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    What America Thinks
    A Gap in Worldviews

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, April 19, 1999

    A disturbing gap is growing between what ordinary Americans believe is the proper role of the United States in world affairs and the views of leaders responsible for making foreign policy, according to newly released surveys by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs.

    On issues ranging from immigration to the use of troops abroad to the prospects of a more peaceful world in the next millennium, Americans think very differently than their leaders — and those differences are getting larger, not smaller, council analysts found.

    Their conclusions emerged from a national survey of 1,507 randomly selected adults and a companion poll of 379 opinion leaders on foreign affairs, including senior staffers in the House of Representatives, Senate and the Clinton administration, as well as leaders in business, media, academia and private foreign policy institutes. The surveys were taken late last year.

    The surveys revealed that the public views the future far more darkly than do foreign policy experts. A majority of the public — 57 percent — said they expect "more bloodshed and violence in the 21st Century than in the 20th Century" — a view shared by 24 percent of the leaders interviewed. Barely half — 54 percent — of the respondents said globalization is "mostly good" for the United States, compared with 87 percent of policy leaders.

    On a range of specific foreign and domestic policy issues, the gap was as large or even larger. Two-thirds of the public — but only one in six leaders — said the United States should "not contribute more money to the International Monetary Fund to meet world financial crises. "Half of the public — 49 percent — opposed giving economic aid to other nations, as did only 10 percent of the leaders. Similarly, 50 percent of the general public — compared with 18 percent of the leaders — supported cutting back current economic aid.

    Americans also were far less willing to commit U.S. troops to defend traditional U.S. allies. Two-thirds of the public but only one in four leaders opposed the use of troops if North Korea invaded South Korea. Half of the public — 48 percent — opposed the use of troops to defend Saudi Arabia if Iraq invaded, compared with 20 percent of the foreign policy leaders. "Despite the perception of many vital interests around the world, public support for using troops to defend those interests has declined" in recent years, the council reported.

    The public and policy leaders disagreed sharply on a number of key domestic issues as well. A majority — 57 percent — of the public but only 21 percent of the leadership group agreed that "controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important goal. "And by a 2-to-1 ratio, the public is more likely than foreign policy leaders to agree that "protecting the jobs of American workers is a very important goal."

    "The public much more than leaders perceived threats and emphasizes goals related to the domestic impacts of international affairs, "council analysts wrote. "For example, many more citizens than leaders perceive large-scale immigration, epidemic diseases, international competition from low-wage countries and international terrorism as critical threats."

    Overall, the number of large gaps in perceptions — those of 20 percentage points or more — increased from 26 in 1994 to 34 in the latest council poll. That's not to say that the public and its foreign policy leaders have ever been entirely on the same page. Just the opposite is true: Ever since the council first began surveying the public and leaders in the mid-1970s, there have been differences — although the analysts note that the gaps have increased dramatically in recent years.

    The survey contained good news for President Clinton, who rose "from eighth [in 1994] to first place among post-World War II presidents considered 'very successful' in their conduct of foreign policy. "Those good feelings spilled over to Congress, which also received high marks from the public. Overall, the public is "the most satisfied it has been for 25 years about the role of Congress in the making of foreign policy."

    Americans continue to support an active role for their country in the world, with 61 percent of the public saying the United States must remain engaged in global affairs (a view they share with 96 percent of policy leaders). Only 28 percent of the public said it would be better for this country to "stay out" of world affairs. And the overwhelming majority — 79 percent — predicted that the United States will take on an even larger role in the future, a perception they share with an equally large majority of foreign policy leaders.

    But Americans remain cautious about — if not hostile to — notions of America as the world's cop. Seven in 10 of the public said the United States should not act alone in responding to an international crisis if it does not have the support of allies, a view shared by 48 percent of the policy leaders questioned. Coupled with the clear reluctance of the public to send troops to defend U.S. interests, the survey findings "point to some clouds on the horizon."

    "At a time when most people believe increased global cooperation and strong leadership are needed to solve current problems and thereby prevent future violence and instability, continued public support for international involvement is encouraging, "the council concluded.

    "Nevertheless, the guarded nature of that engagement could prove problematic if global leadership requires tougher choices by the United States in the next century than it has faced thus far as the post-Cold War's superpower."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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