Americans Overwhelmingly Support Cooperative International Engagement But Want US to Play a Less Dominant Role

A new study from the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation calls into question the widespread assumption that the American public wants to disengage from world affairs. Rather, the PPC study reveals that large majorities support cooperative forms of international engagement—including full participation in NATO and giving foreign aid—but want the United States to play a less dominant role and for other countries to take up more of the slack. Large majorities support the U.S. having a robust military capacity, but want it adjusted in line with a more limited U.S. role, with allies carrying more of the defense burden. The findings were released today by Voice Of the People.

Asked directly about America’s role, less then one in ten want the U.S. to withdraw from efforts to solve international problems or to play no leadership role. On the other hand, less than one in ten want the U.S. to be the preeminent world leader. Instead, eight in ten say that the U.S. should participate in cooperative efforts together with other nations and should play a shared leadership role.

Only one in five Americans thinks that under the Obama administration the U.S. has been too engaged in world affairs, while one in three (and a slight majority of Republicans) think it has not been engaged enough. The most common view, held by 46 percent, is that the level of engagement has been about right.

But while there is not a desire for the U.S. to disengage, there is dissatisfaction with the way it engages. Two thirds complain that the U.S. plays the role of ‘world policeman’ more than it should (64 percent) and 55 percent say that the U.S. does more than its fair share in solving world problems.

“The fact that the American people do not want the U.S. to be so dominant doesn’t mean the public has turned isolationist,” said PPC Director Steven Kull. “Americans want the U.S. to engage in a cooperative way, with the U.S. being less of a world policeman and other countries sharing more of the burden.”

During the presidential campaign there was much discussion about whether, as the Cold War has receded into history, the American public still has the stomach to sustain its military alliance commitments. However, it appears that support is still quite strong. When respondents were reminded that being part of the NATO military alliance means that “if any outside country, such as Russia, were to attack any member of NATO, all NATO members, including the U.S., would be obliged to contribute military forces to help defend the member attacked” 89 percent said that the U.S. should continue to be part of NATO.

Presented a scenario in which Russia were to attack Poland, 79 percent said that they would be ready, if necessary, “to support sending U.S. and other NATO allies’ troops to defend Poland.”

Few Americans have responded to the warming signals between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Three quarters continue to have an unfavorable view of Russia. Only one in four favor recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and lifting economic sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s annexation, while seven in ten favor continuing the sanctions.

More broadly, Americans continue to support the international collective security system based in the UN. Seven in ten said that the U.S. should “contribute troops to UN efforts to help defend UN members if they are attacked.”

Consistent with these various commitments, Americans support the U.S. having a robust military capacity that goes well beyond self-defense. Only one in ten say that the U.S. defense capabilities should be sized to just protect the U.S. On the other hand, only one in five think U.S. military capabilities should be sized to the requirement that U.S. should be able to protect allies on its own. Rather, seven in ten say that the U.S. should have the capabilities to join in collective efforts to protect countries from aggression.

In this context, Americans are not satisfied that other countries are keeping up their end of the collective security arrangement—another recurring campaign theme. Eight in ten complain that the countries that receive U.S. military protection rely too much on the U.S. Perhaps most significant, 83 percent favor allies taking over more responsibilities so that the U.S. can reduce its presence abroad.

Another key question that emerged in the 2016 campaign was whether U.S. policy should be guided by global considerations or should be strictly guided by U.S. national interests. Most Americans question this distinction and see it as a false choice. Seven in ten agreed with the argument that, “The United States should look beyond its own self-interest and do what’s best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the U.S.” Ninety-three percent said that it is important to take into account the views and interests of other countries.

But Americans go further and also advocate having a globally altruistic dimension to U.S foreign policy. Eighty-one percent favor giving humanitarian aid and 66 percent favor giving development assistance.

Particularly relevant, when asked what role U.S. national interests should play in giving aid, only one in four said that, “We should only send aid to parts of the world where the U.S. has security interests” while seven in ten agreed that “When hunger is a major problem in some part of the world we should send aid whether or not the U.S. has a security interest in that region.”

Americans’ sphere of concern does not accord sharply with national boundaries. When half the sample was asked “When you hear that children are hungry in some part of the U.S., how much does this trouble you?” The mean response was 8.2. When the other half sample was asked the same question about hungry children outside the U.S. the mean response only a little bit lower – 7.4.

The survey was fielded from December 22-28, 2016. The panel of 2,980 respondents was drawn from Nielsen-Scarborough’s probability-based national panel (which was recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households). The margin of error is +/- 1.8 percent.

In addition, several questions were drawn from the two other surveys conducted earlier in the month with samples of 1,630 and 1,633. These too were fielded by Nielsen Scarborough.

The report can be found at:

The questionnaire can be found at:

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