Survey Says: Americans Back Arms Control

Steven Kull

Arms control is being challenged today by proliferation crises from North Korea to Pakistan. Yet, perhaps one of the central challenges comes from those in the United States who contend that rather than strengthening and expanding the multilateral arms control regime, America and its allies should place greater reliance on the use of military threats against potential proliferators.

To find out how the American public feels, the Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a nationwide poll in collaboration with the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program, both programs of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

The poll found that Americans continue to be highly concerned about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation. The median respondent estimated that at least 10 countries have secret programs for developing weapons of mass destruction. An overwhelming majority say that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is a very (84 percent) or somewhat important (13 percent) foreign policy goal of the United States.

Americans also consistently showed strong support for arms control as a tool to address the problem. Ninety-one percent of those surveyed said that the United States should participate in the “treaty that bans all chemical weapons,” and the same number favored participation in “the treaty that bans all biological weapons.” Support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also overwhelming, as is support for strengthening the inspection provisions of the biological weapons treaty. Support for such arms control treaties is robust among all demographic groups and all regions of the country. Though Democrats tend to be more supportive, large majorities of Republicans are supportive as well.

Views on Nuclear Weapons

American views on nuclear weapons exemplify these general attitudes. Clear majorities expressed support for reducing the role of nuclear weapons and ultimately aiming to eliminate them, especially when placed in the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). A majority of poll respondents (59 percent) were not aware that the United States has committed to seek the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons as part of the NPT. An overwhelming majority, however, approved of the United States making such a commitment. Eighty-four percent said that doing so was a “good idea.” An even higher 86 percent said the United States “should…do more to work with the other nuclear powers toward eliminating their nuclear weapons.” In each case, more than 70 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats and independents favored working toward elimination.

Even without the information that there was a quid pro quo as part of the NPT, a majority (albeit a significantly smaller one) favored the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Strong support for eliminating nuclear weapons is not a new phenomenon. A 1997 Stimson Center poll[1] found 80 percent in favor of “eliminating all nuclear weapons from all countries in the world through a verifiable, enforceable agreement.” In the same poll, 77 percent said they would feel “safer if [they] knew for sure that no country including the [United States] had nuclear weapons.”

In a similar vein, Americans also supported retaining a commitment the United States first made in 1978 and reaffirmed in 1995 not to use nuclear weapons against countries that have signed the NPT and do not have nuclear weapons. Respondents were presented three options on this issue.

Only 20 percent endorsed the position that the United States “should explicitly retract this commitment, so that countries that have biological or chemical weapons will be deterred from using them out of fear that the [United States] will use nuclear weapons in response.” Rather, 57 percent chose the option that the United States should “reconfirm” its commitment not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have nuclear weapons, “so as to discourage countries from trying to acquire or build nuclear weapons.” Interestingly, only 17 percent chose a status quo commitment that would have allowed them to sidestep this choice. That response suggested that the United States “should not make a statement either way, but just leave things as they are.”

Americans in overwhelming numbers also support an international agreement to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on high alert. Respondents were told that “some people have proposed that the [United States] and the other nuclear powers could lower the risk of accidental nuclear war by having a verifiable agreement” to lower the number of weapons on high alert, while “others oppose this idea, saying it is too difficult to make sure that the other countries would not cheat.” When asked their position, 82 percent said the United States should “work with other nuclear powers to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on high alert”; 16 percent said the United States should not do so.

Developing New Types of Nuclear Weapons

One of the most important current issues confronting Congress is whether the United States should develop new types of nuclear weapons, given its obligations under the NPT and its desire to halt nuclear weapons proliferation. The poll tested this in multiple ways. First, respondents were offered a simple question: “Do you think it is or is not necessary for the [United States] to develop new types of nuclear weapons, beyond those that it already has?” By a two-to-one margin (65 percent to 34 percent, including 54 percent of Republicans), a strong majority said they thought it was not necessary for the United States to develop new types of nuclear weapons.

These majorities remained after readers were led through a more nuanced series of arguments for and against new nuclear weapons development. When respondents were then asked whether the United States “should or should not develop new types of nuclear weapons, beyond those that it already has,” 59 percent rejected such development, only six points lower than the majority that opposed such development without having heard the arguments. The majority opposed to new nuclear weapons after the arguments, however, was made up entirely of Democrats and independents (69 percent and 64 percent, respectively). Sixty percent of Republicans came away thinking the United States should pursue such new weapons.

Related to the potential development of new nuclear weapons is the question of whether the United States should ever test nuclear weapons again.

Asked whether the United States “should or should not participate” in “the treaty that would prohibit nuclear-weapon test explosions worldwide,” 87 percent said that it should. Even though there is strong opposition to the CTBT in the Bush administration and among Republicans in Congress, 85 percent of Republicans polled supported U.S. participation.

Today’s attitudes reflect long-standing views. Yet, maybe this support is soft. How would Americans respond if they heard more of the expert debate on the question? To find out, respondents were presented two pairs of pro and con arguments about the treaty. Once respondents had worked through these arguments, they were then asked whether the United States should participate in the CTBT. There was little change. Eighty-four percent said the United States should participate in the treaty, and only 13 percent said it should not.

It seems that a modest majority thinks that the CTBT’s effectiveness in controlling proliferation is likely to be limited, but an overwhelming majority, including both Democrats and Republicans, thinks that joining the CTBT would not be a problem for deterrence and judges that the treaty’s security benefit is well worth the possible costs.

The American public also supports arms control efforts even when they are perceived as potentially conflicting with other foreign policy priorities. In the case of Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terrorism, Americans favored getting tough on Islamabad after Pakistani scientists were found selling nuclear weapons components on the black market, even if it threatened the hunt for members of al Qaeda. Further, they said that the most important lesson from the Pakistani nuclear technology transfers to Iran, North Korea, and Libya was the need to enhance arms control efforts, particularly international inspections.

Other Arms Control Issues

In a related vein, a highly controversial issue is over whether, as part of the biological weapons treaty, international inspectors should be given the right to examine biological research laboratories to verify compliance—something the United States opposes. A portion of the sample was told that “[c]urrently there is some controversy about whether international inspectors should be able to examine biological research laboratories in all countries, including the [United States], to make sure they are not developing biological weapons.” A near unanimous 92 percent said that “international inspectors should have the right to examine biological research laboratories.”

To test a different argument, a different part of the sample heard a different question but offered a similar response. These respondents heard the arguments that, “[i]f international inspectors can look into U.S. biological research laboratories, they may get information that they can use for their country’s advantage in commercial biotechnology and biodefense.” They also heard the counterargument: “Since countries like Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China have signed the treaty, it would certainly be important for U.S. security to be able to inspect their laboratories to seek to make sure they are not developing biological weapons.” After reading these arguments they were then asked their position. In this case, a lesser but still large majority of 76 percent concluded in favor of inspections, with 22 percent opposed.

In the course of the United States undertaking research on defensive measures against such biological weapons, the issue has arisen whether U.S. scientists should develop test pathogens, that is, new infectious diseases, as an aid to developing antidotes in anticipation of hostile parties developing such pathogens as biological weapons.

As this is a complex issue, it was presented together with the key arguments. Ultimately, respondents were then asked whether the United States should or should not invent “new infectious diseases as part of its biodefense research.” A strong majority—68 percent—said the United States should not invent such diseases for this purpose, while only about a quarter (28 percent) favored the idea.

Demographic Differences

Generally speaking, attitudes among men and women on dealing with proliferation are for the most part quite similar. Although women’s support for using U.S. power is sometimes more contingent on it serving global rather than strictly U.S. interests, and women put more emphasis on discouraging proliferation by setting a good example, such differences are by no means dramatic. Many polls since the attacks of September 11 have found that women feel more personally vulnerable to terrorism and WMD threats than men, and it is possible this increased discomfort counterbalances their tendency to show more support for mutual problem solving and nonmilitary approaches.

As has been noted above, although there are differences between Democrats and Republicans, they should not be overstated. Democrats and Republicans generally share the same majority view in support of U.S. participation in international treaties, taking a nonmilitary approach to the problem of proliferation, and dealing with Pakistan. Republicans approve, along with Democrats, the U.S. commitment in the NPT to work toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, though Republicans are comparatively more willing to settle for simply achieving reductions in stockpiles. A notable difference is on the issue of developing new nuclear weapons, which Republicans initially oppose (as do Democrats) but then favor if they hear pro and con arguments before being asked to weigh in (while Democrats continue to oppose). Republicans are more swayed by arguments that question the effectiveness of international regimes and less swayed by arguments about military expenditures.


Clearly, a key finding of the poll is that American public opinion is largely at odds with numerous aspects of U.S. government policy, not only during the Bush administration but earlier as well. If a majority of the public were in charge, it does appear that the United States would be following a policy that pursues arms control solutions to the problem of proliferation much more aggressively than it has and that the United States would be more willing to accept intrusive inspections and constraints on the maximization of U.S. military capabilities.

So, why has this discrepancy not had more of a political impact? One reason is that Americans are not clearly aware that it exists. Fifty-six percent said they assumed that the United States was part of the CTBT, and 74 percent assumed that the United States favors giving international inspectors the right to examine biological research laboratories in all countries, including the United States. A majority (66 percent), however, did perceive the Bush administration as opposed to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, contrary to the preferences of the majority.

Would it matter if they were more aware of these discrepancies? Probably it would matter to some extent. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a very high-priority problem in the public’s mind, something of which the Bush administration was well aware when it sought to justify the war with Iraq. Also, the costs of addressing WMD proliferation through military force have recently become highly salient to the public, and thus the question of how best to address proliferation is likely to persist.

Still, it is unlikely that the public will get deeply involved in the details of arms control debates. Rather, what the public looks for are indications of the general orientation of their leaders: how much they emphasize cooperation or unilateral action, how much they emphasize principles of reciprocity or self-interest. As to what general orientation they are seeking, Americans are strikingly clear. Asked to choose between two statements characterizing broad policy orientations, only 16 percent chose the one that said the United States “should use its power to make the world be the way that best serves U.S. interests and values.” Rather, 83 percent chose the one that said the United States “should coordinate its power together with other countries according to shared ideas of what is best for the world as a whole.”

Although the public has some awareness that U.S. policy is not quite what they want it to be, many of the dots have not been connected. To be sure, if they were to become more aware of the discrepancy between their preferences and current U.S. policy, they might be inclined to show more support for the view of policymakers presumed to be in the best position to make some judgments. Nonetheless, on balance, this poll suggests that a public that was better informed about these issues would still back a policy that puts greater emphasis on, and is willing to make more accommodations to, efforts to address WMD proliferation through multilateral arms control.

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1. The Henry L. Stimson Center, “Public Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons: An Opportunity For Leadership,” April 1998.

Steven Kull is director of the Center on Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and author of Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism (Brookings Institution Press, 1999).