Americans Do Care About Foreign Policy

Five surveys of American public opinion on international affairs proves that Americans are in tune with what is happening around the globe.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

Though this week's presidential debate on foreign policy failed to dramatically move the needle for either candidate, many of those who follow global issues closely were surprised at the topics that came up during the debate, and even more so at those that did not. 

Do Americans, for example, really care about what's happening in northern Mali, which was addressed by the candidates, more so than the drug war taking place on our very own border with Mexico, which wasn't? Foreign Policy Magazine did a great piece called "Silent Treatment" that explores some of the biggest global issues that evaded discussion, including the European debt crisis, climate change, and the war on drugs. According to Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast that's because these global challenges lie outside the foreign policy paradigm that, since 9/11, has largely equated foreign policy with military policy.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Won the Obama-Romney Foreign Policy Debate?]

But what do Americans really think about foreign policy and global affairs? It's often said the U.S. public doesn't care much at all, especially when the economy continues to sputter. But these five surveys from a variety of organizations help give a clearer picture of American views on international affairs ahead of the presidential election. The bottom line? Americans are largely in tune when it comes to foreign policy, giving credence to the idea that foreign policy stops at the water's edge.

Foreign Policy in the New Millennium: The 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy

This biannual report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has been conducting nationwide public opinion survey on foreign policy since 1974, finds that Americans are less and less worried about terrorism and more concerned with the rise of Asia and problems like Syria, where a majority favor imposing a no-fly zone. Indeed, a majority of those surveyed said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had not made the United States safer from terrorism, and 52 percent now see Asia as more important to the United States than Europe. The poll also finds some significant differences in the views of so-called "millennials" aged between 18 and 29, who see the world as less threatening. Fifty-two percent of them said the United States should "stay out" of world affairs. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

How Do Americans View______: An interactive feature from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

This flash-based interactive feature from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace allows users to access a whole host of data related to Americans' views about the world. It draws on two decade's worth of data from the Pew Research Center and measure specific attitudes towards countries (68 percent have an unfavorable view towards Iran, and just 40 percent have an unfavorable view towards China, for example), as well as issues. Only 13 percent said democracy promotion should be a top long-term priority for the United States, for example, which contrasts sharply with the Foreign Policy Association poll below.

The Foreign Policy Debate: Pew Research Findings on Public Opinion

Like the Carnegie poll, the Pew Research survey draws on the organization's long history of polling on American public opinion, with some recent additions of data related specifically to the upcoming election. There are some striking findings. The U.S. public, according to Pew, prefers stability over democracy in the post-Arab Spring world, and a majority say the United States should be less involved with leadership changes in the region. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

FPI National Survey: Foreign Policy Matters in 2012

The Foreign Policy Initiative poll focuses on a number of policy areas that the organization specializes in and advocates for, particularly a robust defense budget, strong support for U.S. allies and American leadership on security and economic issues worldwide. It finds that a majority of Americans, 92 percent in fact, support the United States playing a significant role in the world. In contrast to the Chicago poll, it indicates that 61 percent of Americans are still concerned about a terrorist attack on the United States, and 65 percent support a U.S. intervention in Syria. Support was also expressed for effective use of foreign aid and more trade between the United States and other countries.

2012 Great Decisions National Opinion Ballot Report: Foreign Policy Association

This poll conducted by the Foreign Policy Association, my employer, surveys tens of thousands of participants in its nationwide Great Decisions discussion program. Each year the organizations produces nonpartisan materials on the eight most pressing global challenges facing America, and then surveys those who took part about their opinions, so it is a deliberative and not a random poll like those above. Nonetheless the 2012 survey found strong support from democracy promotion—with 60 percent saying it should be an important goal of U.S. foreign policy compared to the just 13 percent found in the Pew Study. The survey also found support for greater cooperation with Mexico to fight crime on the U.S. border, and for the United States to sign on to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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