Vox Americani

What do Americans want? The U.S. public's view of the world has long been a study in what seem like maddening contradictions, at times both altruistic and paranoid, protectionist and entrepreneurial, and isolationist and multilateralist. Like many other analysts, FP's editors have worn deep furrows into our brows trying to discern how Americans see the world and their place in it. So we invited Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and author of several groundbreaking studies of U.S. public opinion, to "interview" the American people on the most pressing global issues of the day. He created a composite of average Americans -- a virtual John/Jane Q. Public -- derived from the majority positions in extensive polling data and using the kind of language he commonly hears in focus groups. (An annotated version of this interview can be found at foreignpolicy.com with footnotes citing poll questions and data.) As it turns out, Americans defy simple labels, largely because they refuse to submit to simplistic choices.

Foreign Policy: Let's begin by talking about the U.S. role in the world. Rumor has it that with the Cold War over, you are in the mood to disengage from the world and tend to problems at home. Is that true?

Foreign Policy: Let’s begin by talking about the U.S. role in the world. Rumor has it that with the Cold War over, you are in the mood to disengage from the world and tend to problems at home. Is that true?

J.Q. Public: Well, I am concerned about problems at home. For instance, education. I think we should be doing more to improve our schools because —

FP: So, are you saying that you would like to focus on things like education and have the United States pretty much withdraw from world affairs?

JP: [A little perplexed] No, of course not. I don’t think that’s even possible. Obviously we have to stay involved. We are so interconnected with the rest of the world nowadays. I also think we have a moral obligation to try to do something when people are starving or when innocent people are being killed. And if we don’t keep paying attention to what’s happening in the world, things can get out of hand and pretty soon you could have a major war. Just because the Cold War is over doesn’t mean all of that has changed.

FP: Does this mean that you like the idea of the United States taking the role of the world leader?

JP: Whoa, whoa there. I didn’t say that. When I hear all that "world leader" talk it makes me want to hold on to my wallet. Frankly, I am tired of the United States always being out front in the leadership position, being the world’s policeman. I mean, think of what we did for Europe in the two world wars, then the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, then fighting the Cold War against communism, and then providing most of the troops in the Gulf War! Hey, give us a break.

FP: It sounds like maybe you are feeling a bit isolationist.

JP: [Frowning] No, no. What, do I only get two options here — hiding under my blanket or being the world leader?

FP: So, what would you like the United States to do?

JP: You know, right after the Second World War there was all that talk about countries working together through the United Nations — keeping the peace and trying to solve problems together. That sounded like a good idea then. Of course, with the Cold War and all, it didn’t really work for a long time. But now that the Russians have sort of come around, it seems like this kind of cooperation is worth trying. Countries need to work together. Everybody should pitch in. And the United States should be willing to do its fair share.

FP: So you like the United Nations?

JP: Pretty much. I mean, it’s not perfect or anything. It doesn’t always do things just right. Sometimes their peacekeepers just let themselves get walked over — they can be like, you know, sitting ducks. And there is probably a fair amount of waste and abuse. But then the U.S. government is probably even worse. So what can you do? But as long as we’re all working together, that’s the better way to go. And anyway, then it doesn’t all fall on the United States to solve all the problems. Also, when the U.N. makes a decision, everybody can plainly see that it’s not the United States pushing people around. It’s like, you know, it’s sort of right, it’s uh…

FP: You mean it’s legitimate?

JP: Yeah, right. It’s legitimate.

FP: But aren’t you afraid of the U.N. becoming too powerful? What about the black helicopters?

JP: [Laughing] Oh, right. I don’t know why you confuse me with those kooks. Actually, I think if anything, the U.N. should become more powerful. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I mean, don’t we have a veto there?

FP: How would you feel about putting U.S. troops under a U.N. commander?

JP: I don’t really see why we should be in charge all the time. Well, if we are contributing most of the troops like we usually do, then probably we should be in command. But if other countries are contributing more troops than we are, then, well — why not let somebody else be in charge and take some of the heat when things go wrong? That way, too, maybe they’ll be more likely to do their fair share.

FP: So is it just that you want other countries to carry more of the burden? I mean, if the United States can be in control, wouldn’t that be better for you?

JP: Well, maybe, but maybe not. You know, sometimes I think the United States can become too powerful. It kind of throws things out of balance. And people end up resenting us — you know, the ugly American and all that.

FP: Are you saying that you are uneasy with how the United States is behaving?

JP: No, no. Don’t get me wrong. America is a great country. I believe in what the United States stands for, and I think it does a good job promoting human rights and democracy in the world. I just think we’ll run into problems if we’re too overbearing. Like when we went into Vietnam — we may have had good intentions to defend freedom against communism, but pretty soon the world saw us as being a big bully. I sure don’t want to see something like that happen again.

FP: Does that mean you would like to bring home the military forces we have stationed around the world?

JP: Well, we need to be able to respond quickly to things that happen, but we probably have more troops out there than we need. Of course, we need to be in places like Europe and Korea. I do think we provide some stability, and even though people complain about us they’re probably glad we’re around. The Europeans might have had another war by now. But we should also be sort of low-key. I like what President George W. Bush said about us needing to be humble.
Of course, if someone really gets out of line, like Saddam Hussein or that Osama bin Laden guy, well sometimes you gotta really kick some you-know-what. And for sure we need to be able to do that. But that’s a pretty rare thing. And just because we can do that better than anybody else doesn’t mean we should go out there like the Lone Ranger or think we can boss everybody around. For the most part we should just, you know, work together with other countries and teach by example.

FP: Hmm. Teach by example. So does that mean you like it when you see other countries imitating the United States, watching American movies, and putting up McDonald’s restaurants?

JP: Well, that’s not exactly what I meant. I guess I feel sort of mixed emotions about that. But I do like it when I hear that other countries are imitating us by becoming more democratic.


FP: So, how do you feel about economic globalization and the growth of international trade?

JP: Hmm. I guess I would have to say lukewarm. I think it’s been great for businesses, but I don’t think it’s been all that great for American workers or for workers in foreign countries.

FP: Do you favor free trade or are you a protectionist?

JP: [Sigh] I only get two options again? Look, I can see that there are a lot of benefits from trade. I know that I’m paying lower prices at the store because of all that cheap labor abroad. But I also know that there are people here who are losing jobs because factories are going overseas or down to Mexico. Now, if you force me to choose between low prices and the guy down the street losing his job, then I am going to have to say I do not have the right to make that guy lose his job just so I can get a cheaper pair of sneakers. So, yeah, let’s keep up some of those trade barriers. But that’s not really what I want to do. I know trade is basically a good thing, and in the long run there ought to be a way for everybody to benefit.

FP: So, what are you saying?

JP: What I would really like is for the government to do more to help the guy down the street — help him find a job and give him some job training. If I really believed that the government was going to do that, then I would say, yeah, let’s open things up.

FP: But the things you are describing could take some time to implement. Don’t you realize that if we slow the growth of trade we could slow the growth of the economy?

JP: I don’t always just think about the "growth of the economy." That’s very abstract. Of course, I understand that when the economy grows there is more money around and that lifts everyone’s boat. But there is also the human dimension. Those gross domestic product (GDP) numbers don’t include the cost of disrupting people’s lives. And there’s also the human dimension of the overseas workers. I don’t like the idea of buying cheap products if they are made in sweatshops with bad working conditions. Something should be done about that.

FP: But if the workers in those countries did not have those sweatshop jobs, they might not have any job at all.

JP: I don’t buy that kind of thinking. I just feel that if people are making clothes that I wear on my body, I have a responsibility to be sure that they’re not being mistreated.

FP: So, how do you help those people?

JP: Look, I don’t have this all figured out. But it seems to me that all of this trade is making a lot of money for businesspeople everywhere but not for workers. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer. So, there is probably enough money around to help out everyone. You know, we’re always being told that trade is this wonderful thing and it generates so much wealth. But hey, where is it? Besides, sometimes you just have to take a stand for what is right and hope that the world will start acting right.

FP: So, are you really saying that you would be willing to pay more for something just to make sure it was not made in a sweatshop?

JP: Yes, I would. Actually, it would probably be even better to make sure that when we agree to open up trade with a country, we first make them promise to treat their workers fairly. It’s not only the moral thing to do, it’s also more fair for American workers who have to compete with sweatshop labor. Otherwise, the situation is only going to get worse for workers everywhere. Also, it would probably be a good idea to make sure that if U.S. companies go abroad, they don’t get to trash the planet and ignore environmental standards. That’d be bad for the planet, and it would make it even harder for companies here at home to compete when they have to meet those higher U.S. standards.

FP: By putting all these conditions on the growth of trade, aren’t you really just being protectionist? Aren’t you just really trying to stop the growth of trade?

JP: Well, you can call it what you like. I just don’t see that trade by itself is such a wonderful thing. In principle it can be, but it all depends on how it’s done. So, you tell me that taking better care of workers and the environment is going to slow down this "wonderful" process? [Shrugs] So what? I’m not in any hurry.

FP: Does that mean you would not support giving the president fast-track authority to conclude trade agreements without congressional review?

JP: Probably not. I mean, what’s the hurry? Why not hear what Congress has to say?

FP: Well, presidents have historically had this authority.

JP: Oh really. Hmm, well then I’m not sure.

FP: So, overall, are you saying you want to put the brakes on new trade agreements? Do you think that the trade agreements we already have are a mistake?

JP: No. I didn’t say that. As a general rule, if another country says that it will lower its trade barriers if we will lower ours, then I’m inclined to say let’s do it. Basically, I think trade agreements are a good thing. Even the North American Free Trade Agreement is sort of ok with me. I just think we should take these barriers down in a gradual, careful way so that these other concerns figure into the picture, too. Like human rights and China, for instance. I think we need to take a stand on that and not just let the interests of businesspeople run everything.

FP: Are you saying you don’t think the United States should trade with China?

JP: Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m not even saying that we should cut back our trade with China. And I don’t think we should be real unfriendly or anything. Obviously, they are so big we have to keep talking to them. I thought it was a good thing when President Bill Clinton went to China. But I don’t think we should just open up completely and act like everything is just hunky-dory. We should limit our trade enough so that the Chinese leaders and the rest of the world get the message that we are taking a strong stand.

FP: Let’s talk more about trade sanctions. Do you think we should limit our trade with Cuba?

JP: Yeah, at least some. They do have a pretty bad human rights record down there. But I don’t know if we need to impose a total embargo on them.

FP: Lately there has been a push to allow the trade of food and medicine with Cuba.

JP: That’s probably okay.

FP: What about Libya and Iran?

JP: Don’t those guys support terrorists? And aren’t they trying to get nukes or chemical weapons? Yeah, they deserve some trade sanctions. Besides, Iran is pretty bad on human rights, too, isn’t it?

FP: What if our European allies keep trading with them? Some people say that it won’t really do much good if we impose sanctions all by ourselves.

JP: No, we should still do it, because it’s the right thing to do and eventually our allies might follow our example.

FP: Some people say that sanctions are rarely effective and that by trading with Iran and Libya we can maintain a relationship with them that creates opportunities to exert a positive influence.

JP: Just trading and talking with Iran and Libya won’t cause them to change. They have to see that there are some real costs if they don’t shape up.

FP: But how do you know that refusing to trade with Iran and Libya won’t just hurt the masses of average people there, without affecting the people on top who make the decisions that cause the problem?

JP: I agree that’s really a drag. And if there was a way to just get at the people on top, that would probably be better. But supporting terrorists is really a bad thing, and I don’t like the idea of those leaders having nuclear weapons. So we have to do something. Maybe our actions will eventually pressure the people there to change their governments.

FP: There has been some legislation that penalizes other countries who have continued to trade with Cuba, Iran, and Libya by making it harder for their companies to do business in the United States. Do you think that’s a good idea?

JP: No, probably not. It’s kind of highhanded. We should do what is right, but each country needs to make its own decisions about what it thinks is right.


FP: How do you feel about giving foreign aid?

JP: Well, in principle I think we should give some foreign aid, but I have a problem with a number of the ways that we go about doing it. First of all, I think we give too much.

FP: How much of the U.S. federal budget do you think goes to aid?

JP: Hmm, about 20 percent or so. Probably that should be cut back some. Ten percent sounds pretty good.

FP: How would you feel about spending 1 percent?

JP: Oh, that would be fine.

FP: So, would you be willing to spend more than 1 percent?

JP: Well, the amount of spending isn’t the only thing I have a problem with. Too much money goes to countries with poor human rights records, and probably about half of all the aid ends up in the pockets of corrupt government officials there. Hardly any of it really ends up helping the people who really need it.

FP: Any other problems while you’re at it?

JP: Actually, yes. I’m tired of the United States always being the big sugar daddy.

FP: Well, the United States is much bigger than other countries. Do you think as a share of its GDP the United States gives more than other countries?

JP: Oh, definitely. I think every country, including the United States, should give its fair share.

FP: What other changes would you like to see?

JP: Well, I would like to see more emphasis on helping poor countries. Maybe we needed to use aid to keep countries on our side during the Cold War, but I don’t think that is necessary now. I support helping the hungry.

FP: But many of these really poor countries are far from here — Africa, for example — and don’t have any real bearing on U.S. interests.

JP: I don’t really buy all this talk about U.S. national interests. If there are people hungry somewhere, they should get aid, whether it serves U.S. interests or not.

FP: So, are you saying you want to put all the money into humanitarian relief?

JP: No, not just that. You know, if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime. So I think it’s important to help poor countries develop their economies — you know, help educate them, things like that. Overall, I feel better about giving them know-how than giving them a free lunch.

FP: So, are you saying you would be willing to help poor countries?

JP: Well, yeah, but it’s really important to me that other countries do their share, too. I prefer to do things in cooperation with other countries, like working through the U.N. Then we can be sure everybody else is pitching in.

FP: What share of global development assistance do you think the United States gives?

JP: Gosh, I don’t know, maybe a third, maybe more.

FP: How would you feel if the United States gave about 16 percent?

JP: No problem.

FP: The 29 industrialized countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently set the goal of trying to cut world hunger in half by the year 2015. Is that the kind of effort you’d like to see America be part of?

JP: Yes. That sounds great.

FP: Do you think that is a feasible goal?

JP: Sure, if all the wealthy countries pitched in.

FP: Would you be willing to spend some money to see this happen?

JP: Yes.

FP: How much do you think it would cost the average taxpayer in the industrialized world each year to fulfill this goal?

JP: Oh, maybe about $50.

FP: Would you be willing to pay that amount if other countries would too?

JP: Yeah. Sure. No problem.

FP: What about humanitarian military intervention and peacekeeping? Do you think the United States should participate in those kinds of missions?

JP: Well, that’s kind of complicated. I do think that if things like genocide are happening — or even if a lot of people are being killed or driven out of their homes — the world has to step in and do something about it. And sometimes you’ll have to use military force. So I am basically for this kind of thing.

FP: So what’s the complicated part?

JP: There are two things that concern me. One is that I’m tired of everybody always expecting the United States to take the lion’s share of the responsibility for everything. And frankly, if others aren’t willing to do their part, then I think we should just hang back until they do.

FP: Is it your impression that the United States has contributed a lot of the troops for peacekeeping operations?

JP: Yes.

FP: What percentage would you estimate that the United States has contributed?

JP: I’d guess the United States has contributed nearly half of all the troops. If other countries would contribute, say, three quarters of them, it would be fine with me for the United States to contribute a quarter.

FP: So, what is your other concern?

JP: I don’t think we should go into a situation if it’s not going to do any good. I don’t think we should go in just to, you know, make a gesture to show we are good guys and all. I mean, if I felt confident it was going to work, then I’d say let’s definitely go for it. But whenever someone mentions sending in our troops, everybody in Washington, D.C., starts screaming and yelling about whether we are just going to get stuck there like we did in Vietnam, that we won’t really do any good in the end, and that our troops are going to die in vain. Hell, how am I supposed to know if they’re right? You know, sometimes I’m not sure.

FP: Is it a question of not wanting to put U.S. troops in harm’s way unless there is a clear connection to U.S. national interests?

JP: I’m not sure what you mean.

FP: Well, do you think it is important for U.S. national interests to intervene in the cases of humanitarian crises, like Bosnia and Kosovo?

JP: Hmm. Well yeah, I think that if we don’t intervene the problem might spread, and then we could really be sorry. But sometimes you need to intervene because it is the right thing to do — when horrible things are happening to ordinary people, civilians, women, and children.

FP: Let’s take Bosnia. How have you felt about intervening there?

JP: When we first went in I was kind of ambivalent, because I was afraid that we were going to be doing more than our fair share, but mostly I was afraid that it was not really going to keep the peace. But after a while I started realizing that maybe it was sort of working, and then I started thinking, yeah, well, maybe it’s a good idea.

FP: But how do you think you would react if some American troops were killed?

JP: Oh, I thought some had been.

FP: And that did not make you want to pull out?

JP: Well, I didn’t think it was a lot of troops. But some.

FP: What if more had been killed?

JP: Well, I still wouldn’t want to just pull out. I would probably want to beef up our forces or strike back hard at those who made the attack. I guess if it kept happening I would have to ask whether the people really wanted us there and whether we were doing any good. But pulling out would not be my first thought.


FP: With the end of the Cold War and increasing trade with Asia, some people think our relations with Europe are not really so important anymore.

JP: I don’t see it that way. They are at least as important as ever, if not more so. I mean, they’re our friends. We trade with them. We need to work together.

FP: So how do you feel about the countries of Europe getting together and forming the European Union?

JP: [Shrugging] Fine. Whatever. More power to them. And, like I say, it’s probably good for there to be another strong power. Maybe they’ll shoulder more of the burden of keeping the peace.

FP: Do you worry that they might become a competitor or threat to the United States?

JP: [Perplexed] Huh? Uh, I don’t think so. Well, I don’t know. I guess they could. Is that what guys like you in Washington do? Sit around and worry about stuff like that? Well, I guess somebody’s got to do it, but frankly that’s pretty low on my list.

FP: Do you think that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is still important?

JP: [Yawns] Yeah, sure.

FP: What do you think about enlarging NATO?

JP: Seems ok to me. I generally like the idea of countries getting together, getting to know each other better, and promising that they will hang together and protect each other if any of them get attacked.

FP: So, are you worried that Russia might attack?

JP: No, not really. [Pause] Well, it’s a possibility that we can’t ignore. But I don’t think of NATO as being an alliance against Russia. In fact, maybe we ought to include Russia in NATO, especially if it gets its act together and becomes a stable democracy.

FP: The United States is engaged in a number of disputes with its European allies. One of the key ones is over the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Do you believe that global warming is real?

JP: Oh, yeah. I think it is real and that we should do something about it. But I am not sure how much we should do right now. We are probably going to have to conserve energy more — be more efficient.

FP: Do you think that President Bush did the right thing by pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol? Some people say that meeting the requirements would be pretty tough.

JP: I think we should go along with the Kyoto Protocol. I can’t say that I fully understand the whole picture on this, but I just think the environment is important and it tends to get short shrift. I guess I just have more confidence in the people who are saying that this is something that we have got to do than I do in the president on this issue.


FP: So when you think about threats to the United States, what are your greatest concerns?

JP: My biggest concerns are terrorism and that some countries or groups that are hostile to the United States might get hold of chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons that they might use against us. I think there is a good chance that something pretty bad could happen before too long.

FP: What countries are you worried about?

JP: Well, I do worry about Iraq. Frankly, I wish that during the Gulf War we had gone all the way to Baghdad and taken out Saddam Hussein.

FP: Did you support Clinton when he bombed Iraq in 1998?

JP: Yeah, I did. It bothered me that we did not have more support in the U.N. Security Council when we did. As a general rule, I think we shouldn’t use force without U.N. approval, but sometimes there are special cases when we have to go ahead anyhow. Kosovo was like that. And Saddam Hussein is a pretty scary guy, and the idea of him having biological or even nuclear weapons is pretty awful.

FP: What other threats are you worried about?

JP: Well, I’m concerned about drugs coming into this country, and I think it should be a high priority to do something about that. It’s frustrating that we still haven’t made any real progress on that front.

FP: Do you see China as a threat?

JP: It’s not that I see China as being the big enemy now, replacing the Soviet Union or anything like that. I don’t expect to fight a war against China, but I do think we have to keep our eye on them. I can’t say that I trust China all that much.

FP: Do you believe China’s behavior is improving?

JP: No, not really. I don’t see it becoming more democratic, and frankly I’m not too optimistic that it will.

FP: Do you think the United States should stay engaged with China? 

JP: Yes, we can’t simply ignore them. China is just too big a deal and will probably become an even bigger deal in the future. China might even become a real superpower.

FP: So, if your biggest concern is about weapons of mass destruction being used against the United States, does that mean you favor a national missile defense?

JP: Well, I am much more concerned about a terrorist group sneaking weapons into the country than I am about some foreign nation launching missiles at us — but if there is a way that we can really defend ourselves against missiles, well, yeah, sure. Is there a way?

FP: Well, there is some controversy as to whether a missile defense system is feasible, but some people feel that it is important to go ahead and start building it now, because it could take a long time to finish.

JP: Build it before we even know if it will work? That doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe we should just keep testing it for a while.

FP: Now, if it does work and we do go ahead and build it, then the United States will have to break an arms control treaty with Russia.

JP: Really? That doesn’t sound like a very good idea. Arms control is really important.

FP: So, if it comes down to a question of having to choose between trying to limit the spread of nuclear weapons through arms control and trying to protect yourself with military technology, which would you choose?

JP: Oh, I think arms control is better.

FP: So, does that mean you would support ratification of the treaty to ban all nuclear testing? Some people say that this would limit our ability to develop new and better weapons.

JP: No, I think we should have the treaty. We should do what we can to stop everybody from developing nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are an awful thing, and I still hope that we can completely get rid of them one day. I don’t really see that the problem can be solved with a technological fix or building better weapons. We have to keep trying to, you know, sit down and make agreements.

FP: This seems to be something of a theme for you, that the United States needs to take a cooperative approach to dealing with threats.

JP: Well, we do need to keep a strong military, and sometimes you have to be tough because there are some nasty people and nuts out there. But that can only go so far. We can’t be the policeman of the world. Not just because it’s too much of a burden, but because it’s not really possible. It will only make people mad at us. Nobody likes being bossed around. It’s not [pause] legitimate. And even though there are some awful characters out there, you know most people want to have peace, make reasonable agreements, and live by them. So mostly we just need to keep talking, going to the U.N., [raising finger] keeping our powder dry, but still trying to make deals and finding ways to work together.

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