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1986 Chicago Council Survey

Trip to Iceland Reykjavik Summit Arrival of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at Hofdi House.
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The 1986 Chicago Council survey showed the desire to protect American jobs or to secure access to energy still takes priority over altruistic objectives.


Throughout the 1970s, public opinion surveys sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) confirmed that the America public had developed a pre­ occupation with such issues as inflation, unemployment, and energy. It was inclined to withdraw from international responsibility and harbored a feeling of military weakness and insecurity. Concern over these issues has now receded. A growing appreciation of the importance of foreign affairs is evident, combined with a desire for a larger U.S. world role. Both the American public and its leaders now believe that a favorable military balance has been restored with the Soviet Union and that the United States plays a more important role in the world. But while Americans now feel more secure, their support for increased defense spending is diminishing. Even so, most Americans are prepared to continue defense efforts at their current level. 

One consequence of these perceptions and feelings is continued support for arms control and slightly increased support for certain measures associated with détente with the Soviet Union. But in contrast to their support for the Reagan administration's restoration of the military balance, most Americans do not support some of the more aggressive elements of its foreign policy, including its military intervention abroad, its active promotion of democracy, and its implementation of the Reagan Doctrine through covert action against communist-oriented regimes in Afghani­stan, Angola, and Nicaragua. 

Despite growing friction between the United States and its principal partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over trade and financial issues, the public's highly favorable attitude toward Western Europe and Japan continues; in the case of Japan, somewhat surprisingly, it even improves. However, since the beginning of this decade American interest in and sympathy toward the Middle East has declined. Public willingness to commit troops in crises involving Western Europe and Japan is greater than ever, but the reluctance to commit troops in other areas of the world, including Central America, continues unchanged. 

Americans remain self-interested, and the desire to protect American jobs or to secure access to energy still takes priority over such altruistic objectives as promoting democracy, defending human rights, or improving other countries' standards of living. 

Large gaps continue between public and leadership attitudes and, on many issues, between the views of the public and the leadership and those expressed by Reagan administration officials. The attitudes of outside leaders and government officials are closer to one another than to the general public. But an interesting development is the emergence of notable gaps between the views of administration officials and those of labor, media, educational, and religious leaders. 

These are some of the principal conclusions reached in this report by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on American public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. This study is based on the following: 

Personal interviews with a nation­ wide statistically valid random sample of 1,585 adult men and women in the U.S., carried out from late-October through mid-November by the Gallup Organization. 

Personal and telephone interviews with a leadership sample of 343 prominent individuals in the United States from government, business, labor, academia, the mass media, religious institutions, private foreign policy organizations and special interest groups, conducted between the end of September and late-November. Those were also conducted by Gallup. 

Because of the Iran crisis, in mid­ January 1987, the Chicago Council had the Gallup Organization retest certain questions among the public sample by telephone. No significant variation occurred with respect to these questions except for a decline in the public's evaluation of Ronald Reagan's overall foreign policy and specifically his handling of terrorism. 

The 1986 surveys were the fourth in a series of studies carried out by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Previous public and leadership surveys were con­ ducted in 1974, 1978 and 1982. 

Economic Concerns and Self-Interest

Concern about economic issues generally, including unemployment and inflation, has declined in relative importance. A majority of Americans continue to view foreign economic policy through the lens of self-interest, but the perceived importance and interdependence of the United States economy and foreign policy declined over the past four years. While a majority of Americans still see foreign policy as having a major impact on gasoline prices, the value of the dollar abroad, and unemployment, there has been a significant drop in the level of concern. De­ spite the global abundance of oil supplies, access to energy supplies continues to be important and Saudi Arabia is still perceived by the public as one of the top countries in terms of vital interest to the United States. Among leaders, great concern was expressed about the federal fiscal deficit, national debt and excessive government spending. A total of 57% of those polled cited concerns related to this subject, an increase of 45%, since the 1982 leadership survey.  

At the same time, despite the massive trade deficit, the last four years saw a measurable decline in public support for protectionist measures as well as modest growth in support for economic aid to other nations. The leadership sample continued strongly in favor of free trade-two thirds favored eliminating tariffs on imported goods and less than 30% believed that tariffs are necessary. As has been the case consistently, the weight of public sentiment is the reverse; 53% of the public believed tariffs and trade restrictions to be necessary, only 20% favored their elimination. Over the past decade, however, the two opinion trends have moved toward one another. Leaders are slightly more protectionist and the public somewhat less so. The gap has been narrowed by 15% over the past eight years. 

Another foreign policy issue with powerful economic overtones is relations with the government of South Africa. A total of 57% of the public and 79% of the leaders favored either limited or stringent economic sanctions against the South African government. 


Also receding is the "inward-looking" attitude that characterized the American people throughout the 1970s. The leadership group has remained virtually unanimous over the past decade that the United States should play an active world role. Among the public, those who said that the United States should play "a more active role in the world" rose from 54 percent in 1982 to 64 percent in 1986. The proportion of the population very interested in news about other countries or about U.S. relations with other countries also has shown a steady rise. Indeed, news concerning America's relations with other countries now ranks second in importance after local news, having overtaken national news. 

Another striking finding of the current survey was the much greater percentage of both the public and leaders responding that the United States plays a "more important" role in the world compared with ten years ago. A total of 41 % of the public felt that the United States now has a more important role, compared to 27% who selected this option in 1982; 33% of the leaders felt this way compared to only 10% in 1982. Totals of 26% of the public and 27% of the leaders believed that the United States is less important, compared to respective figures of 44% and 52% four years ago. Consistent with this trend toward greater internationalism is the marginally greater support for foreign economic and military aid on the part of the public. 

Areas of Vital Concern

As in previous surveys, both the public and the leaders saw the United States as having vita! interests in many different countries. Attitudes toward particular nations have been remarkably consistent over time, especially in regard to Western Europe, Japan and our neighbors, where high perceived vital interests are registered. A high per­centage of leaders and the public see a vital interest in Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere, where the United States has strong cultural, political and economic as well as security ties. In the case of Canada and Latin America, geographic proximity is also an important factor. Japan remains America's principal trading and security partner in Asia as well as an economic competitor in industrialized markets. Vital interests are also perceived in the Middle East, especially in connection with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

Leaders generally have a more inclusive view of national vital interests, although their priority areas in most cases are the same. Despite the strong disagreements between the United States and allies in Eu­rope and Japan over the past four years, those areas along with Canada and Mexico continue to be rated most highly. Over the years, the top countries in terms of perceived vital interests by the public and leaders have generally remained the same. In 1986, those countries were for the public Great Britain, Canada, japan, the Feder­ al Republic of Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. For opinion leaders, the top six countries in 1986 were the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and the People's Republic of China. Countries whose perceived importance has increased notably since 1982 include for the public India, Italy, South Africa, South Korea and Syria; and for the leaders South Africa and South Korea. 

When the public was also asked to rank countries in terms of warmth or coolness felt toward them, once again, the same countries tended to appear. The top countries here were: Canada, Great Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, Mexico and Israel. Japan, with a "mean temperature" of 61 degrees, in­ creased by 8 degrees over the past four years, a surprising result given the significant friction between the U.S. and Japan and the harsh criticism by American political and governmental, business and trade union leaders. The Philippines was included for the first time in 1986 and was ranked seventh by the public at 59 degrees. 


The high priority devoted to relations with Western Europe is evident in continued strong support by the American public as well as leaders for the military alliance with those nations and Canada, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On a par with the levels of support of four years ago, 70% of the public and 85% of the leaders believe that we should support either in­ creased or the same level of military commitment to NATO. Similarly, when the leadership sample was asked to choose between leaving American troops in Europe for the time being or withdrawing over the next five years and letting Europe provide for their own nuclear as well as conventional military defense, 82% of the respondents favored the status quo over the change. This is noteworthy given the continuing discussion in the United States about the advisability of our conventional military presence on the continent of Europe. 

A series of additional questions posed to the leadership sample indicated no apparent shift in priorities toward Asia at the expense of Europe. When asked which area is more important to the U.S., 46% of the leaders chose Europe and 18% Asia, while 34% indicated that the two regions are of equal importance. American leaders were markedly favorable to Europe over Asia as the preferred region for post-graduate study for a son or daughter, by 69% to 15%. A related question on language preferences indicated strong support for Spanish (34%) and French (22%) over Japanese (16%) and Chinese (12%). There is evidence that among the leadership group, those in Congress were somewhat more favorable than Administration representatives to leaving troops in Europe and post-graduate study in Europe, although the sample tested here was small. 

The Middle East

Another priority in recent years, the Middle East, has declined somewhat in perceived importance for United States foreign policy. This was true when considering the most important foreign pol icy problems facing the country or the significance of supply/energy matters. At the same time, Israel's favorability rating among the public has increased over the past four years; and Israel and Saudi Arabia are viewed among those countries of highest vital interest to the United States. Not surprisingly, Iran was at the bottom of the thermometer for the public at 23 degrees, below the Soviet Union at 32 degrees and Syria at 34 degrees. 

Military Issues

Among the most pronounced shifts in public and leaders’ views during the course of the four Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveys have been those related to defense spending. Between 1974 and  1978, support for increased defense spending grew substantially. The Council surveys combined with other polls indicate that the period of the late 1970's until early-19H1 witnessed a sharp shift of American public opinion in favor of increased defense spending. In 1974, sentiment for cutting back outweighed sentiment for in­ creasing the defense budget by as much as three to one. By 1978 there was twice as much sentiment for expanding as for reducing the defense budget. The 1982 survey indicated a reversal of this trend, with a strong consensus-a majority among the public-for maintaining current levels of defense spending rather than increasing or reducing. In 19B6 sentiment among both public and leaders favors keeping the status quo and is opposed to further in­ creases in defense spending. While this does not provide encouragement for the Reagan administration effort to expand the Pentagon budget, there is no great public sentiment for cutting back defense spending from current levels. 

An important factor behind this lack of support for more defense spending is the perception of national strength, related to the view, especially on the part of the public, that the United States is now on a par with or superior to the Soviet Union in military terms. Earlier polls indicated a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the other superpower. A major accomplishment of the Reagan administration has been the establishment of this perception within the United States. 

More than in other areas, political partisanship seems to be a major factor in attitudes on defense spending. There is a strong correlation between Democratic party affiliation and support for cutting back defense spending and Republican affiliation and desire to expand defense spending. This association, already notable in 1982, has increased over the past four years. Evidence of earlier opinion polls shows that partisanship during the entire post-war period appears to correlate strongly with attitudes on defense spending. In earlier years, specifically the 1950's and early 1960's, however, the relation­ ship was the reverse - Democrats tended to be more in favor of defense spending, Republicans much less enthusiastic. 

Relations With the Soviet Union

In 1986, as in 1982, both the public and leaders were concerned about the dangers of war and progress in arms control efforts with the Soviet Union. In 1986, 10% of the public sample mentioned nuclear war and related issues when asked to cite the two or three biggest problems facing the country today. By contrast, in 1978 so few respondents mentioned war or nuclear war as a principal concern that the response was not separately reported. Among leaders, 17% in 1986 cited arms control or lack of arms agreements as among the biggest problems facing the country. By contrast, only about 1% were registered in this category in 1982 and 1978. Twenty-two percent of the public cited relations with the Soviet Union as among the foreign policy problems of most concern to them, compared to 5% who cited this theme in 1982. 

There continues to be strong support for arms control and related cooperative measures with the Soviet Union on the part of both the public and leaders. A total of 80% of the public and 95%, of the leaders favored negotiating arms control agreements between the two superpowers; 78% of the public and 98% of the leaders are for resumption of cultural and educational exchanges; 57% of the public and 82% of the leaders want to have increased grain sales to the Soviet Union; only 37% of the public and 24%, of the leaders want to restrict U.S.-Soviet trade. The only strong opposition to cooperative endeavors is in such sensitive areas of sales of advanced computers, sharing technical information with the Soviets about defending against missile attacks, and-a question asked only of the leaders - subsidizing grain sales to the Soviets. This strong support for cooperative ventures with the Soviet Union have been consistent over a long period of time. The current perception that the United States is stronger vis-à-vis the Soviet Union has to some extent reinforced the already substantial support for détente. 

Regarding nuclear weapons specifically, the public and especially opinion leaders continue to believe the United States should stop building nuclear wea­pons only if the Soviet Union agrees to do the same. A total of 58% of the public and 79% of the leaders feel this way. There was a slight decline in support for the position that the United States should stop building nuclear weapons even if the Soviet Union does not. 

A mutual freeze on nuclear weapons was also strongly supported, as in 1982; 67% of the public and 77% of the leaders would favor a mutual freeze immediately if the Soviets would agree. Only 14% of the public and 8% of the leaders felt that we should have a freeze only after the United States builds up more nuclear weapons. 


There was a continuation of the long-term trend of gradually increased public willing­ ness to commit United States troops in selected circumstances overseas. A majority of the public and leaders would be willing to send United States troops if either Japan or Western Europe were invaded by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, there is a reluctance to commit American troops in other circumstances. Majorities of the public were opposed to use of troops if North Korea invaded South Korea, the Arabs cut off oil shipments to the United States, Nicaragua invaded Honduras in order to destroy contra rebel bases, the government of El Salvador were about to be defeated by guerrillas or Arab forces invaded Israel. The leadership group was much more favorably disposed to the use of troops, as has been the case in earlier surveys. Majorities were in favor of use of troops not only in cases of Western Europe or Japan already cited, but if Arabs forces invaded Israel, North Korea invaded South Korea, or the Nicaraguan government allowed the Soviet Union to establish a missile base in that country. The public response was evenly divided regarding the Nicaragua missile base question. A plurality of 45% favored using troops but 42% were opposed. Generally, the willingness to use troops overseas is closely related to perceptions of vital interest. 

Roles of Congress, CIA 

The public and leaders were generally supportive of the administration in the fall of 1986, especially in comparison with 1982, on the appropriate role of Congress in foreign policy. Those who believed the Congressional role was too weak declined substantially among both groups. Those who viewed Congress' role as being too strong went up slightly on the public side and significantly on the leadership side. The January 1987 poll showed some increase in public support for a stronger role by Congress. A similar shift occurred in both public and leadership attitudes on whether the CIA should be encouraged to work covertly to weaken or overthrow governments unfriendly to the United States. A substantial 13-point change occurred among leaders in terms of greater support for the covert role by the CIA and there was an equally sharp drop in those opposed. A smaller change occurred among the public. 

Gaps Among the Administration, the Public, and the Leaders

A substantial gap continued between the views of leaders and the public on a large number of foreign policy issues. In some areas, the views of both are in conflict with the policies and performance of the Reagan administration. Leaders continue to favor a more activist role for the United States in the world, are generally more interventionalist and more supportive of the "Reagan Doctrine" of backing anti­communist guerrillas in some countries around the world. Leaders continue to be more internationalist, notably in support of free trade and military as well as economic foreign aid. Leaders give a high priority to defending allies' security as a foreign policy goal and lower emphasis on strengthening the United Nations. They are generally less concerned about protecting American jobs at home or promoting American business overseas. Leaders are less inclined to endorse the goal of "containing communism" but more disposed to consider as a "great threat" the coming to power of a communist government in specific countries such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia or France. By a large margin of 42%, leaders support military aid to other nations and are considerably less worried about aid to Central America leading to United States military involvement there. Leaders are overwhelmingly opposed to negotiating with terrorists, as is the public; they are more inclined than the public to favor use of military force against terrorist groups, but less inclined to favor the assassination of terrorist leaders. 

On relations with the Soviet Union, both leaders and public give a higher priority to cooperative endeavors than has the Reagan administration, and are critical of the administration's handling of relations with the Soviet Union. Both are also critical of the administration's performance on the Middle East, international trade policy, human rights and terrorism. 

In addition, there were notable differences, within the leadership sample on the defense budget, the "Reagan Doc­trine," the covert role of the CIA and a number of others. There were significant differences between administration representatives and other leadership categories, especially labor, media, education and religion, on support for the invasion of Grenada, the effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, the bombing of Libya and increased defense spending. 

One important overall result that emerges from this survey is that public support for a more active United States role in the world has increased. This represents a change from earlier surveys and doubtless reflects the perception of favorable change in the United States/Soviet military balance and the higher estimation of the role that the United States actually plays, as well as the role the nation should play, in the world. In sum, while there is sharp disagreement with the Reagan administration on specific policy matters, there is also considerable support for the Administration's restoration of the military balance and greater confidence in the America's world role. 

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About the Editor
John E. Rielly
President Emeritus, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Rielly was president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs) from 1974 to 2001. He's currently Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University.