What Our Leaders Think We Think


Paris. -- Every four years since 1974 the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations has taken a reading on what Americans believe about where their country stands in the world and where it should go in its foreign relations.

The latest survey was conducted late last year, and the results have just been published. They contradict the widely held assumption that Americans today have become isolationists, but contribute to the evidence that Americans are becoming increasingly isolated, out of touch with the world beyond American frontiers. That is a matter for which the press bears a responsibility (and television a particularly heavy one).

Interest in news about local affairs has gone up by 10 percent in the last four years, while interest in other countries and in U.S. relations with those countries has fallen. The percentage of local-news interest is the highest in the history of the Chicago Council's survey, at 65 percent, a reflection of the concern with domestic problems that helped elect Bill Clinton two and a half years ago. The public says in this survey that the first three of the nation's top 10 problems are crime, unemployment and health care/ health insurance.

Foreign relations don't appear on that list, although foreign policy does appear as No. 10 on a separate list of what the country's leadership worries about. (The leadership figures come from a separate polling sample of congressmen and senators, Clinton-administration officials, journalists, academics, and members of labor, church and interest groups).

Economic concern does not result in protectionist opinion. Support for tariffs has declined among the public and is at its historic low among leaders. However, a third of the public and 27 percent of the leaders think the European Union is unfair in its trade practices, and 71 percent of the public and 80 percent of the leaders think the same thing about Japan.

Nonetheless, Americans want the United States to play a leading world role. Asked if we should "take an active part in world affairs" or "stay out," the response is overwhelmingly for engagement -- 65 percent versus 29 percent (with 6 percent uncertain) among the public, and 98 percent versus 1 percent (1 percent uncertain) among leaders.

Moreover, 73 percent of the public and 43 percent of the leaders think the United States will play an even greater role in the decade to come. The theory of "America in Decline" obviously has not carried the day.

Nor is there a marked reluctance to use force. Ninety-one percent of the leaders and 54 percent of the public would support the use of American troops against a Russian invasion of Western Europe, and almost as many (in both categories) would favor fighting to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq. Sixty percent of the leadership and 32 percent of the public would fight if Russia invaded Poland.

These, of course, are snap reactions to telephone questions. A considered judgment might be different. Nor do the answers necessarily reflect a real grasp of the subjects about which the questions are being asked.

A notorious case of this concerns foreign aid, which only 45 percent of the general public favors (as against 86 percent of the leaders). A much-publicized survey in January, made by two independent policy groups, together with an earlier Harris poll, found that Americans want aid expenditure to go down, but they also believe that 15 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. government's current spending goes to foreign aid. The actual aid figure, of course, is less than 1 percent -- military and non-military aid combined.

Calculated as a percentage of U.S. economic output, American foreign aid is 0.15 percent and relatively the lowest foreign-aid contribution of any of the world's industrial countries. Yet when Americans are asked what the United States should spend on aid, they usually suggest something around 5 percent of the national budget -- more than five times what now is spent.

The most striking result of the Chicago survey is what it reveals about the differences between leaders and public. Leaders are much more strongly in favor of troop use to defend American allies but also are lower in their support for NATO. Public support for the alliance is not far off where it was in 1974. Then the sum of those in favor of NATO expansion less the number of those favoring NATO cutback or U.S. withdrawal from Europe gave a negative result of -16. The same exercise today produces -21.

On the other hand, the leaders -- 20 years ago strong, positive supporters of NATO -- were by 1990 strongly negative in their attitude (the sum of votes for expansion less votes for cutback was -58), and they still are cool to NATO (an index of -31 today).

Leaders are much more convinced that China will play a great world role in the future than is the general public. The public is much more of the opinion that Japan will have that role. Leaders strongly favor aid to Eastern Europe, Russia and Africa; the public attitude is negative about all three.

Among both leaders and general public more are unfavorable to aid for Israel than for it. Leaders favor aid to the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. The public is unfavorable. Nearly half the leaders (47 percent) are for U.S. arms sales abroad. Only 16 percent of the public approves.

Even more interesting, more than half (53 percent) of the public wants the United Nations strengthened. Only a third of the leaders agree. Sixty-five percent of the public and 89 percent of the leaders want normal relations restored with Vietnam. There is a plurality among the general public and a two-thirds majority of leaders for restored relations with Cuba.

A significant part of Washington's received wisdom about what Americans think and want seems to be wrong -- if we believe the results of this indispensable survey. Is the new Congress listening?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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