Thursday, September 11, 2003

In anticipation of the anniversary of September 11 and the recent news that the United States would seek a greater role for the United Naitons in Iraq, we devoted The American Survey to examining American attitudes toward international affairs. The survey (conducted Aug.26-28, among 600 adults nationwide, margin of error plus/minus 4.0 percent), portrays an American public who looks on international engagement with an optimism tempered by practicality and softened by a new awareness of the dangers of the world around them.

For instance, Americans are generally positive about engagement with the international community, with almost 3 in 5 (57 percent) indicating that the growing interdependency of the world is a good thing, and about the same number indicating that they are personally more informed about world affairs now than they were two years ago. The positive sentiment toward interdependency is strong across demographic and ideological groups, and is constant even among those with some skepticism toward globalization.

This positivism toward international engagement appears to extend beyond the traditional realms of diplomacy, military coordination, and the economy. Almost 4 in 5 indicated that they agreed that the interdependence of the world now includes culture and values. At the same time, when we asked directly about globalization, about half (48 percent) indicated that they thought first about trade and the economy. This suggests to us that the relentlessly practical Americans favor engagement at least in part for economic reasons.

With respect to awareness of others, Americans grasp that they do not fully comprehend other cultures and value systems (just 45 percent agreed that “Americans have a good understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and values”). They also think, however, that others do notunderstand America. Just 27 percent agreed that “other cultures have a good understanding of and appreciation for American culture and values.” In short, while Americans may understand that they need to learn more about others, they also know that others need to learn more about us. Despite the constant drumbeat of the media and other elites, Americans understand that cultural education is not, and cannot be, a one-way street.

As a natural corollary to the perceived need to learn more, almost half (48 percent) of the respondents indicated that world opinion of the United States has gotten worsesinceSeptember 11. Less than 1 in 5 (19 percent) think it has improved.

Wethinkthis sense of being incompletely understoodtempers American enthusiasm for engagement and creates lingering ambivalenceabout interdependency. For example, when asked about America’s moral obligation to intervene in trouble spotsaroundthe world, respondents split almost in half. Moreover,when asked who benefits the most from globalization, more than half (53 percent) said other countries; just 27 percent said the United States.

Finally, this ambivalence peeks through in the responses to the question about globalization in light of September 11. Four in 10 said that September 11 had made them think globalization more necessary. Three in 10 (32 percent) said it had made them think globalization more dangerous. Eight percent volunteered that it had made them think globalization was both.

In sum, we see a nation at once optimistic and cautious, engaged and conscious of the dangers posed by engagement. Right now, it is impossible to guess how Americans will ultimately resolve these conflicting impulses. But it does seem clear that this opacity will continue into the foreseeable future.

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