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1990 Chicago Council Survey

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by John E. Rielly , Bernard Cohen , Arthur Cyr , Benjamin I. Page , William Schneider , and Donald Jordan
US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Predident Mikhail Gorbachev hold a press conference at the Helsinki Summit, Finland on September 9, 1990.
George Bush Presidential Library

The 1990 Chicago Council Survey was performed during an age of global economic competition.


This is the fifth public opinion survey and analysis sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The key question in all the Chicago Council Surveys is the extent to which the American public and leaders continue to support an active role for the United States overseas. The report again addresses such issues as the relationship between domestic and foreign policy priorities, the response to far-reaching changes in Europe and the Soviet Union, the shift in foreign policy priorities and the shift in attention from some areas of the world to others. 

The principal data on which the survey is based were collected 16 years after the first survey, which was carried out in the autumn of 1974. The second survey was conducted in 1978, the third in 1982, and the fourth in 1986. The results of those surveys were summarized and published in 1975, 1979, 1983, and 1987 in reports entitled American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy. 

The public survey involved a stratified systematic national sample of 1,513 respondents representing Americans aged 18 years and older. In tabulations, cases were weighted to eliminate any sampling distortions with respect to age, sex, or race. Field work was conducted between December 6 and December 14, 1974. 

Summary Finding

The mood of the American public and leaders has shifted. The Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet competition are passing from center stage, and a new age of global economic competition has emerged. Americans enter this new era with increased confidence about their military preeminence, but with a growing sense of economic vulnerability. 

The Soviet Union

This is the fifth Chicago Council study of American foreign policy attitudes and the first not dominated by Cold War issues. Only one-third of the public and one-fifth of the leaders now consider the military power of the Soviet Union a "critical threat" to the United States in the next ten years. The leaders perceive the United States as vastly superior in military power to the Soviet Union, although the public views the balance as more equal. There are indications that the public is more cautious and skeptical than the leaders about the Soviet Union, but overall opinion about the Soviet Union has improved dramatically. Both leaders and the public support a wide array of cooperative measures with the Soviet Union. Rather than as the principal adversary, Americans now view the Soviet Union as one of the three leading countries in which the United States has a vital interest. The public ranks the Soviet Union fourth in favorability on our "feeling thermometer" of countries, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was ranked one of the four most highly esteemed world leaders, roughly even with President George Bush. 

It remains unclear, however, how firm this change in attitudes will prove to be. By late January 1991, Soviet military intervention in the Baltic republics threatened to cool American attitudes toward the Gorbachev government, although the latest Gallup poll in late January indicates that so far this action has not affected the overall positive American view of President Gorbachev we documented in our survey. 

US Role in World Affairs

Despite the virtual disappearance of concern over a world­ wide "communist threat," Americans remain committed to the active role in world affairs they supported in the 1980s. The nature of the commitment has changed. Fighting ideological battles with communist states has decreased in priority. Protecting American economic interests and maintaining a global military, economic and political position continues as a high priority. Both the public and leaders now believe that because of its inability to solve economic problems, the United States has declined as a world power. This growing sense of eco­nomic vulnerability has shaken the confidence in the United States' ability to maintain a global leadership role even though such a role is desired. 

Vital Interests

The public perceives the most vital interests to the United States in Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, Japan and Great Britain (tied), Kuwait and Canada (tied) and Germany, in that order. The leaders put both Japan and Germany at the top, followed by Mexico, the Soviet Union, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Great Britain. 

Economic Issues

America's economic problems are rooted partly in perceived failings at home and are viewed as the biggest overall problems facing the country today. The federal budget deficit and dissatisfaction with the performance of government were among the top three national problems listed by both the public and leaders. At the same time, increasing global eco­nomic competition has led the public to perceive a greater correlation than in the past between American foreign policy and the state of the U.S. economy. Both the public and leaders are strongly convinced of the impact of U.S. foreign policy on our overall economy, including gasoline prices and the value of the dollar abroad. The public, more than the leaders, tends to believe that foreign policy also affects unemployment and food prices at home. 

The public’s highest preferred goals for U.S. foreign policy are economic: "protecting the jobs of American workers" and "protecting the interests of American business abroad." Although the leaders profess the more globalist goals of "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons," "worldwide arms control" and "improving the global environment" as most important, "reducing our trade deficit with other countries" still ranks near the top of preferred foreign policy goals for the United States. Increased concern about America's competitive economic position has not, however, affected any significant change in attitudes about free trade. The traditional division between the public and leaders remains consistent with past surveys: nearly two-thirds of the leaders favor eliminating tariffs, while just over half of the public think some trade restrictions are necessary. 


Increased global economic competition has affected attitudes toward Japan, viewed as the main source of trade conflict and unfairness. Despite status as a vitally important ally of the U.S., Japan ranked relatively low on our "feeling thermometer" of countries, dropping in standing from 1986. By substantial margins, both the public and leaders believe the economic power of Japan will be a more critical threat to American vital interests in the next few years than will Soviet military power. Strong majorities view Japan as an unfair trading partner. Less than half of the public would favor the use of troops to defend Japan against an attack by the Soviet Union. Although the leaders believe Japan should help pay for the war with Iraq because of its heavy reliance on oil from the region, both the public and leadership express strong opposition to Japan playing a larger military role in the world. Concern about Japan was also reflected in the overall low marks given to the Bush Administration on its handling of relations between our two countries. A majority of both the public and the leaders rated the record as "fair" or "poor." 


European countries continue to rank among the top countries in terms of both "vital interests" and favorability on the "feeling thermometer." Americans' commitment to NATO, the intensely close security alliance enjoyed with European countries over the past 40 years, remains strong, but is shifting, most dramatically among the leaders, in favor of cutting back the number of troops stationed there. The economic integration of the European Community planned for 1992 is viewed in a highly positive light. Large proportions of both the public and leaders believe that 1992 wit! be "mostly a good thing" for the United States. A decided majority of the leaders believe that the Europeans practice fair trade, although the public is more skeptical. Concern about economic competition from West­ ern Europe has grown. A plurality of the public believes the EC practices unfair trade, although the reactions are considerably less severe than those concerning Japan. 

The rise of economic competition from Europe and Japan may be partially reflected in support for a North American trading region. A majority of both the leaders and public favor a free trade agreement with Mexico, just as the U.S. now has with Canada. 

Attentiveness to Foreign Affairs

Along with an overall preoccupation with economic problems, Americans are now more attuned than ever to global events. The proportion of people "very interested" in news about U.S. relations with other countries has now virtually caught up with the proportion of those interested in local and national news, which traditionally occupied much more public attention. 

The Middle East

After a decade of relative obscurity, the Middle East, not surprisingly, occupies Americans' greatest attention, representing the biggest foreign policy problem now facing the United States for both the leaders and the public. Iraq is viewed as one of the principal threats to America's vital interests. Willingness to use U.S. troops to defend Saudi Arabia, how­ ever, was markedly higher than willingness to use force to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait at the time of our survey. 

The crisis in the Middle East also affected a change in the  priority of other issues. Oil dependency was among the biggest foreign policy problems listed by the public, although it ranked lower among the leaders. When asked how to tackle the problem, both the public and the leaders most favored 11 developing alternative energy sources" and "requiring cars to get better gas mileage." The public was most opposed to "imposing an additional 25-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline" while the leaders did not favor 11 imposing a limit on the amount of oil that can be imported." 

Another interesting result was the relative increase in support for protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression and protecting and defending human rights in other countries as important foreign policy objectives. These were undoubtedly a response to Saddam Hussein's aggression in the Middle East and the strong world response to his invasion of Kuwait. 

Attitudes toward Israel and its relationship with the U.S. continue to evolve. Both the leadership and public attitudes toward Israel are more critical than they were four years ago. Yet, willingness to use American troops in Israel's defense is greater. 

CIA and Congress

There was a noticeable reduction, especially on the part of the leaders, in willingness to have the CIA employ covert actions to undermine unfriendly foreign governments. Concerning the domestic balance of power between Congress and the Administration, the results were comparable to those of our previous survey: pluralities of both public and leaders believe the role of Congress compared to that of the President is "about right" in determining foreign policy. There has been a slight increase among proportions of the public believing Congress is too strong and of the leaders who believe that branch of government is too weak. 

Gaps Between the Leaders and Public

Once again, large gaps divide the public from leaders on a number of issues. Leaders are more convinced that the Cold War is over, are more critical of Israel, and more concerned about the growing power of Japan. Leaders favor sharper cuts in American troop strength in Europe and in the defense budget. Leaders are overwhelming in favor of economic aid to other countries, while the public is evenly split on the issue. The most favored recipients of such aid are also changing. The public is most willing to send aid to South American countries combatting the drug problem, while leaders most favor in­ creasing aid to the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe. At the same time, leaders would prefer that the European Community take the lead in providing assistance to its eastern neighbors. 

While the Bush Administration's overall public rating on foreign policy is lower than that of the Reagan Administration four years ago, leaders react more favorably to Bush's foreign policy than they did to Reagan's. 

Defense and Security

Support for U.S. defense spending has represented one of the most important opinion variations over time. The 1990 survey revealed that public and leadership attitudes have moved markedly away from support for greater defense spending. 

Partisanship plays a significant role in defense attitudes. Republicans remain much more committed to defense spending than Democrats, although Republicans are expressing more readiness to cut defense spending given the decline of Soviet military power. 

Overall, the public remains more reluctant than leaders to use troops in crisis situations overseas but are arguably less discriminating than the leaders on where they would most or least favor their use. As in the past, Americans are most willing to use our forces to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion and Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi invasion. They are least willing to use troops to defend El Salvador and the Philippines in the event of a revolution or civil unrest in those countries. 

Support for NATO in general remains strong but is shifting. A total of 56% of the public wants to keep the commitment at the same level, yet the leaders favor a reduction, and both groups would like to reduce the total number of troops in Europe to a level well below the current 300,000. 

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About the Authors
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.
Bernard Cohen
Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison
Arthur Cyr
Former Vice President and Program Director at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Benjamin I. Page
Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.
William Schneider
Resident Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute
Donald Jordan
Former Program Officer and Publications Editor at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs