Worry, but Wait
American fears of Russian and Chinese aggression are growing, but they'd still rather Washington not get too involved.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and China's territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas are a stark reminder that balance of power politics are alive and well in the 21st century, long after some pundits dismissed them as relics of a bygone era.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas are a stark reminder that balance of power politics are alive and well in the 21st century, long after some pundits dismissed them as relics of a bygone era.
And while geostrategists debate whether a new Cold War is in the offing, the American public has already begun to make its own judgment. Yes, Americans’ views of both Russia and China are worsening. But they see neither Moscow nor Beijing as an "enemy," nor do they have the stomach for a military — or even economic — confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.
In 2007, 44 percent of the American people had a favorable view of Russia and 42 percent had a positive opinion of China, according to Pew Research Center surveys. By 2013, favorability of Russia had fallen to 32 percent and favorability of China to 33 percent, according to a Pew Research Center survey at the time.
But a new Pew Research Center survey shows that trend accelerating. Americans’ wariness of Russia is on the rise in the wake of developments in Crimea. Since last November, the percentage of the public viewing Russia as an adversary has risen eight percentage points (from 18 percent to 26 percent), while the share saying Russia is a serious problem has increased seven points (from 36 percent to 43 percent). And the percentage of Americans who do not think of Russia as much of a problem has fallen by almost half — from 40 percent just five months ago to 22 percent today.
Wariness of China is also increasing. In 2009, just 19 percent of Americans saw China as an adversary. Today, it’s up to 22 percent.
Much of this renewed Cold War era-style concern about Russia is a partisan affair, however. Currently, 42 percent of Republicans describe Russia as an adversary, up from 24 percent five months ago. Just 23 percent of independents and 19 percent of Democrats view Russia as an adversary, little changed from November. But increasing numbers of Democrats and independents describe Russia as at least a serious problem.
Similarly, 34 percent of Americans self-identifying as Republicans now see China as an adversary, up from 25 percent in November. Just 17 percent of Democrats say that Beijing is an adversary, however, roughly unchanged from the 18 percent that saw China in that light five months ago. And, unlike with Russia, growing numbers of Democrats and independents now say China is not much of a problem.
Despite their rising concern about Russia in particular, Americans show no inclination to intervene to stop Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. About half (52 percent) of the public say it is more important for the United States not to get too involved in the situation in Ukraine, while just 35 percent say it is more important for the United States to take a firm stand against Russian actions.
And, among that portion of the public that supports a firm stand against Moscow, just 6 percent overall say military options should be considered, while 26 percent want economic and political measures to be considered.
The economic sanctions that Washington and European governments have imposed on Russia so far have Americans’ support: 56 percent approve of them, according to a recent CBS News poll. But that doesn’t mean they think they will be effective in deterring Moscow. Barely a third (32 percent) of those surveyed thought the sanctions will be successful.
Moreover, Americans are fairly pessimistic about the future in that part of the world. Roughly two-thirds (69 percent) say it is at least somewhat likely that the situation between Russia and Ukraine will become a more widespread conflict involving neighboring countries and other parts of Europe.
Halfway around the world, China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China Seas have yet to create a confrontation similar to that now seen in Ukraine. So the American public’s willingness to get involved has yet to be tested.
But the region’s tensions are palpable. A 2013 Pew Research survey found America’s Asian allies very worried about Beijing’s intentions. Fully 90 percent of Filipinos, 82 percent of Japanese, and 77 percent of South Koreans thought that territorial disputes between their country and China were a very big or big problem.
Rhetoric and speculation about a new Cold War may, at best, be premature and, at worst, may be inappropriate to the evolving situation with both Russia and China. But it is true that the American public is increasingly critical of both Moscow and Beijing and more and more wary of Russia. However, this does not mean, at least as demonstrated to date in the case of Ukraine, that the American public wants to do much about the actions of their former Cold War foes. Americans are not convinced economic sanctions work. And, as the 2013 Pew Research survey showed, they are war weary and disinclined to strategically engage in the world.
Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Twitter: @bruceestokes
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.