Public Agenda

Confidence In U.S. Foreign Policy Index

Volume 7, Spring 2010

Scott Bittle and Jonathan Rochkind, with Amber Ott

Prepared by Public Agenda and released in cooperation with Foreign Affairs

Americans Less Anxious About U.S. Foreign Policy Now Than In Past Four Years; But Republicans Have Grown Much More Anxious; Democrats And Independents Much Less So

The American public is less anxious about foreign policy than it's been for four years, partly because they believe our global image has improved, and partly because the troubled economy and other domestic concerns are pushing foreign worries aside, according to Public Agenda's Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index.

The Foreign Policy Anxiety Indicator stands at 122, a 10-point drop since 2008 and the lowest level since Public Agenda introduced this measure in 2006. The Confidence in Foreign Policy Index, produced by Public Agenda in collaboration with Foreign Affairs, uses a set of tracking questions to measure Americans' comfort level with the nation's foreign policy, much the same way the Consumer Confidence Index measures the public's satisfaction with the economy.

The Anxiety Indicator is measured on a 200-point scale, with 100 serving as a neutral midpoint, neither anxious nor confident. A score of 50 or below would indicate a period of complacency. Above the "redline" of 150 would be anxiety shading into real fear and a withdrawal of public confidence in U.S. policy.

“Two years ago, Iraq was seen as the ‘number one’ problem facing the nation in its dealings with the rest of the world,” said Daniel Yankelovich, the noted social scientist and Public Agenda's chairman. “Now, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is cited as one of the five most important foreign policy problems we face. But most Americans still see the world as a treacherous, often hostile place, and that concern certainly hasn’t gone away.”

Republican Anxiety Grows, While Worries Subside for Democrats, Independents

There are striking differences by party, however, with anxiety about foreign affairs skyrocketing among Republicans, even as Democrats and independents report their worries are declining. When the Anxiety Indicator is calculated by party, Republican worries have soared from a relatively low level of 108 in 2008 to 134 today. By contrast, Democratic anxiety -- which was 142 in 2008 -- has now fallen to relatively calm 104. Independents were at 140 in 2008 and are still fairly anxious at 128, but that's a notable decline.

In a Dangerous, Unfriendly World, Fewer Say Foreign Relations Are On the Wrong Track

The Anxiety Indicator score is a composite reading based on five questions that Public Agenda developed to explore the emotional terrain of how Americans view the world. The five questions themselves provide an intriguing look at the public's concerns:

-- The single largest change is in the number of Americans who say U.S. relations with the rest of the world are "off on the wrong track," which dropped 15 points in two years. Still, half of the public (50 percent) say that relations with the rest of the world are "off on the wrong track," while 39 percent say things are moving in the right direction. At the same time, fewer people say they worry "a lot" about the way things are going for the United States in world affairs, down 12 points from 39 percent in 2008 to 27 percent today.

-- And Americans are feeling better about our world image. While a majority of Americans (56 percent) still say that the world sees the United States in a negative light, this is a significant improvement from 2008, where nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) held this view.

-- Americans still see the world as a dangerous place for the United States and its interests. The number who say the world is becoming "more dangerous for the United States and the American people" is virtually the same was it was two years ago: 72 percent, compared with 73 percent in 2008.

-- Only 30 percent give the United States "excellent" or "good" ratings "as a leader in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world." Again, that's essentially unchanged from two years ago.

The most dramatic example of the partisan divide shows up in answer to the question about whether the country is on the right direction or the wrong track in foreign affairs. In 2008, only 20 percent of Democrats said the country was going in the right direction, compared with 45 percent of Republicans. Now the Democrats’ view has shifted a staggering 41 points, to 61 percent who think the country is going in the right direction, while Republicans’ rating has dropped to only one-quarter (26 percent). Independents are far less enthusiastic than Democrats are, but their "right direction" number has doubled from 16 percent to 32 percent.

Afghanistan is more clearly tied to the threat of terrorism than Iraq was. Some 40 percent say, "America's safety from terrorism depends on our success in Afghanistan.” That's somewhat higher than we found when we asked a similar question about Iraq in 2008, when only 34 percent said our safety from terrorism depended on success there.

The questions in the Foreign Policy Index were fielded between March 18 and March 21, 2010. The survey was in the field right after Congress passed a jobs bill and during the final debate and passage of a health care bill by the House of Representatives. During this period, there was also coverage of continued drug violence in Mexico and tensions between Israel and the United States. But this was well before the nuclear arms agreement made between the United States and Russia and the uprising in Kyrgyzstan. Other surveys show news about health care was by far the most closely followed by the public that week.

"Generally speaking, Americans don't know as much about foreign policy as they do about domestic problems, and they're usually willing to leave the nuts and bolts to the experts – unless they feel things are seriously off track," said Scott Bittle, Public Agenda's director of public issues analysis. "The Foreign Policy Index was designed to give political leaders an important tool by providing an overall sense of public's 'comfort level,' rather than flash responses to specific crises."

Domestic Issues Trump Everything

Multiple surveys from many organizations show that the economy is the public's biggest concern by wide margins, and that certainly has an impact on the Anxiety Indicator. When asked about “the most important problem facing the U.S. in its dealings with the rest of the world;” 1 in 4 (26 percent) either volunteered answers that had to do with the United States economy or domestic issues rather than international ones, including 10 percent who explicitly stated that the United States should focus more on domestic matters, less on international ones. Iraq, which was the prime issue in 2008 and cited by 19 percent, is now mentioned by only 5 percent. Foreign policy is simply less pressing to much of the public than it was three or four years ago.

Survey Methodology

Public Agenda Confidence in Foreign Policy Index: Vol. 7, Spring 2010 is designed to capture the public's opinions regarding the state of foreign affairs in the United States. The report is part of a larger tracking study on foreign policy, of which this is the seventh wave. Findings are based on a survey that included a selection of items from previous iterations of the survey and a single new question. Survey items made up part of the Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) March 2010 omnibus telephone survey conducted from March 18 – 21, 2010.

The omnibus included questions on a wide variety of topics, including the foreign policy items listed asked for this project. These questions were asked first, before any other survey topics in the omnibus, and the questions were asked in the order shown in the full questionnaire results (see below).

The survey includes a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. Results were weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. However, it is higher when comparing subgroups or question items that were not asked of all respondents.

Anxiety Indicator Methodology

The Anxiety Indicator is a figure on a scale from 0 to 200, with the neutral value being 100, and is derived by comparing the positive and negative responses to five key questions while disregarding non-responses (such as "not sure" or "no answer").

The Five Questions

Thinking about recent U.S. relations with the rest of the world, would you say things are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track? How do you think the rest of the world sees the United States? Would you say they see the United States positively or negatively? Thinking about current U.S. relations with the rest of the world, would you say that the world is becoming safer or more dangerous for the United States and the American people?

How good a job is the United States doing these days as a leader in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world? Would you say you worry about the way things are going in world affairs a lot, somewhat or do you not worry about them?

These numbers are calculated in the following way:

1. If the question assumes either one positive or one negative response (right track or wrong direction, yes or no), the following formula is used to calculate this question index component:

K = 100 +(p(-) - p(+))
Where p(+) is the percent that answered positively, p(-) is the percent that answered negatively.

2. If the question allows a choice from two positive or two negative responses (very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied), the following formula is used to calculate this question index component:

K = 100 + (p1(-) - p1(+)) + 0.5*(p2(-) - p2(+))
Where p1(+) is the percent that answered strongly positive, p1(-) is the percent that answered strongly negative, p2(+) is the percent that answered moderately positive, and p2(-) is the percent that answered moderately negative.

The index question components are then averaged to calculate the index. When the index level is more than 100, the number giving a negative response is more than the number giving a positive response. When all answers are strongly positive, the index is 0. When all answers are strongly negative, the index is 200.

Full Survey Results: Topline Questions & Answers

Public Agenda's Confidence in Foreign Policy Index: Vol. 7, Spring 2010 is part of a larger tracking study on foreign policy, of which this is the seventh wave. Click here for information on the methodology of this study.

 

1. What do you think is the most important problem facing the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world? [Top four categories of answers shown.]
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Middle East (NET) 27 26 36 40 41 35 -
Terrorism, security 10 10 11 9 22 13 -
Iraq 5 15 25 29 19 22 -
Conflict with the Muslim world 5 1 * 1 * 1 -
Iran 3 * * 1 * * -
Afghanistan 3 - - - - - -
Israeli-Palestinian conflict 1 * * * * - -
Domestic problems (NET) 26 24 20 14 17 15 -
Not enough focus on domestic issues, too much foreign aid 10 2 7 4 4 7 -
Economy, jobs 8 12 4 4 2 4 -
Lack of morals, values, religion 3 1 2 1 1 2 -
Healthcare, health insurance 2 1 - - 3 - -
Immigration, border security 1 2 3 2 1 1 -
Political system, politics 1 1 2 1 3 1 -
Oil and energy policy 1 5 2 2 3 * -
Administration, politics (NET) 13 14 15 15 15 14 -
U.S. reputation, perception 9 8 9 8 9 9 -
Current administration 4 6 6 7 6 5 -
Foreign policies, general (NET) 10 6 5 4 4 4 -
Diplomatic policies, foreign relations 6 2 5 3 2 1 -
Trade deficit, global economy 4 4 * 1 2 3 -


2. How do you think the rest of the world sees the United States?
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Positively (NET) 28 27 24 22 24 25 -
Very positively 7 11 7 7 9 - -
Somewhat positively 21 16 17 15 15 - -
Negatively (NET) 56 63 64 68 64 62 -
Somewhat negatively 33 37 34 34 32 - -
Very negatively 23 27 30 34 32 - -
Neutral or mixed 9 6 10 8 8 10 -
Don't know 5 3 2 2 3 3 -


3. Thinking about recent U.S. relations with the rest of the world, would you say things are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Right direction 39 25 28 26 35 37 -
Wrong track 50 65 65 67 58 59 -
Don't know 9 9 7 6 7 4 -


4. Thinking about current U.S. relations with the rest of the world, would you say that the world is becoming safer or more dangerous for the U.S. and the American people? Is that much or somewhat safer/more dangerous?
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Much safer 4 7 5 4 6 - -
Somewhat safer 15 16 12 9 13 - -
Somewhat more dangerous 33 35 34 34 36 - -
Much more dangerous 39 38 45 48 43 - -
Don't know 7 4 3 4 2 - -


5. How good a job is the United States doing these days as a leader in creating a more peaceful and prosperous world?
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
An excellent job 5 5 5 6 10 - -
A good job 25 24 20 20 21 - -
A fair job 42 41 42 39 39 - -
Or a poor job 25 28 32 34 30 - -
Don't know 2 2 1 1 1 - -


6. Is the following something that you worry about a lot, is this something you worry about somewhat or is this something you do not worry about? The way things are going for the United States in World Affairs.
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Worry a lot 27 39 34 32 35 - -
Worry somewhat 46 45 51 52 48 - -
Do NOT worry 24 15 14 16 16 - -
Don't know 1 1 1 * 2 - -


7. Do you think America's safety from terrorism depends upon our success in Afghanistan, or does it not depend on our success in Afghanistan? Note: All previous iterations of the survey asked about our success in Iraq.
March
2010
(%)
March
2008
(%)
Sept
2007
(%)
March
2007
(%)
Sept
2006
(%)
Jan
2006
(%)
June
2005
(%)
Depends on our success 40 34 36 34 - - -
Does not depend on our success 48 58 60 61 - - -
Don't know 8 8 4 5 - - -

Previous Reports In This Series

The previous reports in this series are all available without charge for download from PublicAgenda.org:

Spring 2008: Energy, Economy New Focal Points For Anxiety Over U.S. Foreign Policy

Fall 2007: Loss Of Faith – Public's Belief In Effective Solutions Eroding

Spring 2007: Anxious Public Pulling Back From Use Of Force

Fall 2006: Anxious Public Sees Growing Dangers, Few Solutions

Winter 2006: Americans Wary Of Creating Democracies Abroad

Summer 2005: Americans Perplexed And Anxious About Relations With Muslim World

Media Contact

The news release, the report and the charts illustrating key results of this survey are available for download without charge. For further information about this report, or to schedule an interview with one of our report authors, please contact Samantha DuPont at media@publicagenda.org or (212) 686-6610, extension 37.

Acknowledgments

The authors of Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index: Volume 7, Spring 2010 would like to thank the following people for their support and assistance during the preparation of this report:

Our partners at Foreign Affairs, Jim Hoge and Gideon Rose;

Dan Yankelovich, Barbara Lee, Robert Shapiro, Richard Haass, Bob Inman, Richard Danzig, John Doble, Ramon Daubon, Nancy Roman, Michele A. Flournoy, Allan Rosenfield, David Frum, and Nancy Soderberg for their help in the original conception of this project;

Jean Johnson, for her direction and assistance;

Samantha DuPont, who also contributed to this effort;

Francie Grace, David White, and Allison Rizzolo, of PublicAgenda.org, for producing a distinctive and highly informative online version of this report;

Sanura Weathers for graphic design;

And Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden, for her vision, insight and guidance.


About Foreign Affairs

Since its founding in 1922, Foreign Affairs has been the leading forum for serious discussion of American foreign policy and international affairs. It is published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a non-profit and nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to improving the understanding of U.S. foreign policy and international affairs through the free exchange of ideas. Foreign Affairs is on the web at ForeignAffairs.com, and is also on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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Confidence In U.S. Foreign Policy Index: Volume 7, Spring 2010

Americans Less Anxious About U.S. Foreign Policy Now than in Past Four Years

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Americans are less anxious about foreign affairs than they've been for the past four years, according to the Spring 2010 edition of the Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index.

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