Although Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has dominated worldwide headlines for more than a year and refocused the attention of U.S. policymakers on NATO and Eastern Europe, Americans are much more worried about China’s emerging power.
In an open question asked by RealClear Opinion Research, 53% of registered voters named the People’s Republic of China as “the greatest threat to the United States.” Russia was cited by 29% of respondents, while 4% named North Korea – the same percentage who answered that America’s biggest threat was the United States itself.
“While Russia has received a lot of attention on the global stage, China is still seen as the most significant threat to the United States,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of polling at Emerson College Polling.
Kimball, who did the survey for RealClear Opinion Research, added, “Russia and China reflect a generational divide – young voters are more likely to see Russia as the greatest threat to the U.S. while older voters overwhelmingly see China as the greatest threat to the nation.”
Nonetheless, voters overwhelmingly still believe in the mission and importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. By a 4-1 margin, Americans view NATO favorably, according to the RealClear Opinion Research poll. Asked whether NATO remains essential to U.S. national security, 77% answered yes, with 23% saying it is no longer needed.
Created in 1949 to counter Soviet expansionism, NATO has expanded since the end of the Cold War, a move President Vladimir Putin has cited as a pretext for Russia’s invasion. Americans are unpersuaded by such claims. A majority (54%) support adding Ukraine to the Western alliance, despite the apocalyptic threats emanating from the Kremlin. Only 24% of voters think it’s a bad idea, with 22% unsure or expressing no opinion. When it comes to Sweden, likely the next nation to be added to NATO, American opinion is overwhelmingly in favor. Swedes, who remained studiously neutral through much of the Cold War, have expressed alarm over Russia’s recent belligerence. Americans express solicitude with such fears: More than two-thirds of U.S. voters (68%) support Sweden’s inclusion in NATO, with only 10% opposed.
The Biden administration and Congress have committed some $75 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, expenditures with bipartisan support – at least so far. But the war is emerging as an issue in the 2024 presidential campaign, as an array of Republicans and populists are questioning whether U.S. national security is really at stake in Ukraine.
Over the weekend, Tucker Carlson, one of the leaders of these skeptics, lit into GOP hopefuls Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, and Tim Scott for their pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia stances. Moderating an Iowa conference for the evangelical Christian group Family Leadership, Carlson turned what was envisioned as a showcase for conservative social values into a struggle session in which Carlson postulated that Mexico was the real threat to the U.S.
“The total body count from Russia in the United States is right around zero,” Carlson told Sen. Scott. “I don’t know anyone who’s been killed by Russia. I know people personally who have been killed by Mexico. Why is Mexico less of a threat than Russia?”
Most voters disagree with Carlson’s implication – to a point. Although Mexico didn’t show up on the naughty list as America’s “greatest threat,” it’s also true that America’s southern neighbor registered as barely a blip on the nice list: Just below 1% of respondents named Mexico as America’s “greatest ally.”
The answers to the questions about allies and enemies seemingly involved familiarity and accessibility rather than accurately reflecting which nations have proven themselves as allies. Nearly 41% of Americans named the United Kingdom as an ally, which isn’t a surprise, but Canada registered in second place at 19%, which might cause Pentagon policy-makers to scratch their heads. Australia, which has consistently gone to war beside the U.S., was named our greatest ally by only 1.5% of voters. (Israel and France, each at around 6%, were third and fourth, respectively.)
Partisanship is a factor in many of these attitudes, as it always is, especially in these polarized times. More than 90% of Democrats have a favorable view of NATO, compared to 76% of independents and 71% of Republicans, for instance.
“Generally, NATO is viewed as still essential by a majority of voters across demographics, though it varies in intensity,” notes Kimball. “Two-thirds of Donald Trump voters say NATO is essential, compared to 90% of Joe Biden voters.”
Opposition to Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO is also significantly higher among Republicans than Democrats. But Kimball, who directed the RealClear Opinion Research Poll, also noted that the most significant drivers of defense and national security issues among American voters appear to be age and gender.
Support for Ukraine joining NATO, for example, is highest among voters 65 years of age and older, 61% of whom favor Ukraine’s inclusion. Other demographic disparities include the following:
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Just over 50% of male American voters named the U.K. as the United States’ greatest ally; among women this number was only 32%.
Younger voters are much more likely to name Russia as America’s top threat. Among voters 35 and under, 34% named Russia, compared to just 21% of those 65 and older.
The sharpest example of a demographic split concerns China. Among voters 65 and older, fully 72% named the People’s Republic as the “greatest threat” to the United States. This perception is shared by only 37% of voters under 35 – about half as many.
Concern over the popular social media site TikTok neatly illustrates the generational divide. Slightly more than two-thirds of voters 35 and under believe China is using the popular app to spy on Americans. By contrast, nearly 9 in 10 older voters believe the Chinese government uses TikTok to collect Americans’ personal data.
On the toughest question contemplated by Congress and the administration – how the U.S. should respond if China invades Taiwan – no consensus emerges among the electorate.
A slight plurality (39%) say the U.S. should take military action in case of an invasion from the mainland, while 35% say it should not. The rest, 27%, are unsure, which sums up official Washington’s ambivalence as well. A partisan gap exists on this question, although it’s not huge. Republicans are more in favor of interceding to protect Taiwan (46%), with independents at 36% and Democrats at 34%. The more significant split on this question is between men and women, with 49% of male voters favoring military action in response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Among women, only 29% favor such a U.S. response.
Notwithstanding their qualms about war, U.S. voters expressed a great deal of confidence that the U.S. would succeed in an armed conflict with China, Russia, or North Korea. Regarding China, 79% think the U.S. would “definitely” (26%) or probably” (53%) win a war against China, compared to 13% who say the U.S. “could but will not win,” and the 8% who think the U.S. would not win. The breakdown is similar when it comes to Russia or North Korea. A pronounced gender difference appears in the data, however, with men expressing much greater confidence than women about the United States’ ability to prevail on the battlefield.
The survey also delved into two areas of President Biden’s own rhetoric that have made news. Asked whether they concurred with Biden’s description of Chinese President Xi Jinping as “a dictator,” 64% of U.S. voters agree, while 11% disagree. (The rest are unsure or have no opinion.) There is no partisan difference on this question, with 66% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans concurring with Biden’s description. The significant divide was generational: The older the voter cohort, the more likely they were to agree that Xi is a dictator.
Voters were also polled about which they believe poses the greater threat to the United States today: foreign terrorist groups or domestic white supremacists. This question was not posed in a vacuum. In his inaugural address, and as recently as a college commencement speech two months ago, Biden has denounced “the poison of white supremacy,” which he characterizes as the “most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”
Many conservatives consider such rhetoric sheer demagoguery. But if Biden is pandering for votes, the RealClear Opinion Research poll shows that it’s working – at least up to a point. The survey found that 48% of voters consider foreign terrorist groups pose the greater threat, but that 37% agree with the president. Young voters are nearly evenly split on this question, while the president’s assertions clearly resonate with African American and Hispanic voters.
Finally, the poll asked a series of questions about the modern role and mission of the U.S. military as well as the nation’s level of defense spending, which was $877 billion in 2022.
A plurality of voters (46%) find that number too high, while 36% say it is about right, and 19% think it is too little. Here, there is a partisan divide, with a majority of Democrats voicing concern that defense spending is excessive, compared to only 37% of Republicans. On this issue, independents are closer to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. Race is a factor as well, as 61% of Latinos, 59% of Asians, and 49% of African Americans think the Pentagon spends too much. A plurality of white voters (41%) think spending is “about right.”
Another issue with a high partisan component, as well as breakdowns by race, is Biden’s February executive order extending his Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion regulations to all federal branches including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A solid plurality of voters (45%) believe it will have a positive impact on the military, while 32% think it will have a negative impact. The rest are unsure.
DEI is particularly popular among Biden’s political base, as 72% of Democrats think it will produce positive results compared to 53% of Republicans who think it will have a negative effect. Independents are split.
Voters were also asked if the United States has a responsibility to intervene militarily in trouble spots around the world. Only 37% answered affirmatively to this question, while 46% say the U.S. bears no such obligation.
“It’s interesting to see that 46% think the U.S. does not have a responsibility to intervene abroad – and at the same time 46% think the U.S. is spending too much militarily,” said Kimball. “This suggests there is an appetite for isolationist policies among a portion of the electorate.”
Finally, Americans are not of a mind to make the duty of defending the nation a universal responsibility. In 2023, the 50th year of the all-volunteer armed forces, voters oppose restoring the military draft by more than 2-1 (57% to 24%, with 19% unsure.) And while 41% of U.S. voters favor requiring young men and women to perform some sort of national service either in the military forces or by doing non-military work in the U.S. or abroad, it’s a close question: 37% of voters are opposed to compulsory public service.