion about the circumstances that might justify using U.S. troops in other parts of the world, and respondents were then asked whether they would “favor or oppose the use of U.S. troops in these scenarios, as well the scenario in which China invaded Taiwan.

In terms of demographic groups, those respondents who were 60 years or older were consistently more hawkish when presented with these scenarios than other age groups, while, in contrast to some recent polls that have found 18-to-29-year-olds to generally be less attracted to military power, it was the 30-44-year-old group that proved the most dovish in the Chicago survey.

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