What the Latest Pew Polls Have to Say

The U.S. electorate is preoccupied with foreign policy. Foreigners are preoccupied with the U.S.

| Wed Aug. 25, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Americans rank national security issues as the country's top priorities and are concerned about the loss of U.S. prestige in the world, but they're more negative about the United Nations than ever. Meanwhile, in spite of all the talk of "bridging the transatlantic divide," the United States' favorability ratings among Europeans have plunged to new lows since the war in Iraq ended. These were some of the findings of two recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In the July/August poll of U.S. voters, co-sponsored by Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations, 41 percent named war, foreign policy, or terrorism as the nation's most pressing problems, compared to 26 percent who named the economy or unemployment. As the report concluded:

"Barring a sizable shift in public opinion over the next few months, the 2004 election will be the first since the Vietnam era in which foreign affairs and national security issues are a higher public priority than the economy."

Bush continues to be viewed as more effective on the homeland security front than on Iraq. The president's handling of the terrorist threats was approved by 58 percent of voters, but just 43 percent approve of his handling of the war in Iraq. A bare majority believes that the war was justified and there is deep division about whether it helped or hurt the "war on terrorism" -- with 45 percent saying it has helped and 44 percent saying it has hurt that effort.

Senator John Kerry's frequent criticism of the Bush administration's "squandering the opportunity" to build a strong multinational coalition before invading Iraq is resonating among voters concerned about the negative perceptions of the U.S. abroad. Sixty-seven percent felt that the U.S. is now less respected than it has been in the past and 43 percent of those who noted the trend, considered this to be a "major" problem. Forty-nine percent of all voters said that U.S. foreign policy should take the concerns of allies into account, but this number fell to 35 percent when it came to U.S. terrorism policy. While an overwhelming majority favored the use of preemptive military action, 59 percent said that the Bush administration is "too quick to involve the military." Swing voters tended to endorse Kerry's view that the U.S. needs to pursue a more multilateral foreign policy. As Lee Feinstein, James M. Lindsay, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations write:

"Bush supporters and Kerry supporters are taking sides in the longstanding debate over the relative importance of 'hard' versus 'soft' power. Will the U.S. be safer and more prosperous if it is feared, or if it is loved? Are America's military strength, and the willingness to use it, what count most, or is America's reputation abroad equally important?
For now, swing voters may be leaning toward Kerry's side of the debate. They accord much higher importance to strengthening the United Nations and improving America's relationship with its allies than Bush supporters do. This suggests that the task facing the president is either to persuade these voters that hard power is what will keep them safe or convince them that he too understands the importance of soft power."

Democrats and Republicans indeed differed not only on Bush's Iraq policy, but also on the nation's long-term foreign policy agenda, with the partisan gap having widened since 9/11. For example, 82 percent of Republicans ranked stopping the spread of WMDs as one of top foreign policy concerns compared to 62 percent of Democrats, whereas in early September of 2001, 82 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Republicans did so. Terrorism was the top foreign policy priority for Republicans and independents; it was a close second for Democrats after the protection of U.S. jobs. Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to agree that "U.S. wrongdoings" might have motivated the 9/11 attacks. While some 51 percent of Democrats agreed with that statement, only 17 percent of Republicans did so. The spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases -- attention to which faded following the 9/11 attack, but has since been regained -- was named as the third most pressing foreign policy concern. By contrast, only small minorities of Republicans and Democrats saw the spread of democracy as such.

The Pew poll contained troubling, as well as positive news for civil rights advocates. Those who believe that civil liberties will have to be sacrificed to carry out of the war on terrorism has declined from 55 percent in September of 2001 to 38 percent this July. And while 53 percent said that torture was rarely or never justified, some 43 percent agreed that it was often or sometimes justified.

An earlier March Pew poll of world opinion confirmed U.S. voters' concerns about the fall of the country's international prestige. It seconded the findings of last year's poll that showed widespread distrust of the United States in Europe and predominantly Muslim countries. In Britain -- the United States' most important ally in the war in Iraq -- U.S.'s favorability ranking slipped from 70 percent in May of 2003 to 58 percent in March of this year. In France, it fell from 43 to 37 percent during the same period. In contrast to Germany and France, backing for Bush's "war on terrorism" has sharply increased in Russia, where 73 percent now support it. Support has also grown in Turkey and Morocco, where the "war on terrorism" remains overwhelmingly unpopular. In Turkey, for example, 37 percent now support it compared to the 22 percent when the war in Iraq ended. In Pakistan, which has been hailed as a key partner in the "war against terrorism" -- providing the U.S. with intelligence information and terrorism suspects -- 46 percent justified suicide bombings targeting Americans in Iraq. In Jordan, that number was 70 percent.

At a time when the U.S. is viewed so negatively throughout the world, Americans, for their part, are weary of the United Nations. Only fifty-five percent view the United Nations favorably -- the lowest rating not only among Western nations, but also in the fourteen years that Pew has conducted the survey in the States. While only 13 percent of Americans feel that the U.S. is overreacting to the terrorist threat, 76 percent of Jordanians, 66 percent of Pakistanis, 57 of the French, and 33 percent of the British believe it is doing so. Support for an independent European foreign policy has risen since the end of the war in Iraq, with 75 percent of the French and 58 percent of Britons favoring it.

The Pew polls reflect the dilemma the Kerry is facing. On the one hand, Americans are aware of the country's loss of prestige and want to restore it. This, Kerry argues, can only be done with a new administration since Bush has discredited himself in the international community by ignoring U.S. allies, failing to exhaust all diplomatic options, build a strong coalition, and prepare a post-war plan before invading Iraq. On the other hand, Bush administration's doctrine of military preemption, justification of torture, and distrust of the United Nations has -- in varying degrees -- domestic support, but international disapproval. As Michael Dimock, associate director of Pew, told the Washington Times:

"Kerry wants to say, 'Yes, I would protect America as strongly as Bush, but I would maintain its [international] respect.' But Bush says, 'You can't worry about pleasing everybody.' Somewhere in the middle is the battle for the public."
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.