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What are Americans' biggest foreign policy priorities?

What are Americans' biggest foreign policy priorities?

Russia, China, and Mideast peace have us worried

Reporting | Global Crises

Americans give higher priority to countering the power and influence of Russia and China and finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians than they did six years ago, according to a new survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

Conversely, policies aimed at promoting human rights, protecting refugees, and strengthening the United Nations are not as compelling to many citizens as they were in 2018, according to the survey, which was conducted during the first week of April.

At the same time, the survey of 3,600 adults found big differences of opinion between respondents who identified as Democrats and Republicans or as leaning toward either party, and between younger and older respondents of what they consider to be “top priorities” for long-term U.S. foreign policy aims.

Democrats and younger participants in the survey were far more likely to rate climate change, defending human rights, and reducing U.S. military commitments overseas as “top priorities.” Republicans and older voters, by contrast, were far more likely to rate containing China and Iran, supporting Israel, and “maintaining the U.S. military advantage over all other countries” as “top priorities.”

At the same time, the survey found that foreign policy did not appear to be as important to the general public this year as it appeared five years ago. Asked which is “more important for President Biden to focus on,” 83% of respondents identified “domestic policy” over “foreign policy” (14% ). Asked the same question with respect to former President Trump in July 2019, respondents favored “domestic policy” by a narrower margin – 74% to 23%.

A second poll of the same respondents released by Pew Tuesday found that views of the United Nations have become somewhat more negative over the past year, with only a slight majority (52%) voicing an overall “favorable” opinion of the world body, down from 57% one year ago. As in the “priorities” survey, the poll found major differences in political and age differences in opinions about the U.N., with Democrats and Democratic-leaning and younger respondents having significantly more favorable views than their Republican and older counterparts. The poll also found that respondents with more education were also more likely to have a favorable opinion of the U.N. than less educated respondents, although the differences were not nearly as great as the partisan and age gaps.

In the first survey, respondents were asked to rate a total of 22 long-range foreign policy goals by whether they should be considered “top priority,” “some priority,” and “no priority.” Of the 22 goals listed this year, six had not been listed in previous surveys by Pew, so comparisons with past sentiment could not be made. Three of the new goals – “strengthening NATO,” “supporting Israel,” and “supporting Ukraine” – were directly relevant to ongoing conflicts that have dominated headlines but were far less salient three years ago when Pew last conducted a “priorities” poll.

As in previous surveys of this kind, particularly since 9/11, two of the three goals that were rated “top priority” the most respondents were “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” (73%) and “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (63%). “Reducing the flow of illegal drugs into our country” – a new goal not previously listed – was rated as a “top priority” by 64% of respondents (although only 34% of the youngest respondents (18-29 years old) agreed with that assessment).

Other goals that were rated by a majority as a “top priority” included “maintaining the U.S. military advantage over all other countries” (53%), “reducing the spread of infectious diseases”(52%), “limiting the power and influence” of Russia (50%) and China (49%).

The biggest differences between the latest “top priority” goals and those that Pew found in 2018 included containing China’s influence and power, which rose from 32% six years ago to 49% ; finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (from 18% to 29%); and containing Russia (from 42% to 50%). Support for maintaining U.S. military primacy also rose by a more modest 4% over the six years, although the goal of “getting other countries to assume more of the costs of maintaining world order,” also rose two points to 42%.

The survey also bolstered the notion that younger Americans are significantly more idealistic than their older counterparts. Besides the goal of staunching the flow of illegal drugs, differences of 40 percentage points or more between the pool of respondents aged 18-29 and the oldest group (65 and older) were found with respect to containing China (28% versus 72%), “limiting the power and influence of Iran” (17% versus 61%), and maintaining U.S. military primacy (31% versus 71%). The youngest respondents were also considerably less concerned about containing Russia and North Korea, and “supporting Israel” was rated a “top priority” by only 7% of the youngest group.

Partisan differences were often almost as great, although the 55-percentage point gap between Democrat- and Republican-inclined respondents over “dealing with climate change” as a “top priority” (70% versus 15%) was particularly dramatic. Gaps of 20% or more were found on “supporting Israel” (8% Democratic versus 39% Republican), reducing illegal drugs (51% versus 79%), maintaining military primacy (41% versus 68%, “supporting Ukraine” (37% versus 12%), aiding refugees (30% versus 7%), fighting diseases (63% versus 41%), defending human rights (36% versus 15%), getting other countries to bear costs of maintain world order (54% versus 33%), strengthening the UN (40% versus 20%), and containing Iran (29% versus 49%).

gopixa via shutterstock.com
gopixa via shutterstock.com
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