20.05 USA Review

A Vicious Cycle: American public opinion recognises the failure of the policy of containing Russia and China, but cannot reach a consensus on key foreign policy issues

The war in Ukraine, the rising influence of China and geopolitical uncertainty in the world are increasing the polarisation of public opinion in the US on key foreign policy issues, including attitudes towards aid to Ukraine, the country’s closest allies and the task of promoting democracy in the world. Conservative and liberal voters' views on these issues are increasingly diverging, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early April. There is also a growing generational divide in perceptions of the world order. There is a growing belief among both Republicans and Democrats that the US and its allies in Europe are losing influence in world affairs while countries such as China, Russia, Iran and India are gaining influence. This view used to be predominantly held by those living in the Global South. There also continues to be a negative consensus about Russia, which more than 60% of Americans view as an enemy. However, the share of Americans who believe that Russian influence in the world is growing has risen from 38% to 48% since 2022. This data appears to be an indirect acknowledgement of the ineffectiveness of Western sanctions and Western aid to Ukraine, as well as international diplomatic efforts to isolate Russia. Thus, Americans' concern about global affairs is growing, but perceptions of what the US response to this should be vary across different groups in American society. The paradox is that the polarisation of American society on foreign policy issues undermines the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the US, exacerbating geopolitical uncertainty and thus increasing the number of external challenges and tensions.

According to data from a large-scale survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in April, 71% of Americans believe that China's influence in the world is growing, while only 9% think it is declining. A positive balance between those who said the country's influence is growing and those who said it is declining can also be seen for Russia (48% vs. 24%), Iran (39% vs. 16%) and India (35% vs. 10%). Conversely, a negative balance, meaning a larger share of respondents said a country's influence is declining, is observed in responses about the global role of NATO, the United Kingdom, France, and most importantly the US. Only 14% of Americans said America is getting stronger in world affairs, while 54% said its influence is weakening. These findings echo the results of a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll that showed that although people in the Global South see living conditions in Western countries as much better than in their own and in the Global South as a whole, they also see Western countries as powers in decline. As the Pew Research Centre survey shows, this view has partially transferred to US residents as well. The only Western country for which equal shares of respondents said its influence was growing or declining was Germany.

‘How has the global influence of different countries changed in recent years?’, % of those surveyed

Notably, in a similar 2022 survey, 38% spoke of Russia's growing influence, while 37% believed it was declining. Thus, after two years of war and sanctions, Russia appears stronger in the eyes of Americans than it did shortly after the invasion. These assessments indirectly acknowledge that sanctions, military aid to Ukraine, and diplomatic efforts to isolate Russia have not yet succeeded.

Meanwhile, negative attitudes towards Putin and Russia as a whole are one of the few international issues on which Democratic and Republican respondents agree. 88% of Americans do not believe that the Russian president will do the right thing on the international stage, and two-thirds do not trust him at all, with Democrats viewing Putin only slightly more negatively than Republicans. Over 80% of those surveyed hold an unfavourable opinion of Russia, with 57% having a very unfavourable view; only one in ten Americans views Russia positively. Meanwhile, US residents say Russia's influence in the world is growing: 48% of respondents agree with this, up 10 percentage points (p.p.) from March 2022. The share of those who believe that Russia's influence is weakening (24%) decreased by 13 p.p. over the same period. People aged 65 and older (57%) and Republicans are more likely to say that Moscow's influence is growing. 61% of Americans call Russia an enemy, and another 32% see it as a competitor. 

However, this relative unity does not translate into consensus on strategies to counter Russia and aid Ukraine. On the contrary, this issue is a subject of increasing polarisation. Overall, 31% of respondents say that Washington is providing too much support to Kyiv, while 24% consider it insufficient, and 25% think it is adequate. Among Republicans and conservative-leaning independents, half (49%) believe the aid is excessive, while only 16% of Democrats share this view. Conversely, 36% of Democrats think the aid is insufficient.

Compared to March 2022, the share of Americans who believe that US aid to Ukraine is insufficient has decreased by 18 p.p., while the share of those who believe it is excessive has increased by 24 p.p..

Republican and conservative independent voters are the most sceptical about the assistance to Kyiv: almost half of them consider the US support to Ukraine excessive, while among Democrats and democratically-minded independent voters, only 16% share this view. In March 2022, nearly half of Republicans said US support for Ukraine was inadequate, while 11% fewer Democrats said so, and in the two years since the full-scale invasion, the number of Democratic voters who think US support for Ukraine is inadequate has remained virtually unchanged. An ideological split is taking place even within American parties: conservative Republicans (54%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (54%) are more likely to say that the US is providing too much aid to Ukraine; liberal Democrats are five times less likely to say so (11%).

However, the polarisation in views on aid to Ukraine reaches its apex when it comes to the question of whether this aid contributes to US national security interests. While half (49%) of Democrats believe that it does and 24% believe that it harms US security, among Republicans 47% believe that this assistance harms US security and only 24% believe that it strengthens it. Among Democrats, older generations are more likely to think it helps (59% compared to 41% of younger ones), whereas among Republicans, it is the younger generations who are more inclined to think that such aid is harmful. This is because older Americans, who remember the era of the previous Cold War and the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, have attitudes towards countering Russia that resonate more with the political agenda of their youth. This effect is also noticeable in Americans' attitudes towards Volodymyr Zelensky. Overall support for Zelensky among Americans has decreased from 56% to 48% over the year, with Democratic voters trusting the Ukrainian president twice as much as conservatives. Among Americans over 65, 60% still trust President Zelensky, while only 38% of those under 30 do.

In 2022, 34% of those surveyed believed that NATO was getting stronger and 25% thought it was getting weaker. Two years later, 23% share the former view and 28% share the latter, meaning that the balance has become negative. Over the past two years, it has become apparent that NATO has a much smaller defence capability than previously thought. Attitudes towards NATO are another point of polarisation. 58% still view the alliance positively (down 4 percentage points from 2023) versus 38% with a negative opinion. However, among Democrats, this ratio is 75% to 23%, while among Republicans, it is 43% to 55%.

According to analysts at the Pew Research Centre, attitudes towards NATO are not only correlated with respondents' party affiliation but also with their understanding of global politics. People who are more knowledgeable about NATO and more frequently correctly answer sociologists' questions about the alliance (73%) say that the US benefits from NATO membership. Nearly half of those surveyed (47%) believe that European NATO members should increase their defence spending. Among Democrats, 42% express such an opinion, while among Republicans, it's 58%.

According to the Pew Research Centre survey, views on the priorities of US foreign policy vary considerably depending on party orientation. Most of those surveyed agree on goals such as preventing terrorist attacks (73%), combating illegal drug trafficking (64%), and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (63%). At the same time, goals such as combating global climate change and forcing allies to shoulder a greater share of the costs of maintaining global order are considered important by only 44% and 42% of those surveyed, respectively. Climate change is a top priority for 70% of Democrats and pro-Democratic voters and only 15% of Republicans. 54% of Republicans would like to force other countries to shoulder more of the costs of maintaining global order, while this is important to only 33% of Democrats. 

Limiting the global influence of Russia and China is considered a priority by about half of those surveyed, finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is considered a foreign policy priority by less than a third of Americans, helping Ukraine and Israel is seen as important by less than a quarter, and helping refugees around the world and promoting the global spread of democracy are at the very bottom of the list (18% each). According to the Pew Research Centre, compared to the data from the 2018 surveys, Americans are more likely to prioritise limiting China's influence (+17 p.p.), finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (+11 p.p.), as well as limiting Russia's influence (+8 p.p.). Conversely, the issues of strengthening the UN, assistance to refugees (-8 p.p. each), as well as the promotion and protection of human rights in other countries (-5 p.p.) are losing popularity.

As we can see, the significant divergence in foreign policy priorities and preferred strategies for foreign policy issues leaves little chance for the formation of a bipartisan consensus on current issues on the global agenda, in particular the war in Ukraine and countering Russia. Unlike during the Cold War, when the Soviet threat was perceived as existential, the threat from Russia does not appear existential to a significant portion of society, especially the more conservative and younger demographics. At the same time, the absence of such consensus contributes to the failure of containing Russia, thereby increasing the scope and number of challenges for US foreign policy.