October 22, 2012

The Whole World is Watching

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet in their third and final presidential election debate October 22. The topic will be foreign policy. Sparks will fly: over the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya; over what to do about the Iranian nuclear program and over China. Debating points will likely be scored and lost. But the impact on the ultimate outcome of the election is doubtful. American voters have been clear all year: few believe that international concerns are the most important problems facing the country in the run up to the November 6 election. And most favor focusing attention on domestic rather than foreign challenges.

Nevertheless, the American public has definite views on international issues. And there are some sharp differences between Republican and Democratic voters. So, while political pundits generally agree that there are no great substantive differences between the two candidates on most foreign policy matters, Obama and Romney may draw what distinctions they can in the debate to reap whatever electoral gain is available.

The Libya attack—which resulted in the deaths of four Americans—is sure to be a highly contentious topic, as it was briefly in the second debate on October 16. It promises to be a wrangle about who is to blame for the tragedy. The public is evenly divided on the issue, with 35% approving the administration’s performance and 38% disapproving. And sentiment is sharply divided along partisan lines: 60% of Democrats approve of the administration’s handling of the tragedy, 73% of Republicans disapprove. But just 56% of the public say they are following the Benghazi investigations closely, an indicator that it may not affect many voters’ decisions.

More broadly, an inward-looking public sees changes in North Africa and the Middle East through a distinctly American lens. A majority (54%) say it is more important to have stable governments in the region, even if they are less democratic, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Americans are also increasingly dubious that Arab Spring changes will lead to lasting improvements for people in the region. Only a quarter believe that changes in political leadership in the region will result in lasting improvements for people living in these countries, down from 42% who had such hopes in a March/April 2011 poll. More than half (57%) now think the Arab Spring will not lead to lasting improvements. And few (14%) think that the changes in political leadership in the region will be good for the United States, a view that is down ten percentage points from March/April 2011.

The public is less equivocal about Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Americans have long favored tough measures to prevent Tehran from amassing a nuclear arsenal. A majority (56%) say it is more important to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, while just 35% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict. In January, half favored taking a firm stand against Iran and 41% said it was more important to avoid a confrontation.

But this is a partisan issue in the United States. There are wide partisan and ideological differences in priorities for dealing with Iran. Fully 84% of conservative Republicans favor taking a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program. Fewer than half as many liberal Democrats (38%) agree. There also is a sizable age gap in these opinions. Just 44% of those younger than 30 favor taking a strong stand against Iran; clear majorities in older age categories support a firm stance. Yet Americans are evenly divided—with 45% saying Obama and 44% picking Romney—over who would do better job as president in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran is the most immediate strategic challenge facing the next U.S. president, China is widely acknowledged to post the greatest long-term economic challenge. And the American public backs a tougher stance with Beijing. Nearly half (49%) say getting tougher with China on economic issues is more important than building a stronger economic relationship (42%). And support for toughness is up nine percentage points since March, 2011.

Independents and Republicans are much more supportive of getting tougher with China than they were a year and a half ago. Nearly half of independents (47%) now say it is more important to get tougher with China on economic issues, up from just 30% in March 2011. The percentage of Republicans favoring a tougher stance has increased by 11 points (from 54% to 65%) over this period. There has been less change in opinions among Democrats, and more continue to prioritize building stronger economic relations with China (53%) over getting tough with China (39%).

People think Romney is more likely to stand up to China. By 49% to 40% they say the former Massachusetts governor would do a better job dealing with China’s trade policies.

When Americans elect a president they are also effectively electing the leader of the world. So voters’ views on Libya, Iran, the Arab Spring and China will shape the conduct of international relations for years to come. This year’s presidential election may not turn on foreign policy, but the world certainly has a stake in the outcome.