Public First poll on US Foreign Policy for John Hulsman Enterprises

About our research

In the run-up to the 2020 US Elections, and with whoever wins in November set to face a fraught period in international relations, John C. Hulsman Enterprises commissioned Public First to run a poll in the US to explore American public opinion on US actions overseas, US relationships with other countries, and a range of other issues in the foreign policy space.

Our findings demonstrate significant unfavourable opinion towards China among the US public, particularly among Republicans. A considerable proportion of the US public hold China directly responsible for Coronavirus and, in the public perception at least, China has risen to be considered one of the US’s main overseas enemies and rivals. We find an important difference in priority between those who support Biden and those who support Trump, with the former more concerned about Russia than China and vice versa for the latter.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. Dr. Hulsman is also a Life Member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent US foreign policy institution. John is also the widely-read Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London, and also writes weekly regular columns for The Hill in Washington, and Arab News. For more information, visit John’s LinkedIn Page.

Public First polls international audiences regularly on complex public policy issues. On this occasion, Public First ran a poll of 2,004 US Adults. Fieldwork was carried out online, and final results are weighted to be representative of the US population on interlocked age and gender, state, race/origin and the highest level of formal education achieved. Public First is a member of the British Polling Council (BPC) and abides by its rules. For any questions about the poll or the methodology please contact Seb Wride.

Full tables of the findings of the poll are provided here, as well as details of the methodology used.

The US’ major allies and enemies

The primary issues explored in this poll relate to public attitudes towards American allies around the world. Equally, we looked to understand who Americans see as their biggest overseas rivals and enemies. We took two approaches to this:

  • Respondents were asked to select up to five from a list of major countries in the US foreign policy space, who they considered to be the US’s greatest allies. The same was also done for greatest enemies, and for greatest rivals.
  • Respondents were shown a random selection of 10 countries from the same list and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 meant they were thought of as more of an enemy, and 7 as more of an ally (4 represented neutrality, and a Don’t Know option was also provided)

Our results showed that the UK and Canada are both seen as key allies for the US, and the UK comes out as the country most often placed at the top of the list.

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When it comes to enemies, North Korea comes out on top, but only as a result of partisan splits on China and Russia. China is seen as the biggest enemy among Trump supporters, whilst Russia is seen on par with North Korea among Biden supporters.North Korea represents a “common enemy” for the supporters of both Biden and Trump.

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The story is similar with the second approach. Margin of error is higher as only a random portion of the sample was asked about each country, but the ends of the scale hold similar to approach 1.

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Interestingly this approach allows some countries which people do not think of as “top” allies to rise up the ranks by virtue of both higher rates of neutrality, and few people really considering them “enemies”. As an example, Italy (which was 13th with approach 1) rises to fourth in the rankings based on NET score; few people think of Italy as an enemy, and a good portion are relatively neutral. Allies like Israel and Mexico are dragged down the list by the proportion who consider them more of an enemy.

To add further nuance to the positions on other countries, we asked further about which of the same countries people perceive to be the greatest “rivals” of the US (rather than enemies). With this change in wording, the Biden/Trump split falls away and China rises clearly to the top of the list among both parties.

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The China/Russia divide


There was a clear and consistent partisan divide in our findings on opinions towards Russia and China. Those supporting Biden were more likely to feel that whoever is elected in November should be tougher in dealing with Russia, while those supporting Trump are more likely to think that whoever is elected should be tougher in dealing with China.

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In part, the reasons for this divide may be the differing attribution of blame for the spread of Coronavirus in the US. Across the whole sample, the results indicate that the Chinese government and Donald Trump are neck-and-neck in receiving the most blame for the spread of the virus. However, among those supporting Trump, the majority blame the Chinese government and among those supporting Biden (as might be expected) the majority blame Trump.

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A large majority of Trump’s supporters agree with a direct question on whether the spread of Coronavirus around the world is primarily the fault of the Chinese government, while Biden voters are relatively split on this.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a majority of Trump supporters also agree that the spread of Coronavirus was a “deliberate result” of the actions of the Chinese Government. Here Biden voters largely disagree.

Logically following on from all this, the response to whether the US should take diplomatic action against the Chinese Government because of their role in the spread of Coronavirus, again a majority of Trump supporters agree, and whilst Biden supporters tend to disagree there remains a significant minority who do agree with this view.

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Examining the historical trends from Gallup, unfavourable views towards Russia have developed and held strong since 2015, whilst the negative opinion towards China is a relatively recent occurrence. US opinion towards China has certainly been taking a dive since the outbreak of Coronavirus in early 2020, and perhaps even since the trade wars before that. Research by Pew Research Centre showed in April that unfavourable opinion towards China was growing across the US, with Republicans in particular showing increasingly negative opinion towards the country However, this represented a continuing trend since mid-2019 as the US-China trade war began to escalate. Furthermore, recent research by Pew Research Centre in the first part of 2020 indicated this to be a growing trend across a number of Western countries, with the UK and Australia notably also showing large leaps in unfavourable opinion towards the country.

Equally, in an extensive piece of research on the US’s allies and enemies around the world carried out in 2017 by YouGov, China did not appear in the 10 countries perceived to be the greatest enemies, demonstrating just how much has changed in the years since then.

Despite this, the appetite for overseas intervention is low

We find some evidence that the appetite for overseas intervention is low in the US. The majority of respondents believe that the US intervenes in too many countries’ affairs around the world, with Trump supporters slightly more likely to agree on this matter.

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The majority of the US believes that the main focus of US action in other countries should revolve around promoting peace, working together and tackling global problems such as Coronavirus and climate change.

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