Hoover Scholars Analyze Poll Showing Public Support for Multilateralism

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Public favors allied intervention when possible, solo action when necessary

The American people appear to want the support of the world before taking military action, but when it comes to answering a terrorist threat, they are willing to go it alone.

That is the result of the Global Views 2004 survey just released by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, in cooperation with the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution.

The announcement of the results was part of a panel discussion on September 28 at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Representing Hoover were Shanto Iyengar, chairman of the Communications Department at Stanford University and Tod Lindberg, Hoover research fellow and editor of Policy Review.

In brief remarks to a morning panel, Iyengar observed that "the most striking result is the level of public approval of multilateralism." The survey showed that 66 percent of the public and 78 percent of its leaders believe that, when dealing with international problems, the United States should more closely cooperate with the United Nations.

"No matter which indicator [one considers]—that people support the UN, that they generally oppose going it alone, that they are concerned with world opinion—there seems to be a pretty big gulf between the public and the Bush administration," he said. "Usually an administration does something and after that public opinion defers to the leadership. But here we do not see the public rallying to unilateralism."

"Perhaps that gives us an insight into the [current strategy of the] Kerry campaign. Perhaps their own focus groups have led them to the same conclusion. It seems this is a vulnerability for the administration… but I am pessimistic that that is going to be a successful strategy," he added. His pessimism was supported by survey results that somewhat conflict with the apparent demand for multilateralism. Nearly six in ten respondents said that the United States has the right to overthrow a terrorist-supporting government even without U.N. approval.

In the luncheon session, Tod Lindberg participated in a two-person panel with Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Mann. Lindberg began by commenting on the methodology of the study, noting that some of the rather "abstract" choices it poses—for or against military intervention under certain circumstances, for or against seeking broader international support in the use of force—are not reflective of the way decisions are made in the world of policy and politics.

"They [the pollsters] ask a general case and ask a question, which is fine, and it gives you an indication of where people are and where they want to be [regarding a policy]," said Lindberg. "But when political leaders look at the world, they are not confronted with abstracts but with particulars: 'What happens if I do?' versus 'What happens if I don't?'"

As an example of the difference, he reminded the audience of foreign policy observers and journalists that, at the time of the sentencing of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, polls showed more people in favor of the death penalty than previous polls had indicated. "People favored this instance," he said, "though they remained opposed to the death penalty."

Turning to the findings themselves, Lindberg observed that the survey does not necessarily gauge the difference between "unilateralism as a doctrine and unilateral action. One is a matter of policy and one is a matter of choice, but [despite the findings] unilateral action is not rejected, nor is it likely to be in future administrations.

"Security issues that confront the U.S. don't give us easy choices like unilateralism or multilateralism. The data show a president would be very foolish not to seek whatever support from the international community he could find. However, there may be instances in which you seek the support and it is not forthcoming. And that poses another interesting set of questions," he said, noting poll results that show greater American support for particular unilateral military actions but opposition to generally stated cases.

"The headline here is that this is a portrait of a population that wants to remain engaged with the world," said Lindberg. "There is no sense of retreat, no rush to abandon the world.

"If you look at military intervention numbers, I think the only reasonable way to characterize support for the use of military is that it is quite strong. There are clearly instances in which, because we have this capacity to act militarily, the American people in general are willing to use this capacity in the advancement of certain kinds of good ends. The numbers [calling for intervention to stop genocide] are quite striking in terms of an altruistic spirit in the American people," he said. Those data show 70 percent public support for unilateral military action in such a case.

Lindberg described as "somewhat misleading" the data showing only limited support for using military force to spread democracy. "I don't think the policy agenda has been, or will ever be, let's topple a dictator to put in a democratic government," he said, noting that such a choice rarely if ever would be posed to a U.S. administration. "I think the policy would be much more circumscribed and would have a security element."

Finally, Lindberg tried to reconcile the difficulties of Senator John Kerry's campaign for the White House with the poll's apparent support of his foreign policies. "Democratic strategists began with a theory of this election that most voters thought Bush policies were unacceptable. Now we're seeing this theory of the election to be erroneous. If indeed Kerry pulls this out, it will not be because voters long ago decided Bush policies were unacceptable. It will be because he put better policies on the table than Bush," he said.