Behind the Numbers

The Not-So-Evil Empire

Is Russia still America's bogeyman?


Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Republicans pounced on President Barack Obama this week after he seemed to make discrete assurances to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have more “flexibility” on nuclear defense missile negotiations once the election year is over. Even before House Speaker John Boehner issued a prickly letter today, Republican presidential front runner Mitt Romney criticized Obama for making promises to the president of Russia, calling the country America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

Just over two decades ago, many Americans would have agreed with Romney’s severe assessment. But the idea that Russia is America’s biggest enemy has very little caché with the American public in the 21st century.

In the early 1980s, Americans were pretty vitriolic towards the Soviet Union. In a 1983 Harris poll, fully 93 percent said the U.S.S.R. was unfriendly to the United States or an enemy. In 1990, 32 percent of Americans said Russia (then the Soviet Union) represented the greatest danger to the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey (then called Times-Mirror). Negative views softened dramatically in the ensuing years, with two-thirds actually saying Russia was friendly to the United States or an ally in 1993. Today, there’s virtually no consensus any more that Russia is the bad guy. This year, for instance, a scant 2 percent picked Russia as America’s arch-nemesis. Yes, there’s a resistance against being too trustful — fewer than one in five have called Russia an “ally” at any point in time — but calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” makes Romney seem anachronistic, if not stuck in the Cold War.

In the past couple of years, ratings of Russia have bounced around. They turned sharply negative in a summer 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll following a highly publicized conflict with Georgia, a former Soviet territory. But positive ratings recovered last year, when six in 10 said Russia was friendly or an ally in a similarly worded CNN survey. Gallup polls track less dramatic changes in recent years, with 50 percent holding favorable views of Russia in their February 2012 poll.

Not surprisingly, older Americans with memories of the Cold War may be less willing to bury the hatchet than their offspring. The May 2011 CNN poll found that 47 percent of those over age 50 thought Russia to be unfriendly toward the United States. By contrast, 70 percent of younger adults saw Russia positively — more than a 2 to 1 margin.

The end of the Cold War surely played a role in softening attitudes towards Russia in the 1990s, but Americans have also trained their eye on new dangers. In addition to the threat of international terrorism, Iran has surged to become one of America’s least-liked nations. Perhaps it’s also due to Russia’s declining global influence: While most Americans see China as a major economic threat to the U.S., a scant 1 percent in a 2011 Gallup poll predicted that Russia would be the world’s leading economic power in 20 years time.

Mitt Romney’s assertion that President Obama was “caving” in negotiations with Russia over U.S. security interests may turn out to be a point of attack. And certainly, there’s no question that Obama wishes he could take that hot mic slip up back. But with around half of Americans holding positive attitudes towards Russia, negotiations with a friend — even those overheard in error — are probably not enough to dent Obama that badly.

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