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    What America Thinks
    Misreading the Public's Attitude on Foreign Policy

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Nov. 24, 1997

    Americans who make foreign policy have thoroughly misread public attitudes on international affairs and the role that Americans want their country to play in the world, according to a new survey of policymakers conducted by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

    "There is a significant gap between the dominant perceptions of the public held by the policy community and the attitudes held by the majority of the American public," says Steven Kull, who headed the research team that conducted the study.

    Kull bases his claim on an in-depth analysis of recent national surveys conducted by the center's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and other leading national polls. The public's attitudes were then contrasted with what 83 policy practitioners told researchers they believed public opinion to be. The policymakers included members of Congress and congressional aides, executive branch foreign policy officials, journalists and influential policy analysts at major non-governmental organizations.

    When they were done, the research team identified no fewer than seven areas where policymakers' characterizations of public opinion differed from the views reflected in national surveys.

    What should be America's role in the world? The overwhelming majority of policymakers say the public favors disengagement and retreat, and they have translated those perceived public judgments into policy.

    "In the wake of the Cold War, one of the most prominent features of U.S. foreign policy has been a pronounced trend toward disengagement from the world," Kull says, citing as evidence cuts in international spending, a diminished diplomatic presence abroad, withholding payment of United Nations dues and increased reluctance to contribute troops to international military efforts.

    "Curiously, this trend in U.S. foreign policy is not the result of a consensus among policymakers and the foreign policy elite," he says. "On the contrary, this group generally finds this trend to be unfortunate [but] . . . inevitable because the attitudes of the American public have undergone a sea change."

    That's wrong, Kull claims – and you can look it up. He cites eight national polls conducted by various survey organizations, including The Washington Post, that show strong majorities believe it would be best if the United States takes "an active part" in world affairs, while few believe it's in our best interests to stay out.

    Kull says other survey results confirm that Americans have not become more isolationist – just more realistic and far less willing for the United States to single-handedly police the world.

    "The public supports continued engagement, but favors much greater emphasis on cooperative and multilateral forms of international involvement in which the U.S. contributes its fair share along with other countries," Kull concludes after reviewing the polling data.

    Policymakers also misread public opinion on public attitudes toward the United Nations. Eight in 10 congressional members and six in 10 congressional staffers said most Americans have a negative view of the U.N. Not so, Kull says. In fact, the majority of Americans would like the U.N. to be stronger, and a majority favor the United States paying its back dues, according to a 1996 PIPA survey.

    Likewise, the men and women who shape foreign policy may overestimate public opposition to foreign aid. Nearly nine in 10 – 88 percent – of those interviewed in a 1995 PIPA poll disagreed that the United States should eliminate foreign aid entirely, while 8 percent supported the idea. A Washington Post poll, also conducted in 1995, found that only 11 percent said the United States should give nothing in foreign aid. In the PIPA survey, eight in 10 agreed that this country should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need.

    That's not to say Americans love shipping money abroad. While they support foreign aid in principle, they give it a low priority: Nearly nine in 10 in the 1995 PIPA survey agreed that money should first go to take care of domestic problems. But even here opinion is divided: A 1996 PIPA survey found that fewer than half – 41 percent – of respondents agreed with a statement that, "We should not give foreign aid to other countries. We need that money to solve problems here at home."

    What explains the perception gap between what Americans really think about international affairs and what policymakers think the public thinks? Kull suggests a range of possibilities. Some policymakers believe people lie to poll-takers. Others say public opinion is too flighty and changeable to be trusted. Still others simply underestimate or disregard the public's opinions on anything.

    But one thing is unequivocally clear. "Policymakers could do much to improve their ability to read the public," Kull says. "They are right to express skepticism – as many do – about responses to individual poll questions: How questions are worded certainly affects how citizens respond. But policymakers must recognize also the limits of taking their cues from a self-selected sample of vocal citizens. Instead practitioners should seek out comprehensive surveys from multiple sources and use them to develop a coherent picture of public attitudes on international issues."

    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

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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