The Voice of the Public

The following “interview” with the Americans public is based on a composite of majority or median positions in response to numerous poll questions. Some passages of this interview appeared previously in the September/October 2001 and the May/June 2004 issues of Foreign Policy.

US Role in the World

Q: Rumor has it that in the ‘90s with the end of the Cold War, you were in the mood to withdraw from the world, but all that changed with September 11 and now you are much more ready for the US to use its military power. Are these rumors true?

A: Hmm. Not really. After the Cold War I did not think it was an option for the US to withdraw from the world. We’re so interconnected with the world now it’s not really an option. September 11 did drive that home, though, so whatever lingering ideas I had about whether we could just turn our backs on the world—those pretty much got wiped out.

Q: So you like the way the US is involved in the world?

A: Well, I didn’t say that. Before September 11 I felt that the US played the dominant role—like being the world policeman—more than it should. And I still feel that way now. It seems like we always feel that we have to be out front as the big world leader. I’d like to see that ramped down some. [1]

Q: So it does sound like you want to disengage from the world somewhat.

A: No. I just want to see the US work together with other countries more--have the US do its share in solving problems together with other countries. I don’t like being the Lone Ranger so much. We should work through the UN more.

Q: But since the UN Security Council refused to back the war against Iraq, haven’t you soured on the UN?

A: Well, I was disappointed that the UN failed to come to an agreement on Iraq. But that does not mean I don’t want to keep trying to work through the UN. I do. In fact, I would like to see the UN play an even bigger role in the world than it does now.

Q: Why is it so important to work in these multilateral ways?

A: Well, first of all, I don’t like us having to do the job all by ourselves. I’d rather share the burden. But it’s also that the UN just has the right to do things the US does not necessarily have the right to do. So it’s probably going to work better, because it’s not just the US throwing its weight around.

Q: But didn’t you support the US going to war with Iraq even though it did not have UN approval?

A: Well, before the war I thought we should take time to build support at the United Nations. Once the UN inspectors were in Iraq, it seemed like we should give them a chance. I feel that we were too quick to use military force. But I also felt then and still feel now that if the President decides to use military force, it is important to stand behind him. [2]

Q: Why was it so important to get UN support?

A: I’m not sure we have the right to march in and overthrow a government, even if it is trying to build nuclear weapons. [3]

Q: Does the United Nations have the right to intervene like that?

A: Yeah. Definitely. [4]

Q: What if a country poses an imminent threat to the United States? Is unilateral action justified then?

A: Well yeah, I mean if it’s in self-defense and they are about to attack. But it should be pretty clear cut. [5]

Q: Did you think that Iraq posed such an imminent threat?

A: Probably not. [6]

Q: What do you think about the argument that that the war was justified because Saddam was a dictator violating the rights of its people?

A: I don’t really think the United States has the right to do that kind of thing. You still need U.N. approval, unless it is something really large-scale and extreme—like genocide. [7]

Q: Do you think what Saddam was doing reached that level?

A: Well it was pretty bad, but, no, not like genocide. There are probably other governments in the world right now that are as bad as Saddam’s. [8]

Q: So what do you want to see happen now in Iraq?

A: I would like to see this whole thing put under the UN. [9] Let’s not have it be so much the United States out front and being shot at.

Q: But what if that means the United States must let other countries be involved in making key decisions?

A: (Shrugs) What’s the big deal with that? [10]

Q: What about humanitarian military intervention and peacekeeping? Do you think the US should participate in those kinds of things?

A: Well that’s kind of complicated. I do think that if things like genocide are happening, or if a lot of people are being killed or driven out of their homes, then the world has to step in and do something about it. And sometimes you’ll have to use military force. So I am basically for this kind of thing. [11]

Q: So what’s the complicated part?

A: Well there are two things that concern me. One is that I am tired of the US always taking the lion’s share of the responsibility for everything. [12] And frankly, if others are not willing to do their part, then sometimes I think we should just hang back until they do. [13]

Q: Is it your impression that the US has contributed more than its share of the troops for peacekeeping operations?

A: Yeah. [14]

Q: What percentage would you estimate that the US has contributed?

A: I’d guess the US has contributed about nearly half of all the troops. Now if the other countries would contribute, say, three-quarters of them, it would be fine with me for the US to contribute something like maybe a quarter. [15]

Q: So what is your other concern?

A: You know, I don’t think we should go into a situation if it is not really going to do any good. I don’t think we should go in just to, you know; make a gesture to show we are good guys and all. I mean, if I felt confident it was going to work, or if the military expressed some confidence that it would work, then, yeah, let’s definitely go for it.[16] But, whenever there has been talk about sending troops in, up in Washington everybody starts screaming and yelling about whether we are just going to get stuck there like we did in Vietnam and that it won’t really do any good in the end and our troops are going to die in vain. Hell, how am I supposed to know if they are right? [17]

Q: Is it a question of not wanting to put US troops in harm’s way unless there is a clear connection to US national interests?

A: I’m not sure what you mean.

Q: Well, do you think that it was important for US national interests to intervene in Bosnia or Kosovo?

A: Hmm, well yeah, I think that if we don’t intervene the problem might spread, and then we could really be sorry.[18] But sometimes you also need to intervene because it is the right thing to do, when horrible things happening to ordinary people, civilians, women and children. [19]

Q: But isn’t the preeminent principle that the US should use its power to make the world be the way that best serves US interests?

A: Well, sure, US interests are important. I just don’t think that that is exactly what we should be focused on in a narrow way. I think we should coordinate with other countries and develop ideas for what works best for everybody. I mean isn’t that what we all learn growing up about how to get along with people? Why should it be different when you are dealing with other countries?[20]



Q:So how do you feel about the war on terrorism?

A:I think dealing with terrorism is one of the most important foreign policy issues and I support the presidentís efforts.

Q:How did you feel about the war against Afghanistan?

A: That was completely clear. We were attacked; we had to go after al Qaeda. On top of that, we had the UN and the other countries behind us. [1]

Q:How do you think President Bush is handling the war on terrorism?

A:Pretty well. Heís a strong leader and seems determined. [2] I think he probably needs to use more diplomatic methods. [3]

Donít get me wrongóI realize this game is rough. We should try to find the terrorists and if we do, we should kill them. [4]
But overall, I think Bush tends to overemphasize being assertive rather than being cooperative. [5]

Q:But isnít the lesson of 9/11 that we canít wait for other countries when it comes to using military force against threats to the US?

A: Hmm. Actually I think the major lesson is that we need to work more closely with other countries.

Q: Overall, do you feel safer as a result of the governmentís efforts in the war on terrorism?

A: I canít say that I really do. Maybe a little. [6]

Q: Doesnítthe fact that no attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since September 11 mean that the Bush administrationís efforts have worked?

A: Not really. [7]

Q:So you donít think it is important for the US to be assertive in confronting terrorism?

A:I do think it is important--I just think we are overemphasizing it, and this can make people mad at us in the Islamic world, and when that happens itís easier for terrorist groups to recruit new members and raise funds. [8]I think we need to make greater efforts to improve relations with people in the Middle East. [9]

Q: So you donít think there is a fundamental clash of civilizations that makes that impossible?

A:No, I think we can find common ground. [10]

Q: Do you like President Bushís idea of trying to promote democracy in the Middle East?

A: Democracy is good thing, and it would be great to see it spread. But Iím not sure we should try to impose it on people. [11]Overall, I think the people in the Middle East want us to play a less dominant role, and I think we should, too. [12]

Q: Would you reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East?Would you pull US troops out of Saudi Arabia?

A: Yes. Now that Iraq is no longer a threat [13] And over the next five to ten years we should probably reduce our overall military forces over there. [14]

Q: But arenít those forces important for fighting the war on terrorism?

A: Actually, I think they increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks. [15]


  Proliferation of WMD

Q: Now that we have cracked the Pakistani nuclear weapons ring that was providing technology to North Korea and Iran, Libya has come around and Iraq is no longer a threat, are you beginning to feel less concerned about the spread of weapons of mass destruction?

A: Are you kidding? I’m sure there are other countries out there with secret WMD programs. This is still one of the things I’m most concerned about. [1]

Q: So, does this discovery that Pakistani scientists were evading international arms control inspectors make you feel that we should give up on trying to solve this problem through arms control, and rely instead on the threat of using military force against countries that develop weapons of mass destruction?

A: No. But we should give international inspectors more power to go wherever they want to make sure that people are not developing them. [2]

Q: If we do that it would mean that the international inspectors could be poking around US biological laboratories. Aren’t you concerned that countries could learn commercial secrets, or that they might learn things about our counter-bio-terrorism research?

A: Where do you get these weird arguments? I can’t believe anyone in the US government takes them seriously. Obviously --it’s more important that we get to look around other people’s laboratories! [3]

Q: But if we put pressure on countries like Pakistan to let in inspectors, this might lead to a backlash in Pakistan so that it will not cooperate with us in the hunt for al Qaeda.

A: I think arms control is just too important. We can’t back away from that. [4]

Q: Do you think the US should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?

A: Yes, of course. Haven’t we? [5]

Q: Well, there is concern that this could limit development of US nuclear weapons.

A: I don’t find that very convincing. I think we should probably aim to get rid of nuclear weapons eventually, not develop new ones. [6]

Q: Incidentally, did you know the US has committed to doing that as part of the treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

A: No, I didn’t. But that sounds good. We should probably try harder to do that, though of course we have to do it together with other countries, so we can be sure that everybody else is disarming too. That might take a while. But for now it makes sense to me that if we want other countries to not develop nuclear weapons, we shouldn’t be making new and improved ones for ourselves. It might even make sense to clearly promise non-nuclear countries that we will not use nuclear weapons against them—I mean, if we don’t want them to build nuclear weapons. [7]

Q: But don’t you think that with the threat of chemical and biological weapons, the US should have nuclear weapons there as a means of deterring their use?

A: No. That doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think we should ever be the first to use nuclear weapons. [8]

Q: So, do you like the idea of the US and other nuclear powers reducing the number of nuclear weapons kept on high alert?

A: Sounds like a no-brainer to me. [9]

Q: It seems you don’t think nuclear weapons should play such a big role in US defense. How many nuclear weapons do you think the US needs to make sure other countries are deterred from attacking it?

A: Oh, I think about a hundred should be enough. I realize that would probably mean a cut below what we have now. We probably have, what, about twice that number? [10]


  Dealing With North Korea

FP: Are you concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program?

JP: Yes. [1] Right now North Korea is the country that poses the biggest threat to us. [2] It’s very important. [3]

FP: Do you think that seeing the United States overthrow Saddam Hussein has given the North Koreans pause?

JP: No, it probably made them more motivated than ever to build nukes. [4]

FP: What do you think about some limited use of military force, such as bombing their nuclear power plants?

JP: I don’t think so. Besides, I’m not sure we have the right to do that kind of thing. [5]

FP: What about overthrowing their government?

JP: Definitely not. [6]

FP: What do you think about how the United States has been approaching North Korea?

JP: We should take a more diplomatic approach, rather than trying to intimidate them by implying we might attack.[7] [8] I mean, isn’t their fear that we would attack what got them all riled up in the first place?

FP: Are you saying that the Bush administration is not doing all that it can to achieve a diplomatic resolution?

JP: Maybe it could be doing more. [9]

FP: Some people say that would just be trying to revive the 1994 agreement. Even though North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program and let in inspectors in exchange for aid, this has clearly failed.

JP: (Shrugs) I still think we need to try to get it back on track. [10] We don’t really have the option of going to war, so what are you going to do? [11]

FP: But it was North Korea that violated the agreement by restarting its nuclear weapons program. Some people argue that talking with North Korea would be the same as submitting to blackmail.

JP: I don’t find that argument convincing. I just think that communication holds out the best hope. [12]

FP: What if that doesn’t work?

JP: Well, maybe then we should take some steps in a military direction …I’m not sure. But if the South Koreans don’t want us to do that, then I’m not prepared to just plow ahead.[13] After all, they are the ones that would get the brunt of any war.

FP: But if the United States were to attack North Korea, would you be supportive then?

JP: Well, like I said before, I generally feel that you should back the commander in chief even when, if you were to ask me what to do, I would say “let’s not.” But if it was part of a UN operation, then I would strongly support that. [14]

FP: Would you support establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea?

JP: Of course. Haven’t we already done that? [15]

FP: Would you support a deal in which the US makes a formal declaration that it will not attack North Korea if it gives up its nuclear weapons program?

JP: Sure. Why not? [16]

FP: Do you think that would keep the North Koreans from pursuing nuclear weapons?

JP: I don’t know. [17] But why not try it?

FP: What about withholding food aid so as to put more pressure on them?

JP: No, I don’t think that when there are starving North Koreans we should use food aid as a political weapon. It’s not their fault what their government is doing. [18]

FP: What about providing aid in exchange for North Korea stopping its nuclear weapons program?

JP: I would support that. [19] I think there is a good chance that the real reason they are doing this is to get aid. [20]

FP: Does that mean you are confident that giving aid will stop them?

JP: No, not really. [21]

FP: How confident are you that this aid really reaches the people who need it?

JP: Not very confident. [22] But I still think we should do it.


  Foreign Aid

Q: How do you feel about giving foreign aid in general?

A: Well, in principle I think we should give some foreign aid. [1] I think we have a moral obligation to try to help, especially when people are starving.[2] But I have a problem with a number of the ways that we go about doing it. First of all, I think we give kind of a lot, especially given all the problems we have here at home. [3]

Q: How much of the federal budget do you think goes to aid?

A: Hmm, about 20% or so. Probably that should be cut back some. Ten percent sounds pretty good. [4]

Q: How would you feel about spending 1%?

A: Oh, that’d be fine. [5] But the amount of spending isn’t the only thing I have a problem with. I think too much money goes to countries with poor human rights records, [6] and that probably about half of all the aid money ends up in the pockets of corrupt government officials there. [7] Hardly any of it really ends up helping the people who really need it. [8]

Q: Any other problems, while you are at it?

A: Actually yes. I am tired of the US always being the big sugar daddy.

Q: Well, the US is much bigger than other countries. Do you think that, as a share of its GNP, the US gives more than other countries?

A: Oh, definitely. I think every country, including the US, should give its fair share. [9]

Q: What other changes would you like to see?

A: Well, I would like to see more emphasis on helping poor countries. [10] Maybe we needed to use aid to keep countries on our side during the Cold War, but I don’t think that’s all that necessary now. I don’t really like the idea of using aid as a way of trying to influence other countries—you know, a bribe or something. [11] But I do feel quite good about helping the hungry. [12]

Q: But many of these really poor countries are far from here--in Africa, for example--and don’t have any real bearing on US interests.

A: Actually, I like the idea of aid going to Africa. They really need it there. [13] I don’t really buy all this talk about US national interests. If there are people hungry somewhere they should get aid, whether it serves the US interest or not. [14]

Q: So, are you saying you want to put all the money into humanitarian relief?

A: No, not just that. You know, if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. So, I think it is important to help poor countries develop their economies [15]--you know, help educate them, things like that. [16] Overall, I feel better about giving them know-how than giving them things.

Q: So are you saying you would be willing to spend more to help poor countries?

A: Well, yeah, but it’s really important to me that other countries do their share. I really prefer to do things together with other countries, like working through the UN. Then we can be sure everybody else is pitching in. [17]

Q: How much of all development assistance do you think the US gives?

A: Gosh, I don’t know, maybe a third, maybe more. [18]

Q: How would you feel if the US gave about 12%?

A: No problem. [19]

Q: You know the 29 industrialized countries of the OECD recently set the goal of trying to cut world hunger in half by the year 2015. Is that the kind of thing you’d like to see the US be part of?

A: Yeah, that sounds great. [20]

Q: Do you think that is a feasible goal?

A: Sure, if all the wealthy countries pitched in. [21]

Q: Would you be willing to spend some money to see this happen?

A: Of course.

Q: How much do you think it would cost the average taxpayer in the industrialized world each year to fulfill this goal of cutting world hunger in half by the year 2015?

A: Oh, maybe about $50. [22]

Q: And would you be willing to pay that if the other countries would too?

A: Yeah. Sure. No problem. [23]


  Globalization and Trade

Q: So how do you feel about globalization and the growth of international trade?

A: Hmm. I guess I would have to say lukewarm. I think it has been great for businessmen, but I don’t think it has been all that great for American workers or for people in foreign countries. [1]

Q: Would you say you favor free trade, or are you a protectionist?

A: I only get two options again? Look, I can see that there are a lot of benefits from trade. I know that I am paying lower prices at the store because of all that cheap labor overseas. But I also know that there are people here who are losing jobs because factories are going overseas. Now if you are going to force me to choose between low prices and the guy down the street losing his job, then I am going to have to say, I do not have the right to have that guy lose his job just so that I can get a cheaper pair of sneakers. [2] It’s not fair for some people to take the brunt if it so the rest of us can benefit. So yeah, let’s keep up some of those trade barriers. But that’s not really what I want to do. I know trade is basically a good thing and in the long run there ought to be a way for everybody to benefit.

Q: So what are you saying?

A: What I would really like is for the government to do more to help the guy down the street, help him find a job, give him some job training. If I really believed that the government was going to do that then I would say, yeah, let’s open things up. [3]

Q: But the things you are describing could take some time to implement. Don’t you realize that if we slow the growth of trade that this could slow the growth of the economy?

A: You know I don’t always just think about the growth of the economy. That’s very abstract. Of course I understand that when the economy grows, there is more money around and that can lead to good things. But there is also the human dimension. Those GNP numbers can’t count the cost of disruption in the lives of people. [4] And there’s also the human dimension of the overseas workers. I don’t like the idea of buying cheap products if they are made in sweatshops with bad working conditions. Something should be done about that. [5]

Q: But don’t you know that if the workers in those countries did not have those jobs, even if you might call them working in sweatshops, they might not have any job at all?

A: You know I don’t buy that kind of thinking. [6] I just think that if people are making clothes that I wear on my body, I have a responsibility to be sure that those workers are not being mistreated. [7]

Q: So how is that going to help?

A: Look, I don’t have this all figured out. But it seems to me that all of this trade is making a lot of money for businessmen everywhere, but not for workers. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. [8] So there is probably enough money around to help out all around. You know, we are always being told that trade is this wonderful thing and it generates so much wealth. But hey, where is it? Besides, sometimes you just have to take a stand for what is right, and hopefully the world will start acting right.

Q: So are you really saying that you would be willing to pay more for something just to make sure it was not made in a sweatshop?

A: Yes, I would. [9] Actually, it would probably be even better to make sure that when we agree to open up trade with a country, that we first make them promise to treat their workers right. [10] It’s not only the moral thing to do, [11] it’s also not fair for American workers to have to compete with workers who are being exploited. [XII] If we let that happen, it’s going to get worse for workers everywhere. Also, it would probably be a good idea too to make sure that if US companies go overseas, that they don’t get to lower their environmental standards. [13] If they can lower their standards, that would be bad for the environment and it would make it even harder for workers here at home to compete. [14]

Q: But by putting all these conditions on the growth of trade, aren’t you really just being a protectionist? Aren’t you just really trying to stop the growth of trade?

A: Well, you can call it what you like. I just don’t see that trade by itself is such a wonderful thing. [X15] In principle it can be, but it all depends on how it’s done. Over the last few decades while everybody has been going on and on about how wonderful the growth of trade has been, the average American workers’ wages aren’t really going up. And people in poor countries don’t seem like they are getting much better. [16] Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer. So you tell me that taking better care of workers and the environment is going to slow down this ‘wonderful’ process, --(shrugs) so what? I’m not in any hurry. [17]

Q: So, overall, are you saying you want to put the brakes on new trade agreements? Do you think that the trade agreements we have made have been a mistake?

A: No, I didn’t say that. As a general rule, if another country says that it will lower its trade barriers if we will lower ours, then I am inclined to say, fine. [18] Basically, I think trade agreements are a good thing. [19] Even NAFTA is sort of okay with me. [20] I just think there are some other good things that need to be considered, and we should take these barriers down in a gradual and careful way so that these other concerns figure into the picture too. [21] Like, human rights is another thing. Like with China. I think we need to take a stand on that, and not just let the interests of the business people run everything. [22]


  Global Warming

Q: So let’s talk about global warming. Do you think global warming is something real?

A: Oh yeah. It used to seem like scientists were arguing about it, but now it seems like they have

come to the consensus that it’s real. [1]

Q: And do you think it is caused more by human activities or by natural causes?

A: Oh, I think we humans are making the problem. [2]

Q: So do you think that the effects of global warming are starting to be felt now?

A: Some. Though I don’t think the effects will be really serious during my lifetime. [3]

Q: Do you worry about it a lot?

A: A fair amount. It’s not the most important environmental problem. I’m more concerned about

pollution. But it’s important. [4]

Q: Are you willing to take steps to curb global warming even if it might have some negative impact

on the economy?
A: Some. But I think we can have a strong economy and address environmental issues too. It’s not

an either-or. I don’t think the problem is so pressing that we have to take steps that would be really

drastic. [5]

Q: So do you support the US participating in the Kyoto Treaty?

A: Yes. Aren’t we? [6]

Q: Well, actually not. The Bush administration is opposed to it.

A: Really? Hmm. That doesn’t sound good to me. But maybe I don’t know enough to judge. [7]

Q: As you may know, there is a major controversy about whether the developing countries should be

required to cut their emissions that contribute to global warming. Some people say on a per-person

basis, less-developed countries produce far less greenhouse gases, and so they should not be required

to limit their emissions until they develop their economies more, while others argue that the less-

developed countries produce a substantial and growing amount of greenhouse gases and should be

required to limit their emissions. What do you think?

A: I think they should be required to limit them some, but I don’t know if we can really ask them to

actually reduce them the way that the developed countries need to. [8]

Q: So, what if we cannot get developing countries—or any other country, for that matter--to limit their

emissions? Should the US still try to reduce its emissions?

A: We should go ahead even if the others do not follow. [9]

Q: If the less-developed countries are willing to limit their emissions, do you think the developed

countries should provide the technology and training necessary to help them?

A: Definitely. You see, now that’s a kind of foreign aid I really like. [10]

Q: Just one last question. Do you think that, as compared to the average American, you are more or

less supportive of taking steps to reduce global warming?

A: Oh, definitely more supportive. I can see why politicians have so much trouble taking the necessary

steps to deal with the problem. If everybody was like me, it would be quite different. [11]