Republicans pounced on President Obama this week after he seemed to offer discreet assurances to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have more “flexibility” on nuclear defense missile negotiations once the election year is over. Even before House Speaker John Boehner (R) issued a prickly letter today, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney had criticized Obama for making promises to the president of Russia, calling the country the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.”
Just over two decades ago, many Americans would have agreed with Romney’s severe assessment. But the idea that Russia is this country’s biggest enemy carries very little weight with the American public in the 21st century.
In the early 1980s, Americans were pretty vitriolic about the Soviet Union. In a 1983 Harris poll, fully 93 percent said the USSR was unfriendly to the United States or an enemy. In 1990, 32 percent of Americans said Russia (then the Soviet Union) represented the greatest danger to the United States, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, (then called Times-Mirror). Negative views softened dramatically over the next 10 years, with two-thirds actually saying Russia was friendly to the United States or an ally in 1993. Today, there’s virtually no consensus any more that Russia is the bad guy. This year, for instance, a scant 2 percent picked Russia as America’s arch-nemesis. Yes, there’s a resistance to being too trustful — fewer than one in five have called Russia an “ally” at any point in time — but calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” makes Romney seem anachronistic, if not stuck in the Cold War.
In the past couple of years, ratings of Russia have bounced around. They turned sharply negative in a summer 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll following a highly publicized conflict with Georgia, a former Soviet territory. But positive ratings recovered last year, when six in 10 said Russia was friendly or an ally in a similarly worded CNN survey. Gallup polls record less dramatic changes in recent years, with 50 percent holding favorable views of Russia in their February 2012 poll.
Not surprisingly, older Americans with memories of the Cold War may be less willing to bury the hatchet than their offspring. The May 2011 CNN poll found that 47 percent of those over age 50 considered Russia to be unfriendly toward the United States. By contrast, 70 percent of younger adults saw Russia positively — more than a 2 to 1 margin.
The end of the Cold War surely played a role in softening attitudes toward Russia in the 1990s, but Americans have also been aware of new dangers. In addition to the threat of international terrorism, Iran has surged to become one of the United States’ least-liked nations. Perhaps the change is also due to Russia’s declining global influence: While most Americans see China as a major economic threat to the U.S., a scant 1 percent in a 2011 Gallup poll predicted that Russia would be the world’s leading economic power in 20 years time.
Romney’s assertion that Obama was “caving” in negotiations with Russia over U.S. security interests may turn out to be a point of attack. And certainly, there’s no question that Obama wishes he could take back that hot mike slip-up back. But with around half of Americans holding positive attitudes towards Russia, negotiations with a friend — even those overheard in error — are probably not enough to dent Obama’s political fortunes that badly.
Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.