Skip to main content

1998 Chicago Council Survey

RESEARCH Public Opinion Survey by John E. Rielly , Arthur Cyr , Catherine Hug , Benjamin I. Page , Bernard Roshco , and Trevor Tompson
President Bill Clinton plays the tenor saxophone for Russian President Boris Yeltsin
Robert McNeely

The 1998 Chicago Council Survey results reflect a "guarded engagement" by a largely satisfied superpower.


The Chicago Council Survey was conducted two years into the second term of President Bill Clinton and nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This is the second survey since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, and the third in which the US-Soviet competition has not dominated the findings. In the four years since the last survey, a booming economy in the United States and the rapid pace of globalization strengthened the position of the United States as the world’s only superpower. The United States was active on the international scene, troubleshooting problems in and relations with Russia, China, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and others.  

This is the seventh public opinion survey and analysis sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The key question in all the surveys remains the extent to which the American public and leaders support an active role for the United States overseas.  

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations commissioned the Gallup Organization to collect the data for this survey, using separate but similar questionnaires for the general public and a sample of national leaders. The survey of the public involved personal interviews with a stratified, systematic, random national sample of 1,507 American men and women 18 years of age and older. The questions were weighted to eliminate sampling distortion with respect to age, sex, or race. The fieldwork for the public survey was conducted between October 15 and November 10, 1998. The leadership sample involved 379 telephone interviews conducted between November 2 and December 21,1998. The sample included Americans in senior positions with knowledge of international affairs.  

Summary Findings 

As a new millennium approaches, Americans feel secure, prosperous and confident. They see the United States as the world’s most important and powerful country, with the fear of armed threats from a rival superpower diminished. In an era of increasing globalization, Americans view economic rather than military power as the most significant measure of global strength. Apprehension about economic competition from Japan or Europe as dissipated, as have concerns about immigration. Nevertheless, Americans are alarmed by images of violence at home and abroad. They support measures to thwart terrorists, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and keep defense strong, but shy away from using US troops on foreign soil. American public and leadership opinion on foreign policy today reflects a “guarded engagement” by a largely satisfied superpower.  

Sustained Interventionalism 

  • As in all previous surveys, support for an active role for the United States in the world remains strong, with 61% of the public and 96% of leaders favoring such activism.  
  • Fifty percent of the public believe America plays a more important role as world leader than 10 years ago, with more than three-quarters of the public (79%) and 71% of leaders foreseeing an even greater role for the country 10 years from now.  

A (Mostly) Self Satisfied Superpower 

  • The overall number of major foreign policy problems cited in the survey is down, suggesting a sense of relative security and satisfaction with the country’s position in the world.  
  • President Clinton has made dramatic comeback from four years ago in approval ratings on foreign policy. By one measure, he has risen from eighth to first place among postwar presidents considered “very successful” in the conduct in foreign policy.  

An Uncertain Future 

  • A majority of the public (53%) believe that there will be more bloodshed and violence in the 21st than the 20th century, while a plurality of leaders (40%) believe there will be less.  
  • The public considers international terrorism the number one critical threat to US vital interests, followed by chemical and biological weapons, and the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers. Concern about the development of China as a world power is rising among leaders 

Guarded Engagement 

  • Overall public commitment to engagement coexists with reluctance to support he use of US troops overseas, while leaders continue to be more willing to deploy troops abroad.  
  • Yet, in the fight against terrorism 74% of the public favor US air strikes against terrorist training camps, and 57% favor the use of US ground troops, the only circumstance in which the public favors such action. Even more (79%) favor diplomatic efforts to improve US relations with potential adversary countries. Leaders agree.  

Protecting Interests 

  • Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons tops the list of goals the public perceives as “very important,” followed by stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States and protecting the jobs of American workers.  
  • Among the lowest priorities are helping to improve the standard of living of less developed nations, helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations, and protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression. 

A Preference for Multilateralism 

  • Fifty-seven percent of the public agree that the United States should take part in UN peacekeeping forces, with only 20% preferring to leave the job to other countries.  
  • Seventy-two percent of the public and 48% of leaders think the United States should not take action alone in responding to international crises if it does not have the support of allies.  

Adjusting to Globalization 

  • Sixty-three percent of the public believe a country’s economic strength is more important than its military strength as a measure of power and influence in the world, while leaders (89%) are even more overwhelmingly convinced of the power of economics.  
  • On the question of globalization, 54% of the public and 87% of leaders believe it is mostly good for the United States. Among both the public and leaders, support for globalization correlates with support for international activism and multilateralism.  

Old Friends, New Rivals 


The public ranks European nations as America’s closest friends and allies. A plurality belive that Europe is more important to the United States than Asia (42% vs. 28%). Ye the gap has narrowed with Asia’s importance up 7 points and Europe’s down 7 points since 1994. Among leaders, the importance of Europe over Asia has increased from 42% to 51%.  


Leaders rank dealings with Russia among the five biggest foreign policy problems, while the public is less concerned. A majority of the public (77%) and leaders (93%) still consider Russia a vital interest to the United States, even when there is relatively low concern about a military threat from Russia.  


Only 14% of leaders (45% of the public) perceive economic competition from Japan as a critical threat. While public feelings toward Japan remain lukewarm, it also remains the country considered most vital to American interests by the public and is a close second to China among leaders. A greater percentage of the public view Japan (47% as more important to the United States than China (25%); leaders are split (48% Japan, 47% China).  


Sixty-nine percent of the public and 97% of leaders believe that China will play a greater role in the next 10 years than today. A nearly equal percentage of the public (57%) and leaders (56%) consider China to be a possible critical threat to US vital interests.  


Israel continues to rank high as a vital interest for both the public and leaders although public feelings about the country remain lukewarm. Public support for economic aid to Israel remains virtually unchanged from 1994, with a plurality believing aid levers should remain the same (42%).  

Persian Gulf 

In light of the US-British attack on Iraq, which took place before the leadership survey was completed, leaders view Iraq as more threatening than the public, ranking relations with country as the second biggest foreign policy problem. Leaders are more supportive of intervention than the public if Iraq were to invade Saudi Arabia (79% to 46%).  

Bracing for the 21st Century 

  • As the United States enjoys the strongest economic and military strength in decades, the survey findings point to some clouds on the horizon that warrant attention. 
  • During a period when the United States has been acting unilaterally in response to some crises abroad, nearly three-quarters of the public prefer that the United States act together with allies, not alone.  
  • Despite the perception of many vital interests around the world, public support for using troops to defend those interests has declined.  
  • At a time when most people believe increased global cooperation and strong leadership are needed to solve current problems and thereby prevent future violence and instability, continued public support for international involvement is encouraging. Nevertheless, the guarded nature of that engagement could prove problematic if global leadership requires tougher choices by the United States in the next century than it has faced thus far as the post-Cold War’s only superpower.  
Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy logo
Crown Center Content This content is produced by the Lester Crown Center, which aims to shape debates and inform decisions on important US foreign policy and national security issues.
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.