Project on Defense Alternatives

Wanting Leadership:

Public Opinion on Defense Spending

Project on Defense Alternatives
Carl Conetta and Charles Knight
January 1998

A November 1995 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), based in Washington DC, reported 42 percent of the US public feeling that defense spending is too high, 23 percent perceiving it as too low, and 31 percent comfortable with the status quo. When the status quo plurality is pushed to express a preference, 11 percent migrate to the "too high" opinion and nine percent migrate to the "too low." These results are broadly consistent with other recent polls on the question. The PIPA poll also showed a majority of Americans strongly opposed to Congress adding to the budget in excess of Pentagon requests and convinced that defense spending "has weakened the US economy and given some allies an economic edge."

Putting the issue into context also matters. As summarized in the recent PIPA report, The Foreign Policy Gap, most opinion surveys show majorities of Americans supporting defense cuts if specifically in order to balance the budget. Similarly, suggesting that funds trimmed from the Pentagon account would go toward education and crime reduction increases support for reductions.

A 1994 public opinion survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations finds between 26 percent and 34 percent of the public favoring defense spending cuts, depending on how the question is asked. Between 18 percent and 21 percent of the public want to increase spending. The status quo wins support from between 41 percent and 56 percent of those polled.

These Council results represent an eight percent decrease in the support for reductions from four years earlier and a seven percent growth in the numbers favoring increases. Looking back over previous polls, the Council contrasts their 1994 findings with what they see as a "surge in support" for increased spending in 1978; "support for the status quo" in 1982 and 1986, meaning a plurality favoring current levels; and a "dramatic shift toward reducing defense spending" in 1990. Gallup polls show, and the Council's polls confirm, that since 1982 significantly more Americans have supported cuts than have supported increases. The 1994 move toward the status quo did not upset this longer-term trend. Nor is increased support for the status quo surprising given that defense spending fell 18 percent between 1990 and 1994 and the Clinton administration ended its efforts to argue defense cuts in 1994. The PIPA survey indicated the key role of leadership in the formation of public sentiments about defense-related issues. It found that a solid majority of the public would support relatively deep cuts in the Pentagon budget if the President and Congress proposed them.

Citation: Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, Wanting Leadership: Public Opinion on Defense Spending, Project on Defense Alternatives. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, January 1998.

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