New comparative polling data shows that the American and Russian publics broadly agree on the importance of a number of key foreign policy issues, including the threat posed by international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, as well as the need to end Syria's long-running civil war.
However, there were important differences in views on priorities for foreign policy cooperation between the two nations — as well as a noteworthy split on concern about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The polling data, published by Chicago Council of Global Affairs with the help of Russian polling firm Levada Center, was compiled at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow have sunk to a post-Cold War low, with tensions exacerbated by allegations of electoral interference, as well as disputes over Syria, Ukraine and more.
Separate polling data released by the Chicago Council in 2016 found that American opinion of Russia had fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.
Despite the standoff between the countries, the data suggests that residents of both the United States and Russia have similar views on the biggest threats to their nations. When asked to choose critical threats faced by their country, 70 percent of Russians listed international terrorism, followed by Islamic fundamentalism and concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons (52 percent each).
These figures mirror closely American concerns, with 75 percent of Americans considering international terrorism a critical threat to the nation, while 59 percent were concerned about Islamic fundamentalism and 62 percent were concerned about nuclear proliferation.
There was a big split, however, in views of North Korea’s nuclear program. Only 37 percent of Russians listed it as a critical threat, while 75 percent of Americans did.
It’s not necessarily a surprise that Americans and Russians would feel strongly about these issues, irrespective of their own differences. Both the United States and Russia have been the target of international terrorist plots in recent years, many of them hatched by groups driven by Islamic fundamentalism, such as the Islamic State. The two nations hold by far the largest nuclear arsenals in the world and have cooperated on nonproliferation in the past — though groups such as the Arms Control Association say these efforts have stalled in the past few years.
The United States and Russia view North Korea’s missiles differently, however, due to their differing relations with the government in Pyongyang. North Korea has explicitly stated that its weapons program is only designed to deal with the United States, and in recent years Moscow has been accused of illicitly supporting North Korea.
The Chicago Council and Levada also polled on what priorities Americans and Russians would have for any potential cooperation on foreign policy between their two nations. Here, the splits in public opinion between the two nations became more apparent.
For Russians, the most important factors were reducing the number of nuclear weapons worldwide (27 percent), followed by ending the conflict in Syria (24 percent), and combating terrorism in the Middle East (18 percent). Americans, on the other hand, chose North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as the greatest a priority for collaboration with Russia with a plurality of 38 percent among nine possible areas of cooperation, compared to just 14 percent for nuclear nonproliferation in general.
American support for making cooperation in Syria and in combating terrorism in the Middle East the top area of cooperation with Russia also lagged behind. Just 5 and 6 percent of Americans chose these issues, respectively
Both Americans and Russians do have somewhat similar views of what their aim should be in Syria, however. Polling data from the Chicago Council has found that while a majority of Americans (68 percent) support using airstrikes against violent Islamist extremist groups in Syria, only 45 percent support conducting airstrikes against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and just 28 percent want to use ground troops to force Assad from power.
The Russian military is allied with Assad’s forces in Syria, but only 27 percent of Russians favored using their troops to prevent him from being overthrown and 48 percent support using Russian troops to fight violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. In general, though, there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for the Syrian war — the poll found that 33 percent of Russians thought their involvement in the conflict had brought more harm than good, compared to 31 percent who felt it had brought more good and 37 percent who said it had brought neither.
Americans’ widespread skepticism of Russia and Putin represents another central obstacle to international cooperation. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of Americans had confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs. And 6 in 10 Americans thought Russia tried to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2016, according to a July Washington Post-ABC News poll. Russians are not as leery of Trump — 53 percent expressed confidence in his handling of world affairs during his first months in office, compared with 11 percent who had confidence in Barack Obama while he was president.
The Chicago Council conducted its poll between Dec. 1 and Dec. 3 using GfK Custom Research’s national online omnibus service, Knowledge Panel, to speak to a nationally weighted sample of approximately 1,000 American adults over the age of 18 who lived in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Levada, one of Russia’s oldest and most well-respected polling companies, held its own poll of Russians between Dec. 1 and Dec. 5 with face-to-face interviews of a representative sample of 1,602 Russians aged 18 or over, living in eight federal districts of the Russian Federation. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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