Chapter 2

Use of Force Abroad

In This Chapter

  • 69%

    considers cyberattacks on US computer networks to be a threat to US vital interests

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  • 24%

    believe the US is safer today than it was before the terrorist attacks in 2001

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  • 71%

    believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth their costs

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  • 64%

    say they prefer not to take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict

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  • 53%

    say they would oppose committing US troops to defend Israel in the event it is attacked by its neighbors

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  • 78%

    oppose the US sending troops into Syria

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  • 40%

    view the development of China as a world power as a critical threat

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  • 55%

    oppose air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites in North Korea to pressure North Korea to stop building its nuclear weapons program

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  • 38%

    see Russia’s territorial ambitions as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States

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  • 53%

    of Republicans support using US troops to defend South Korea in the event of North Korean invasion

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Much of the discussion about Americans’ current for- eign policy mood is centered upon public opposition to military intervention in Syria (to quell its violent civil war), Ukraine (to protect it from Russian inter- vention), and Iraq (to blunt the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into the country). In fact, Americans have been cautious in supporting military force to solve international problems—especially when it comes to putting “boots on the ground”— since the Chicago Council began polling in 1974.

Then, as now, Americans generally express support for the use of force when they feel directly threatened, for a major humanitarian crisis, or if they expect the response to be relatively low cost and risk. As they have for over a decade, majorities are willing to support the use of US troops to combat terrorism and to defend the supply of oil. They are also prepared to use force if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And majorities have consistently favored the use of US troops—at least in principle—to prevent government-sponsored genocide or in a humani- tarian crisis.

American public’s top threats include terrorism, energy, and nuclear proliferation.

Figure 2.1

As has been the case since 1994, when Americans were first asked about possible threats to the vital interests of the United States in Chicago Council Surveys, Americans continue to be most concerned about direct threats to the country. Cyberattacks on US computer networks leads other threats, with 69 percent considering this critical (up from 53% in 2010) (figure 2.1). This dramatic increase could be due to recent disclosures about organized attacks on sensitive US government networks by foreign countries, in particular by China and Russia. Solid majorities also believe that international terrorism (63%), the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers (60%), and Iran’s nuclear program (58%) are critical threats (figure 2.3). In previous Chicago Council Surveys, US dependence on foreign oil also figured high on this list (62% when last asked in 2010).

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.2

Perceptions of various threats have decreased significantly from previous surveys, particularly when compared to the public’s hyper-vigilant attitudes immediately after the terrorist attacks in 2001. For example, in 2002 nine in ten Americans said that international terrorism was a critical threat (91%) and that combating international terrorism was a very important goal (91%). Now that majority has declined to six in ten on both items (63% critical threat, 61% very important goal). In fact, American views of the threat posed by international terrorists are at the lowest levels of concern ever reported, even lower than in surveys fielded before the 9/11 attacks (figure 2.2). There has been a similar decline in fears about nuclear proliferation (from 85% in 2002 to 60% now; with the current threat level even less than the 72% reported in 1994) and about Iran’s nuclear program (68% when first asked in 2010 to 58% now)(figure 2.7).

Figure 2.2

No more than four in ten consider the development of China as a world power (41%), political instability in the Middle East (40%), Russia’s territorial ambitions (38%), the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (26%), the continuing conflict in Syria (24%), or China’s territorial ambitions (19%) to be critical threats.9

The largest decline over the past two decades has been in the threat of large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States. In 1994, seven in ten Americans (72%) labeled this issue a critical threat to US vital interests—the same level of concern as expressed for nuclear proliferation. Two decades later, concern about immigrants and refugees coming into the United States has plunged more than 30 points, to 39 percent in 2014. However, the survey was fielded before the July 2014 spike in media reports regarding the number of undocumented families and unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, which could have an impact on attitudes.

The public’s foreign policy priorities align with top threats.

Chicago Council Surveys have long shown that Americans weight their priorities for foreign policy goals in terms of direct threats and self-interest. As has been the case since at least 1994, the top goals for US foreign policy are protecting American jobs (76% “very important”), reducing US dependence on foreign oil (74%), preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (73%), securing adequate supplies of energy (66%), and combating international terrorism (61%). A smaller majority considers maintaining superior American military power worldwide a “very important” goal (52%). Fewer members of the public consider the goals of controlling and reducing illegal immigration (47%, down sharply from 72% in 1994) and protecting the interests of American business abroad (44%) “very important,” (figure 2.4).

Figure 2.3

The public places less emphasis on goals they view as unrelated to a direct threat or US self-interest. Minorities rate combating world hunger (42%), strengthening the UN (37%), and defending US allies’ security (38%) as “very important” goals. Even fewer believe that the goals of promoting and defending human rights in other countries (32%), protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression (25%), and helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations (17%) are “very important” for the United States. Americans have always placed less emphasis on these latter goals in Chicago Council Surveys. In fact, in surveys since 1974, the last two goals have ranked at the bottom of the list of US foreign policy priorities (figure 2.4, and table 2.1). Even so, large majorities do think that each of these items should be at least a “somewhat” important US foreign policy goal.

Figure 2.4
Figure 2.5

Americans support the use of force to combat top threats and achieve top goals.

In line with the list of top threats, Americans are willing to commit US troops to combat terrorism, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and to protect the oil supply.

Terrorism
Despite a subsiding sense of fear from the heights reported in 2002, only 24 percent of Americans believe that the United States is safer today than it was before the terrorist attacks in 2001. A plurality of Americans says the country is as safe (48%), and another quarter says the country is less safe (27%).

Reflecting this concern, seven in ten Americans support US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities (71%) and assassinations of individual terrorist leaders (70%). Six in ten support using drone strikes to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists (62%).10 Nearly six in ten (56%) support attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps. American support for using ground troops has dropped sharply since 2010 (when 73% supported doing so), highlighting a preference for the lower-risk approaches of air strikes, assassinations, and drone strikes. Over time, support for air strikes and ground troops has returned to levels before the 2001 attacks, while support for targeted assassinations has grown (figure 2.5).

Majorities also support nonmilitary approaches to combat terrorism, including helping poor countries develop their economies (66%) and working through the United Nations to strengthen international laws against terrorism and to make sure UN members enforce them (78%).

There have been some interesting partisan shifts over time on the importance of combating international terrorism. Figure 2.6 shows that from 1998 to 2002 all partisans agreed on the importance of the goal, but by 2004 this consensus had fragmented. Traditionally, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats or Independents had considered combating terrorism a very important goal for US foreign policy. But in the last two years, fewer Republicans view this goal as “very important,” down from 73 percent in 2012 to 62 percent in 2014. Over the same two-year period, there has been little shift in the views among Democrats (from 64% in 2012 to 65% in 2014) and Independents (from 57% in 2012 to 56% in 2014).

Figure 2.6

Iran
Americans’ feelings about Iran continue to be quite negative overall (they rate it 27 out a possible 100 on a scale of favorability, where 50 is neutral). This is in line with ratings going back to 1982, the first Chicago Council Survey after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Americans were far more positive about Iran before the revolution, rating it a 50 out of 100 in the 1978 Chicago Council Survey.

Figure 2.7

Americans prefer a diplomacy-first approach in delicate international situations, but if diplomacy is not effective, sometimes they are willing to use force. Iran is a good example. A majority of Americans support the current interim agreement with Iran, but also support the use of force if the agreement is broken. Six in ten (62%) support the current agreement in which the United States “eases some of the international economic sanctions against Iran” in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in part, but not completely, and “submits to greater international inspection of its nuclear facilities.” But should Iran commit “a major violation” of the agreement, a majority of Americans (60%) support the United Nations Security Council authorizing a military strike against Iran’s nuclear energy facilities. In a separate question not referencing UN authorization, an even larger majority would support using US troops to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, with seven in ten (69%) in favor.

Figure 2.8

Energy supply
Americans are willing to support the use of force not just in self-defense, but also in self-interest. Securing sources of energy are a major priority for Americans: reducing US dependence on foreign oil (74% “very important” in 2014, 77% in 2012, and 74% in 2010) and securing adequate supplies of energy (66% in 2014 and 75% in 1974) rank as top goals (figure 2.8).

Perhaps the clearest signal of the importance that Americans attach to energy issues is the consistent public willingness to commit US troops to ensure the oil supply since 2002 when the question was first asked. In 2014, 56 percent of Americans supported using troops for this purpose. The exception was in 2006, when more opposed than supported this, most likely in reaction to heightened hostilities in the war in Iraq. Those Americans who prefer that the United States “stay out” of world affairs are less likely than others to favor the use of US forces to ensure the oil supply (46% vs. 59% who support an active role). Self-described Independents (49%) and Democrats (53%) are also less likely than Republicans (62%) to approve of the use of US troops to ensure the oil supply.

Humanitarian interventions
Americans have consistently supported the use of force, in principle, for humanitarian actions. Seven in ten Americans support using US troops to “deal with humanitarian crises” and “to stop a government from committing genocide and killing large numbers of its own people” (71% each). This level of support has been fairly consistent over the past decade, with at least seven in ten Americans backing the use of US troops in these cases (figure 2.9).

Figure 2.9

Public support for using US troops in actual situations that could qualify in these categories, however, is generally much lower. In the 2014 survey, for example, only 17 percent support the United States sending troops into Syria, which certainly constitutes a major humanitarian crisis. And for a more historical example, only 36 percent of Americans supported the use of US troops “if Serbian forces killed large numbers of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo” in 1998 Chicago Council Survey.

Polls have shown that support may be higher if US troops are positioned as part of a peacekeeping mission. For example, just 17 percent of Americans support the United States sending troops into Syria, compared to 44 percent who would support the use of US troops as part of a peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement in Syria(See Syria section). Earlier Chicago Council Surveys showed majorities in favor of sending US troops to be part of an “international peacekeeping force to stop the killing in Darfur” in 2010 (56%), 2008 (62%), and in 2006 (65%).

Other research has shown that public support for a specific military action is often higher if the president has indicated support for that action. For example, following President Obama’s endorsement of air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq, an August 13-17, 2014, ABC News/Washington Post poll found that public support for such strikes rose from 45 percent in June 2014 to 54 percent.11

Disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is affecting the desire to intervene.

Figure 2.10


Figure 2.11

As mentioned in chapter 1, disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to be affecting views on American engagement abroad. Seven in ten believe that neither war was worth their costs (71% each). Republicans, in particular, have increasingly come to feel that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth the cost (See: More Republicans than Democrats now support staying out of world affairs).

Perhaps reflecting these apprehensions about the two recent wars, Americans tend to oppose sending US troops to intervene in many conflicts within countries in the Middle East, between countries in East Asia, and between Russia and Ukraine.

Israel-Palestinian Conflict
While Americans express more favorable feelings toward Israel (rating it an average of 59 on a scale 0 to 100 scale, where 50 is neutral) than they do toward the Palestinian Authority (rating an average 33 out of 100), a solid majority (64%) says they prefer not to take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Thirty percent prefer taking Israel’s side, and 3 percent prefer taking the Palestinians’ side (figure 2.10). If a hypothetical peace agreement were reached between the two sides, Americans are divided on whether to send troops to help keep the peace. Half say they would support sending US troops as part of an international peacekeeping mission to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (50%), while 49 percent are opposed. This is consistent with support over the last decade of Chicago Council Surveys (figure 2.11).

Defending Israel
A slight majority (53%) says they would oppose committing US troops to defend Israel in the event it is attacked by its neighbors, with 45 percent in favor (figure 2.11). And while Americans support using force against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, they prefer to avoid getting involved in an Israel-Iran conflict if Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Iran were to retaliate against Israel (55% oppose sending US troops for this purpose, while 43% favor it).

Syria
Eight in ten Americans oppose the United States sending troops into Syria (78%), with only 17 percent in favor. In the event of a peace agreement, a majority opposes sending troops to be part of a peacekeeping mission (55%), but a sizable 44 percent would support the use of troops in this case. The public continues to oppose the United States providing arms and supplies to antigovernment groups in Syria (70%, 25% in favor). It is likely that this opposition is based on a desire to stay out of civil wars and internal political change. These results also echo Chicago Council Survey results from 1986 that found a majority of Americans opposed to arming “rebel fighters in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan.”12

But Americans are not completely disengaged from this crisis. Half would support the United States enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, including the bombing of Syrian air defenses (48% in favor, with 47% opposed).

Figure 2.12

China and Taiwan
In line with readings from 2008, 2010, and 2012, just four in ten Americans view the development of China as a world power as a critical threat. These attitudes contrast sharply with views between 1994 and 2002, when nearly six in ten considered China’s rise a critical threat (see figure 1.7).13

Even fewer consider China’s border disputes with its neighbors a critical threat (19%). In fact, of all the potential threats asked about in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey, China’s border disputes with its neighbors ranks as the least critical.

Americans have more favorable feelings toward Taiwan (average rating of 52 out of 100) than China (44 out of 100). Yet surveys since 1982 have shown that no more than a third of Americans has ever supported sending US troops to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Only one in four (26%) support defending Taiwan today, similar to recent surveys (figure 2.12).

Figure 2.13

North Korea

Of all countries rated in the 2014 survey, Americans feel least favorable toward North Korea, giving it an average rating of 23 out of 100 (matching its lowest rating in 2006).

However, Americans do not see a threat from North Korea urgent enough to warrant military action. Broadly consistent with 2012 results, a majority (55%) opposes air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites in North Korea to pressure North Korea to stop building its nuclear weapons program (41% favor air strikes). An even larger proportion oppose sending in US ground troops to take control of the country (78% opposed, with 18% in favor). Americans want to keep their eyes on Pyongyang, however. Two in three support the United States stopping and searching North Korean ships for nuclear materials or arms (66%, a 6 point increase from 2012).

The stakes appear to be higher, however, if North Korea were to invade US ally South Korea. Nearly half support the use of US troops in a hypothetical situation where North Korea invades South Korea (47% in favor, with 51% opposed). Though still a minority view, it is the highest level of support for sending US troops to defend South Korea ever recorded in Chicago Council Surveys (figure 2.13). Indeed, support has grown substantially since the question was first asked in 1982, when just 22 percent favored sending US troops to defend Seoul.

Russia’s territorial ambitions
The Russian annexation of Crimea occurred just before the fielding of this survey. As a result, American feelings toward Russia have fallen to their lowest levels since the Cold War. On the favorability scale of 0 to 100, Americans rate Russia a 36 on average. This is just above the average rating Americans gave to the Soviet Union during the Chicago Council’s Cold War-era surveys of 1978 to 1986 and is the lowest rating ever given to Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet, only a minority (38%) sees Russia’s territorial ambitions as a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States. Perhaps as a result, only three in ten support using US troops to come to Ukraine’s defense if Russia invades the rest of that country (30%). When asked a similar question in 1994, only two in ten Americans (20%) supported using US troops to defend Ukraine if Russia invaded. If Russia were to invade “NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia,” 44 percent would support using US troops to defend these NATO allies.

Republicans are generally more willing than other partisans to use force. Democrats are most willing to favor US participation in peacekeeping missions.

The data show some clear partisan differences on the willingness to use US troops around the world. As figure 2.14 shows, self-described Republicans are more likely to support the use of US troops to come to the aid of allies if they are attacked. A slight majority of Republicans (53%) support using US troops to defend South Korea in the event of North Korean invasion, compared to fewer than half of Democrats (44%) or Independents (46%). Republicans are also more likely to support sending US troops to defend a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia in the event of Russian invasion (50% vs. 41% of Democrats and 43% of Independents). If Israel is attacked by its neighbors, Republicans are more likely than other partisans to favor sending US troops to defend Israel (52% vs. 41% of Democrats and 44% of Independents). And a majority (54%) of Republicans support coming to Israel’s aid if it bombs Iranian nuclear facilities and Iran retaliates (40% of Democrats, 36% of Independents).

But as has been the case in past surveys, when it comes to peacekeeping missions, Democrats are more inclined to send troops than Republicans. A majority of Democrats support the use of US troops as part of an international peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (59%, compared to 51% of Independents and 46% of Republicans). Democrats are also more likely to support sending US troops for peacekeeping purposes if a peace agreement is reached in Syria (54% compared to 38% of Republicans and Independents).

Figure 2.14
Table 2.1

Conclusion

Since the Chicago Council’s first survey in 1974, Americans have consistently expressed reluctance to use military force to solve international problems. Americans continue to support the use of force only when they feel directly threatened or in cases that appeal to their moral conscience.

Americans remain willing to support the use of US troops to combat terrorism, defend the oil supply, prevent genocide, and help with humanitarian crises. A majority is also prepared to use force if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even those who say the United States should stay out of world affairs would support sending US troops to combat terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. However, many of the conflicts in the press today—for example, in Syria and Ukraine—are not seen by the public as vital threats to the United States.

SPOTLIGHT 2.1

There are no discernible differences in public support for using US troops when multilateralism is not specified vs. in specific multilateral configurations.

It is commonly assumed that Americans prefer multilateral to unilateral military actions, and past Chicago Council Surveys have shown some evidence to support this theory. To test this assumption, the 2014 Chicago Council Survey ran an experiment. The sample was split into three groups, with each third of the sample receiving a different variation of the Council’s long-running question about the use of US troops abroad.

The results may run counter to the popular theory of multilateral preference. On a wide range of possible situations where military force might be used—including in Syria, defending South Korea, ensuring the oil supply, Russia invading the rest of Ukraine, and others—there are no discernible differences in views among Americans toward the use of US troops when multilateral action is not specified, as part of a coalition of like-minded allies, or as part of a UN Security Council authorized military mission (table 2.2 below). The Council will continue to explore this issue in future surveys.

Table 2.2
  1. This survey was conducted before the recent outbreak of fighting in Gaza and before the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or ISIS) made significant gains in Iraq and advanced to the border of Lebanon.
  2. Drone strikes are a new addition to the 2014 questionnaire; therefore there are no trends on this item.
  3. ABC News/Washington Post, “Support for US Air Strikes in Iraq Jumps,” 20 August 2014.
  4. Survey conducted in 1986; fieldwork by Gallup. See “American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy 1987,” ed. John E. Rielly, The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, March 1987, http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/POS_Topline%20Reports/Archived%20POS%20Surveys/survey%201987.pdf.
  5. In fact, US debt to China is deemed a more critical threat at 47 percent.