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Americans Say No to Unilateralism

A new survey shows that a majority of Americans are firmly opposed to the core elements of the Bush administration's foreign policy, be it unilateralism or preemptive warfare.
 
 
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Despite his standing in the polls, George Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy views are broadly rejected by both the average American and by public leaders, according to a major new survey released Tuesday by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR).

The survey, titled "Global Views 2004: American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy,' found that 76 percent of the general public reject the notion that Washington should play the role of world policeman and 80 percent believe that the U.S. is currently playing that role "more than it should be."

The results reflect the views of nearly 1,200 randomly selected members of the public and of 450 "leaders with foreign policy power, specialization, and expertise," including U.S. lawmakers and their senior staff, religious, business and labor leaders, senior administration officials, heads of major foreign policy organizations and lobby groups, and university professors and journalists who make foreign policy their main focus.

The survey, which was conducted in July, shows that all Americans - be it the layperson or a policy leader – much prefer multilateral solutions to foreign-policy problems to the more unilateral approach that has dominated the Bush administration.

Asked what is the more important lesson from the 9/11 attacks, 73 percent of the public said, "The U.S. needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism," as opposed to 23 percent who said it "needs to act on its own more..." Among the leaders, who were surveyed separately, the margin in favor of multilateralism was even larger: 84 percent, as opposed to the mere nine percent who called for more unilateral action.

Support among both groups for strengthening the United Nations is particularly high, especially when compared to the results of the 2002 CCFR survey. More than two-thirds of respondents in both groups said the UN should have a standing peacekeeping force, while some four in five in both groups favored U.S. participation in UN peacekeeping operations.

Strong majorities among both groups also rejected Bush's notion of pre-emptive war, which is codified in his 2002 National Security Strategy and is often cited by the president as a justification for the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. Only 17 percent of the public and ten percent of leaders interviewed in the survey said that war was justifiable if the "other country is acquiring (WMDs) that could be used against them at some point in the future."

Some 53 percent of the public and 61 percent of the surveyed leaders said war could only be justified if there was "strong evidence" that the country is in "imminent danger" of attack, while 25 percent of both groups said the U.S. should go to war only if the other country attacks first.

CCFR has conducted the 'Global Views' survey every four years since 1976, making it a standard reference for experts on public and "elite" attitudes on Washington's role in the world. It decided to conduct one this year, just two years after its last one, because of the importance of foreign policy in the current election campaign.

The survey found a "lowered sense of threat" from abroad compared to two years ago, with "protecting American jobs" cited more often among by the American public (but not the leaders) as a "very important" goal of foreign policy than both fighting international terrorism and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. It also found that "Islamic fundamentalism," which was considered a "critical threat" by 61 percent of the public in 2002, was cited by only 38 percent this year.

The most striking changes in elite opinion, on the other hand, were found in the sharp rise in the importance they gave to "improving the standard of living" in poor countries and in "strengthening the United Nations" compared with two years ago. Similarly, the percentage of leaders who cited "maintaining superior power worldwide" as a "very important" goal, fell from 52 percent in 2002 to only 37 percent in 2004 – the first time the issue has received less than a majority since the question was first posed to respondents in 1994.

Contrary to the Bush doctrine, large majorities of the public and surveyed leaders favor retaining rather than loosening traditional constraints on the use of force by individual states, including the U.S..

Majorities of both groups oppose states taking unilateral military action without authorization of the UN Security Council except in cases of genocide. Two thirds of both groups, for example, said the U.S. should be required to get the Council's approval before taking military action to eliminate North Korea's alleged nuclear arsenal.

The survey also found strong support for U.S. participation in international treaties and agreements that have been rejected by the Bush administration.

For example, nearly 90 percent of the public and 85 percent of the leaders said they favor a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty; 80 percent of both groups said the U.S. should agree to the global ban on anti-personnel land mines; and more than 70 percent of both groups said they support U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming. A strong majority also said that international terrorists should be tried before the ICC if their own countries refuse to put them on trial.

While the survey showed a broad consensus among the two groups in opposing the unilateralist policies pursued by the Bush administration on most issues, it also found that the leaders were unaware of just how multilaterally inclined the American public is.

Asked to predict what percentage of the public supported the ICC, for example, only 20 percent of the leaders predicted the correct answer – a "strong majority." Seventy percent of the elite respondents (including 68 percent of senior administration officials and 91 percent of Republicans on Capitol Hill) thought ICC would receive support from less than a simple majority.

Similarly, the public was far more supportive of other international agreements and of steps to strengthen the UN than the leaders assumed, according to the CCFR results.

On Iraq-related issues, more than two thirds of both groups said the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq if a clear majority of the Iraqi people want it to do so. As to Bush's more ambitious plans for the Middle East, 57 percent of the public do not think Washington should put "greater pressure" on Arab states to become more democratic and 68 percent oppose plans for increasing aid and investment in the region on the order of the Marshall Plan after World War II. On this, as in some other specific areas, the leaders take the opposite view: 64 percent favor a Marshall Plan for the region, while 30 percent oppose the idea.

The CCFR report concludes, "All of these findings points again to the idea that Americans feel that the responsibilities and costs of many international actions are too great for it to shoulder alone ... More than ever, they are turning to other nations and to international institutions to help share the load through collective decision-making and collective action."

Jim Lobe writes on international affairs for Inter Press Service, Oneworld.net, Foreign Policy in Focus and AlterNet.org.