April 18, 2018

U.S. Public Opinion on Addressing State Fragility

Constraints and Opportunities

Many of the most persistent and complex security threats to the United States continue to come from fragile states. A comprehensive 2016 report on state fragility argued, “Domestic political support is essential to achieving desired outcomes. It takes decades for a country to transition from fragility to health; policy frameworks must acknowledge this reality and invest patiently and flexibly over time.”

This truth poses a serious dilemma. While sustained U.S. efforts to address fragility require long-term political support, such long time lines chafe against three aspects of the electorate and the political process: 

  1. American internationalism has become more highly politicized. President Donald Trump’s campaign denounced the rules-based international order that the United States has helped construct over seven decades, as well as the liberal values that order embodies. This system of alliances and organizations plays a critical role in responses to state fragility. Yet Trump’s electoral victory has prompted deep anxiety about the strength of public support for American internationalism, support which we had assumed to be firm.   
  2. Americans want to see measurable progress in foreign ventures, in the short-term. Given still-raw experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. public harbors understandable skepticism about the types of activities that are necessary in fragile states. Their appetite for open-ended, poorly defined missions is low.
  3. Short political cycles incentivize elected leaders to favor short-term solutions versus long-term strategies. Legislators are focused on two-, four-, and six-year election cycles, and sensitive to their constituencies’ distrust in “nation-building.” As a result, they are likely less willing to support resourcing for years-long efforts in fragile states.

At the same time, public opinion is particularly relevant to fragile states because they are often the focus of U.S. crisis intervention, military engagement, and media attention. Every year since the end of the Cold War, the United States has engaged militarily in a fragile state.

This dilemma raises several questions: What is American public opinion today on how the United States should respond to fragile state challenges? Do policymakers accurately understand public opinion? How do they, in turn, influence it? If long-term U.S. efforts will demand greater strategic patience from the public, then what can be done to secure that patience?

This policy brief first unpacks examines the relationship between public opinion and policymaking. It then examines public opinion polling as a starting point to answer the questions above. While survey questions tend to be broad – focused on foreign aid, international engagement and alliances, military intervention, and “nation-building” – they deal with tools that are intrinsic to U.S. policy toward fragile states. Third, the brief explores evidence that policymakers sometimes misread citizen opinion on foreign affairs, which could harmfully skew policymaking. Finally, this piece puts forward proposals for fostering more accurate understanding in both directions. 

How Does Public Opinion Influence Foreign Policy? 

Some foreign policy experts believe that the general population, disinterested in foreign affairs, cannot be expected to form coherent, consistent views on foreign and national security policy. Significant scholarly research since the 1980s, however, has refuted this assumption. Research shows American public opinion on foreign affairs to be “rational, in the sense that it is fairly stable, coherent, and responsive to real world events.” Moreover, ignoring public opinion is inimical and detrimental to the democratic process.

Public opinion directly influences U.S. security and foreign policy. One channel of influence relates to federal spending. When deciding on budgetary resources for foreign assistance or military engagement, legislators take into account the views of their constituencies. At a higher decision level, policymakers’ perceptions of what the public wants influence how options are framed, and which are pursued.

Public opinion directly influences U.S. security and foreign policy.

For example, reflecting on the Obama administration’s widely contested announcement in 2009 of a time line to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote, “After eight years of war in Afghanistan, Congress, the American people, and the troops could not abide by the idea of a conflict there stretching into the indefinite future.” The American public’s war weariness influenced the time line decision – as it did the 2011 decision to not expend more U.S. political capital to secure a new Status of Forces Agreement that would adequately protect U.S. troops.

Importantly, the relationship also runs in the reverse: National leaders and elites help shape public opinion on foreign affairs. Academic research indicates that citizens’ foreign policy opinions are strongly correlated with partisanship, and it is likely that people “look first and foremost to party leaders for cues as they form their opinions.” However, elite opinion is only one of several factors influencing citizen views on foreign affairs, to include “basic attitudes toward war and military force, ideology, partisanship, and gender.” 

Most Americans vastly overestimate how much the United States spends on foreign aid, dampening support for even existing aid levels.

A complicating factor is that public opinion on some issues is ill-informed. One particular misperception negatively affects policies toward fragile states: Most Americans vastly overestimate how much the United States spends on foreign aid, dampening support for even existing aid levels. More broadly, the United States’ geographical isolation can be a handicap in an interconnected world, working against an internationalist mindset. A recent survey of U.S. college-educated students found significant gaps in students’ understanding of the world and the U.S. role in it. Only half knew that Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the most people in the world; only 30 percent correctly identified the legislative branch as the branch of U.S. government that has constitutional authority to declare war.10 Yet students overwhelmingly indicated they believed it “important to be knowledgeable about geography, world history, foreign cultures, [and] world events.”11

In sum, to sustain domestic support for actions taken with regard to fragile states, national leaders must ensure that such actions do not veer too far from the people’s will. U.S. activities in fragile states, however, are far removed from many Americans’ everyday lives, making it difficult for citizens to form cogent views on these important issues. Vast misperceptions – like those on foreign aid – can distort public opinion in ways that harmfully constrain policy. This reality places a unique burden on public officials to present the best information and analysis to the public about the conduct of foreign affairs, especially in high-risk scenarios.

Gauging Public Opinion on Fragile State Challenges

Opinion surveys on international affairs aim to gauge citizen views on the role of the United States in the world. They include questions about the use of the three main tools of U.S. foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development, all of which figure prominently in addressing state fragility. Survey questions tend to be broadly framed, and not to delve into specific policy choices, such as security cooperation or rule of law reform. Nevertheless, survey results point to a set of shared values – more so than one might expect – that can inform the U.S. approach to fragile states.

International Engagement and Alliances

Contrary to what we might assume from the rhetoric and result of the 2016 presidential election, opinion polling points to strong and consistent support for U.S. alliances, and the importance of global engagement. A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted during the campaign found that Americans see their country as the most influential in the world, as they have done since 2002. Among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, very strong majorities said it is best for the future of the country that the United States “take an active part in world affairs.” Overall, 65 percent said that globalization is mostly good for the United States.14

Contrary to what we might assume from the rhetoric and result of the 2016 presidential election, opinion polling points to strong and consistent support for U.S. alliances, and the importance of global engagement.

More surprisingly, in the same 2016 poll, core supporters of then-candidate Trump, who decried internationalist policies and values, said the following tools are very or somewhat effective in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals: maintaining existing alliances (84 percent); building new alliances with other countries (77 percent); strengthening the United Nations (60 percent); and signing international agreements (59 percent). (See figure below.) These results are remarkable in that the statements run counter to much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. In addition, while core Trump supporters were more likely than other respondents to say that the United States should decrease its commitment to NATO or withdraw entirely, a clear majority of Trump supporters still believe the country should keep its commitment at what it is now or increase the U.S. commitment to NATO – views shared overall by 75 percent of respondents.16    

A more recent 2017 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans for their views on President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. This poll found the strongest support for the his ideas among his core supporters, but otherwise, revealed that most Americans prefer the kind of foreign policy pursued by Republicans and Democrats alike since World War II, noting: “Majorities continue to endorse sustaining American engagement abroad . . . as well as maintaining alliances, supporting trade, and participating in international agreements. Indeed, in key instances, Americans have doubled down on these beliefs.”

On the other hand, when a survey question frames U.S. actions abroad as imposing costs on priorities at home, responses predictably become less internationalist. In a national poll conducted every few years by the Pew Research Center, 2016 results showed a plurality (41 percent) of Americans saying that the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, and fewer (27 percent) saying it does too little. Compared to 2013, however, the public was more in favor of U.S. engagement on global problems. The share saying the United States does too much fell 10 percentage points, and the share saying the United States does too little rose by 10 points.

Similarly, while 69 percent of Pew respondents agreed that the United States “should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems,” that was a drop from 80 percent in 2013. And the share of respondents saying the United States should “mind its own business internationally” dropped from 52 percent in 2013 to 43 percent in 2016.  

According to the Pew survey, 51 percent of Americans think the United States should take into account the interests of its allies even if it means making compromises with them, while a sizeable minority said the country should follow its own interests, even when allies strongly disagree.

In 2010 to 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) together compiled data from hundreds of polls on U.S. and global public attitudes on urgent global challenges, with most polls dating from the previous few years. Through its meta-analysis of the data, the project team found that “large majorities [of Americans] reject a hegemonic role for the United States, but do want the United States to participate in multilateral efforts to address international issues.” They also concluded, “A majority of Americans think the U.S. government should be more cooperative than it is  . . . and an overwhelming majority thinks that it is critical for the United States to act together with its closest allies on national security issues.”

What Can We Learn?

The data provide ample evidence that bipartisan, popular support for American internationalism is not dead. While a vocal minority speaks out against internationalist principles, policymakers and thought leaders should not allow that minority to drive public discourse – let alone policy. Instead, those committed to internationalism should seek to bolster and appeal to the public’s faith in robust U.S. leadership in the world.  

Specifically with regard to fragile state challenges, the polling suggests some openings. Policymakers, for instance, could emphasize to the public the need to better synchronize efforts between the U.S. government and international partners in fragile states. Americans might also support strengthening the capacity of the various U.N. agencies to respond to security and development needs.

Those committed to internationalism should seek to bolster and appeal to the public’s faith in robust U.S. leadership in the world.  

That said, a relatively firm foundation for internationalism does not absolve policymakers of the need to respond to Americans who seriously question it. As scholar Hal Brands points out: 

American internationalism simply cannot be all that healthy, because Trump did win the presidency by running on the most anti-internationalist platform seen in decades.  American voters may not have been voting for that platform itself, but at the very least they did not see Trump’s radical views on foreign policy as disqualifying.

Brands outlines strains that are weakening public support for internationalism, including the post–Cold War absence of a hegemonic adversary that poses a clear threat, the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic struggles for the working and middle classes.

Policymakers must better justify the costs of U.S. actions and investments abroad. Indeed, there is growing recognition within the policy community that engagement with the public, not only in the D.C. area but all across the country, is critical to garner support for what were considered basic foreign policy norms.

Foreign Aid and Democracy Promotion

One of the key ingredients in addressing state fragility is foreign assistance. Practitioners increasingly see strengthening governance and rule of law as a linchpin in long-term efforts to stabilize fragile states. While there is substantial polling on foreign aid, the best indicator on public views on governance efforts is polling on democracy promotion.  

In Pew’s April 2016 poll, half of Americans were opposed to increasing foreign aid to developing countries, while nearly half would support increasing aid. Those results, as alluded to earlier, reflect substantial misperceptions about U.S. spending on foreign aid. Only 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. But a large majority of Americans thinks the amount is far greater. In a 2013 poll, Americans were asked on which activity – Social Security, transportation, foreign aid, or interest on the national debt – the U.S. government spends the most money. Thirty-three percent, the highest portion, answered foreign aid. In a 2015 poll, Americans thought that, on average, foreign aid makes up about one quarter of the federal budget – overestimating U.S. foreign aid by 25 times.

Only 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. But a large majority of Americans thinks the amount is far greater.

This stark misperception presumably factors into many Americans’ notion that the United States spends too much on aid. But “deliberative polling,” which seeks to educate and inform as it solicits opinion, illustrates the elasticity of opinion when new information is presented. The Kaiser poll said to respondents, “What if you heard that about 1 percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid?” With this input, respondents saying “too much” dropped markedly, from 56 to 28 percent, and the share saying “too little” rose from 11 to 26 percent.28 Similarly, in a 2003 deliberative poll, after respondents learned that only 1 percent goes to foreign aid, support for increasing aid jumped from 20 to 53 percent.

Public support for foreign aid is likely (and rightly) related to perceptions about its effectiveness and efficiency. A 2012 survey found that 68 percent of moderates and 75 percent of conservatives said they “would support foreign assistance if programs were better reformed and used more efficiently.”   

In terms of understanding Americans’ motivations for supporting foreign aid, one 2015 poll asked the most important reason why the United States might spend money on improving health for people in developing countries. Americans said: “because it's the right thing to do” (46 percent); “to help ensure US national security” (14 percent); “to improve our diplomatic relationships” (14 percent); “to help the US economy by creating new markets for US businesses” (11 percent); and “to improve the US’s image around the world” (9 percent). In other words, a strong plurality emphasized an altruistic motivation, with smaller numbers citing U.S. self-interests as the primary reason to provide aid to other countries.

In its comprehensive study of U.S. and global attitudes, the CFR/PIPA project echoed these findings:

There is a widespread consensus in the United  States that developed countries have a moral responsibility to work to reduce hunger and severe poverty and that helping poor countries develop serves the long-term interests of wealthy countries, including by developing trade partners and enhancing global stability. In addition, Americans perceive development aid as furthering democracy and, for a more modest number of respondents, as a way to fight terrorism.

The best proxy to understand American views on governance and rule-of-law reform efforts is polling on support for democracy promotion abroad. A Pew poll carried out every few years from 1997 to 2013 asked Americans which of several goals “should be a top policy priority.” “Promoting democracy in other nations” consistently ranked at the bottom or near the bottom, ranging between a high of 29 percent in early September 2001, and just 18 percent in 2013.    

What Can We Learn?

Overall, the evidence indicates a sizeable base of support for foreign aid – all the more surprising, given that a substantial portion of those Americans already overestimate the amount the United States gives. This support stems from a sense of moral responsibility, as well as the belief that U.S. assistance for developing countries serves long-term U.S. interests by making the world a safer, more stable place.

But the reality remains that most Americans do not accurately assess aid levels, and a slight majority opposes increasing foreign aid. The challenge for policymakers who believe foreign aid is crucial to addressing state fragility is that they need to (1) operate within political constraints partly defined by resistance to foreign aid, yet also (2) try to inform and educate the public about actual aid levels, in order to loosen the constraints and pave the way for better policies.   

Support for foreign aid stems from a sense of moral responsibility, as well as the belief that U.S. assistance for developing countries serves long-term U.S. interests by making the world a safer, more stable place.

Further, polling on democracy promotion offers limited insight into what Americans really think about more targeted, sustained efforts. One problem is that most Americans have little or no exposure to the nitty-gritty details. To take one example, brutal gang violence and poverty in Central America have driven an exodus of youths and families to the southern U.S. border, creating a refugee crisis that received frenetic, politicized media coverage. At the root of Central America’s violence and instability are entrenched state corruption and lack of rule of law, which will take years to tackle. In Guatemala, an innovative, internationally backed commission (known as “CICIG”) has achieved striking successes in combating crime and corruption. Reformers are emulating CICIG in other countries. And yet, CICIG has had problems obtaining long-term funding that would protect its political independence. At a budget of just $15 million per year, would Americans support a U.S. contribution to a five-year mandate for CICIG? If they knew that U.S. diplomatic support for CICIG came at key junctures, would Americans view that favorably? This is the granular level of detail that policymakers grapple with in fragile states, but rarely convey to the American public.

Military Intervention and “Nation-building”

It is hard to imagine the United States embarking anytime soon on a large-scale military venture abroad, similar to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The more relevant question today, vis-à-vis fragile states, is how the U.S. military will continue to execute more limited missions all around the globe – missions like the train, advise, and assist mission in Niger in which four U.S. soldiers were killed in October 2017. These include partnering with foreign security forces on counter-terrorism and border security, training and equipping foreign security forces, and advancing defense institution building and reform, such as in NATO/Partnership for Peace countries.

An interesting contrast to the aversion to “nation-building” is that Americans show more support for using the military in humanitarian operations.

Most survey data do not, however, explicitly deal with smaller-scale troop deployments. The most relevant polling focuses on the U.S. military’s involvement in “nation-building,” a term associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus one that conjures up massive deployments. An August 2016 poll found that 53 percent of likely U.S. voters were against continuing the “nation-building” efforts of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, while 28 percent favored continuing them. Only 9 percent saw U.S. nation-building efforts as a success thus far, 46 percent considered them a failure, and 43 percent believed they were somewhere between a success and a failure. A 2011 survey found similarly divided views, with nearly half of Americans saying the military should be engaged in nation-building activities, and nearly half saying it should not. In a September 2016 Military Times poll, active-duty service members were “deeply skeptical of the United States’ nation-building missions overseas.”    

An interesting contrast to the aversion to “nation-building” is that Americans show more support for using the military in humanitarian operations. The CFR/PIPA study found that “large majorities of Americans express a willingness to contribute troops for humanitarian operations.” The Military Times poll of active-duty personnel found “modest support for well-defined humanitarian operations,” which appear to remain “a source of pride.”

What Can We Learn?

On military engagement, survey questions tend to deal with military spending and superiority, military presence in allied countries, the extent of overseas deployments, and whether the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the country safer. Such questions, however, fail to capture a shift in U.S. military strategy and overseas engagement in the post-9/11 world: away from direct intervention, and toward training, advising, and providing material support to foreign security forces (army and police) who are fighting terrorists and insurgencies. In Africa, for instance, U.S. special-operations forces cooperate with and support Kenyan forces against al-Shabab, the Africa Union in Somalia, Ugandan forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and a multinational force in Cameroon against Boko Haram.

American skepticism about “nation-building” is a healthy reaction to the U.S. track record in Iraq and Afghanistan (and in Vietnam, for that matter). But in light of recent experience and current challenges, key questions still remain: 1) Are Americans opposed to nation-building in principle, or just highly distrustful of the United States’ ability to do it effectively? 2) How does the public view the engagement of U.S. government civilian employees and contractors, known as “front-line civilians,” in war? 3) How do Americans view U.S. engagement in unstable countries, where it works on a smaller scale, but long-term, to promote security, good governance, and development? And similarly, 4) do Americans recognize that early interventions in fragile states can be smaller, less risky, and less costly for the United States? These are important questions for future policy toward fragile states, but many prominent polls do not engage the American public on these questions.

Further, perhaps the higher level of support for humanitarian operations reflects the fact that the results of humanitarian relief – lives saved, food delivered, disease averted – are more immediate and tangible than the tedious work of fostering economic growth and accountable institutions that serve citizens. Humanitarian relief also makes better photo ops and media stories. Maybe the aversion to “nation-building” reflects a well-founded realism that we still don’t know how to do it well. Nevertheless, that does not make it is any less important that we learn how to do it better. The stakes are simply too high.

Policymakers Sometimes Misread Public Opinion

If we accept that public opinion informs policy, and that it should do so (at least to some degree), then it is troubling that policymakers appear to misread public opinion on some important foreign policy issues. A 2016 poll of nearly 500 U.S. foreign policy leaders found that they “substantially underestimate public support for international engagement, globalization, and immigration.”44 These leaders, across partisan lines, expressed almost unanimous support for the United States taking an active part in world affairs. But when asked to speculate on public opinion on the same issue, Republican, Democratic, and Independent leaders alike underestimated American support by 15 to 19 percent.

By much larger percentages (32 to 45 percent), foreign policy leaders also underestimated the portion of Americans who say that globalization is mostly good for the United States.

These misperceptions have critical implications at a time when the emerging consensus is that populist, nationalist thinking is on the rise – and the future of American internationalism is in doubt. Policymakers might well perceive political constraints where, in fact, there are few or none. More worrying still, national leaders might engage in rhetoric or push policies that are isolationist or protectionist, believing they are aligned with public opinion – yet in reality, their rhetoric or actions are influencing public opinion to move toward isolationism.

For example, when the Trump administration proposed to cut the State Department and foreign aid budget by 32 percent, several Republican senators loudly pushed back, calling it “dead on arrival.” But why did the administration propose such drastic cuts in the first place? One key political reason may well have been the perception that Trump’s base is against foreign aid, or at least, that cutting foreign aid would play well to his base. Moreover, the Republican pushback in the Senate came mainly from chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. How many other Republican members of Congress – not to mention conservative television and radio commentators – have not said a word against the proposed State and USAID cuts because they believe their constituents or audience supports deep cuts? An opportunity to educate and inform Americans on the actual size of the aid budget has been largely lost.  

Toward Closing the Gap

Even if the Trump administration wishes to neglect long-term solutions to state fragility, the problems emanating from fragile states will not neglect the United States. Smart, sustained policies to address the challenges of weak states will require ongoing public support.

There is thus a deep need for accurate understanding in both directions: for the public to better understand the costs and tradeoffs of policies, and for the policy community to accurately gauge public views so that it correctly perceives openings for and constraints on policy. This assertion does not discount the influence and value of legitimate debates about what policies are most effective – indeed, the range in public opinion is partly a reflection of realist versus liberalist views on foreign policy. The point, rather, is that the data demonstrate numerous areas where fundamental misperceptions damage the integrity of the policymaking process and thus the United States’ ability to pursue its interests. There is a gap to close that has little to do with ideological or partisan debates. The following recommendations speak to closing that gap.

1. If U.S. foreign policy leaders and thinkers want to gain and sustain American public support for tackling the threats posed by fragile states, they should lay out the costs and benefits of both intervention and inaction. They should be frank about the uncertainties and risks involved. They should be straight with the American people about the limits of U.S. means, while also building a shared sense of what is achievable. Likewise, media outlets have a responsibility to present sophisticated information to the public – critiquing the arguments of civilian and military leaders alike. Congress also should embrace floor and committee debate as important components of contact with the public on these matters – including, for example, debates on authorization for the use of military force. U.S. opinion leaders must communicate several key messages to the public and present evidence to support their assertions:

  •  U.S. national security depends in part on ensuring greater stability in conflict-prone countries. We do this by fostering inclusive states, healthy state-society relationships, accountable security forces, and economic development.
  • All the tools of American power are required to achieve these outcomes: defense, diplomacy, and development. Both the military and civilians work at the front lines of fragile state challenges. As a government and society, the United States needs to invest in building and sharpening both civilian and military capabilities.
  • Early interventions in fragile states may be smaller in scale, less risky, and less costly for the United States. 
  • U.S. engagement in fragile states must be sustained. There are no quick wins, and progress often will be difficult to quantitatively measure. Success will require flexible, multi-year funding and strategic patience.
  • Accountability matters. U.S. interventions will be closely monitored and evaluated to ensure effectiveness and efficiency, and to prevent waste and abuse. The United States can build on the lessons learned from previous efforts.
  • The United States is not in this work alone. To succeed, it must cooperate with allies, international institutions, and most importantly, local partners in host countries.  Ultimately, lasting progress in governance and security is dependent upon the citizens and leaders of fragile states; the United States cannot effect change for them. But the international community can offer critical support to reformers, bridge gaps in providing security, and deliver desperately needed humanitarian and economic aid.

2. U.S. policymakers, leaders in education, and think tanks should prioritize efforts to strengthen the global literacy of Americans of all ages, and to build Americans’ resilience against our adversaries’ disinformation operations. As the CFR/National Geographic survey report stated, a globalized world in which the United States exerts great influence makes “an educated public essential for American economic competitiveness, national security, and democracy.” Further, the more the public understands the threats posed by fragile states, the greater the potential for broad-based U.S. political will and strategic patience in confronting those threats. There is evidence, in fact, that the introduction of quality information can help shape public opinion, even when elite cues run counter to that information. Finally, the gaps in Americans’ knowledge about the world underscore our vulnerability, as a nation, to influence operations by hostile states like Russia. 

  • U.S. educational institutions at all levels should do more to integrate global literacy into curricula. As the presidents of CFR and National Geographic point out, few colleges and universities require a basic level of global literacy among graduates. Schools should expose students to international news and issues, presenting current events within their geographical, historical, and geopolitical contexts.  
  • To encourage an active, balanced, and civil public discourse, educational institutions also should promote civic learning and democratic engagement as an “undisputed educational priority” – as called for in a 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. Many colleges and universities are launching such efforts.
  • Cultural and educational exchange programs nurture awareness and empathy, forge personal bonds across borders, and change the way one sees the world. Policymakers should ensure robust support for these programs.
  • Foreign policy and national security think tanks can undertake initiatives like this one to communicate beyond the D.C. Beltway, reaching Americans who are passionate about foreign affairs and hungry for more in-depth engagement. 
  • Where Russia or other adversarial states have an interest in deterring or provoking U.S. interventions abroad, one can imagine Russia using disinformation to influence U.S. public opinion on such interventions, as a means of steering actual U.S. policy. As a recent policy brief proposed, the United States should “develop tools to shine a spotlight on disinformation to build public resilience.” We must raise public awareness about the methods and consequences of Russian disinformation – looking to our Nordic and Baltic friends as examples – to protect the integrity of U.S. national discourse and its influence on policy.

3. Opinion polls should seek to gauge public attitudes on more specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including when and how the United States responds to state fragility. Where feasible, deliberative polling should be used to provide respondents with facts and context. National polls should incorporate more questions about the United States’ strategic choices related to state fragility. Polls might better gauge public opinion on:

  • Whether nation-building is inherently misguided, or whether it is simply executed poorly
  • Early, small-scale civilian and/or military interventions in fragile states, and whether these might forestall larger conflicts or crises
  • Sustained U.S. efforts to advance good governance and human rights abroad, and the conditions under which the public is most/least supportive of those efforts
  • Whether and how foreign aid strengthens U.S. national security
  • Better accountability mechanisms for foreign assistance, and whether evidence of these affects support for foreign aid
  • The role of U.S. civilian personnel in conflict environments, and their capacity to complement or increase the effectiveness of the U.S. military
  • The U.S. military undertaking non-military functions related to social and economic development, human security, and good governance (particularly when we do not have enough civilian assets to carry out those functions).

  1. William J. Burns, Michèle A. Flournoy, and Nancy Lindborg, “U.S. Leadership and the Challenges of State Fragility,” United States Institute of Peace, September 2016, 5.
  2. Ole R. Holsti, Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy: Analytical Perspectives on Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 25–98; Robert Y. Shapiro and Benjamin I. Page, “Foreign Policy and the Rational Public,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 32, no. 2 (June 1988), 211–247. This assumption has a certain degree of legitimacy, in terms of how well informed the American public is. For example, in a 2003 poll, only one-sixth of respondents knew that none of the 9/11 hijackers was an Iraqi citizen (Henry E. Brady, James S. Fishkin, and Robert C. Luskin, “Informed Public Opinion About Foreign Policy: The uses of deliberative polling,” June 1, 2003). Nevertheless, the bulk of scholarly research contradicts earlier views of public opinion on foreign policy as “irrational” and unreliable.
  3. Richard C. Eichenberg, “Public Opinion on Foreign Policy Issues,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, April 2016, 1, 9–12; see also Shapiro and Page, 219–220.
  4. See Holsti, 41, with respect to Vietnam.
  5. Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), 571.
  6. Derek Chollet, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), 76–78.
  7. Eichenberg, 14; see also A. J. Berinsky, In time of war: Understanding American public opinion from World War II to Iraq (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); and Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro, and Glenn R. Dempsey, “What Moves Public Opinion?” The American Political Science Review, vol. 81, no. 1 (March 1987), 23–44.
  8. Eichenberg, 13.
  9. Bianca DiJulio, Jaime Firth, and Mollyann Brodie, “Data Note: Americans’ Views On The U.S. Role In Global Health,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, January 23, 2015.
  10. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society, What College-Aged Students Know About the World: A Survey on Global Literacy, September 2016, 5, 24.
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Academics caution us to consider a multitude of data when analyzing survey input, because responses to any one survey question are “highly sensitive to the wording of that question” (Eichenberg, 3). For this reason, where possible, I present multiple sources for similar survey questions, and provide additional detail in these endnotes.
  13. Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, and Craig Kafura, “America in the Age of Uncertainty: 2016 Chicago Council Survey,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2016, 25–29.
  14. Smeltz et al., 4.
  15. Ibid., 28. Results on the same questions for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents combined were, respectively, 85 percent, 90 percent, 83 percent, 68 percent, and 71 percent.
  16. Ibid., 27–29. Across the board, most respondents said that maintaining U.S. military superiority is very important for achieving foreign policy goals. See also Pew survey results that closely parallel these (Pew Research Center, “Public Uncertain, Divided over America’s Place in the World,” April 2016, 8).
  17. Dina Smeltz, Ivo Daalder, Karl Friedhoff, and Craig Kafura, “What Americans Think About America First,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2017, 2.
  18. Pew Research Center, “Public Uncertain,” 11. It is worth noting, however, that compared to 2014, the share of Republicans saying “too much” has risen by 7 percentage points, and the share responding “too little” has fallen by 13 points. Amid speculation that Trump’s campaign rhetoric has had an impact on public opinion, these numbers could in part reflect the influence of his messaging.
  19. Along the same lines, since 2009 the share of Americans who agree that “we should go our own way in international matters” without worrying too much about other countries has declined by 11 percentage points (from 44 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2016). Still, these figures contrast sharply with responses in 1964, when only 20 percent agreed the United States should mind its own business internationally, while 69 percent disagreed. (Pew Research Center, “Public Uncertain,” 14).
  20. Pew Research Center, “Public Uncertain,” 47.
  21. Council on Foreign Relations, “Public Opinion on Global Issues, Chapter 9: US Opinion on General Principles of World Order,” www.cfr.org/public_opinion, December 16, 2011, 4.
  22. Council on Foreign Relations, “World Order,” 12.
  23. Burns et al., 22. This synchronization was one of several priority actions described in the Fragility Study Group report.
  24. Hal Brands, “Can U.S. Internationalism Survive Trump?” ForeignPolicy.com, May 25, 2017.
  25. Pew Research Center, “Public Uncertain,” 21. Views diverged along generational, educational, and partisan lines, with Democrats, more highly educated, and under-30 respondents more likely to support more aid, and Republicans, less educated, and over-65 respondents more likely to oppose more aid.
  26. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Poll, September 2014, data provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
  27. DiJulio et al.
  28. DiJulio et al.
  29. Brady et al.
  30. Foreign Policy Initiative, “FPI National Survey: Foreign Policy Matters in 2012,” September 27, 2012.
  31. Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, December 2015, data provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
  32. Council on Foreign Relations, “Public Opinion on Global Issues, Chapter 15: U.S. Opinion on Development and Humanitarian Aid," January 2012, www.cfr.org/public_opinion.
  33. Pew Research Center, “Americans put low priority on promoting democracy abroad,” December 4, 2013.
  34. Matthew M. Taylor, “Lessons from Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity,” Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/report/lessons-guatemalas-commission-against-impunity .
  35. As Francis Fukuyama and others have written, a more accurate term is “state-building”: “What we are really talking about is state-building—that is, creating or strengthening such government institutions as armies, police forces, judiciaries, central banks, tax-collection agencies, health and education systems, and the like.” Francis Fukuyama, “Nation-Building 101,” The Atlantic, January/February 2004, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/nation-building-101/302862/.
  36. Rassmussen Reports, “Most Voters Say No to Further U.S. Nation-Building Efforts,” August 22, 2016. The full survey question was: “The United States in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has pursued a foreign policy that includes a more aggressive effort to establish democracies in Middle Eastern countries by use of the U.S. military and U.S. financial support. This policy is commonly referred to as nation building. Do you favor or oppose the U.S. government continuing its nation-building efforts? (Rassmussen Reports, “Questions – Nation Building – August 17–18, 2016.”)
  37. Rassmussen Reports, “Most Voters Say No.” The report notes that voters under 40 are more supportive of continuing U.S. nation-building efforts, and less likely to view these efforts as a failure.
  38. Pew Research Center, October 5, 2011.
  39. Andrew Tilghman, “After 15 years of war, America’s military has about had it with ‘nation building,’” Military Times, September 22, 2016.
  40. Council on Foreign Relations, “Chapter 15: US Opinion on Development and Humanitarian Aid,” January 2012.
  41. Tilghman.
  42. William Wechsler, “Delegating the Dirty Work to U.S. Allies is Smart Counterterrorism,” The National Interest, February 13, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/delegating-the-dirty-work-us-allies-smart-counterterrorism-19430.
  43. Exceptions in recent years include some polls that have addressed context-specific policy options, including U.S. responses to security crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Egypt (e.g., see Pew Research Center, “Concerns about Russia Rise, But Just a Quarter Call Moscow an Adversary: Public Remains Wary about U.S. Involvement in Ukraine,” March 25, 2014).
  44. Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura, “US Opinion Leaders Tend to Respond to Vocal Minorities Among the Public,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 10, 2016.
  45. Ibid. For a more detailed account of the same survey results, see Joshua Busby, Craig Kafura, Jonathan Monten, Dina Smeltz, and Jordan Tama, “How the Elite Misjudge the U.S. Electorate on International Engagement,” RealClear World, November 7, 2016. See also Steven Kull and I. M. Destler, Misreading the Public (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).
  46. This language draws from the conclusions of the Fragility Study Group report, “U.S. Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility,” September 2016.
  47. Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society, 5.
  48. John G. Bullock, “Elite Influence on Public Opinion in an Informed Electorate,” American Political Science Review, vol. 105, no. 3 (August 2011), 496–515.
  49. Council on Foreign Relations, “New Survey Finds Critical Gaps in College-Aged Students’ Global Literacy,” September 9, 2016.
  50. The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” as submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, on behalf of the Global Perspective Institute Inc. (GPI Inc.) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), October 5, 2011, 6.
  51. Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kenney, “War by Other Means: Russian Active Measures and the Weaponization of Information,” Center for American Progress, June 6, 2017, paragraph 69.
  52. For more on deliberative polling, see Brady et al.


  • Kate Bateman

    Kate Bateman previously served as a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow....