PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are most likely to mention Iran when asked which country they consider to be the United States' greatest enemy. China and North Korea tie for second, with Afghanistan and Iraq rounding out the top five.
The results are based on Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted Feb. 2-5. Gallup has asked the greatest enemy question six times since 2001. Iran has been the most frequently mentioned country in 2011, 2008 (essentially tied with Iraq), 2007, and 2006. In 2005, North Korea and Iraq tied for first place, and in 2001, Iraq was Americans' choice.
Americans' perceptions of the United States' greatest enemy are generally responsive to international events. For example, this year marks a sharp decline to 7% in the percentage of Americans who believe Iraq is the greatest U.S. enemy, down from at least 21% in each measurement from 2005-2008, and 38% in 2001 before the Iraq war began. The decline this year likely coincides with the reduction of U.S. military forces in Iraq.
As Americans became less likely to view Iraq as the United States' greatest enemy after the beginning of the Iraq war, they became more likely to see Iran and North Korea that way.
With military operations in Afghanistan now the largest U.S. engagement, the percentage of Americans naming that country as the United States' greatest enemy has reached a new high of 9%.
Perceptions of Greatest Enemy Vary by Age, Ideology
Americans of most key demographic groups rate Iran as the United States' greatest enemy, though there are notable exceptions among certain age and ideological groups.
Younger Americans are much less likely than older Americans to regard Iran as the United States' greatest enemy and more likely to view North Korea this way.
As a result, North Korea leads Iran as the greatest enemy in the 18- to 29-year-old age group. Americans aged 30 to 49 are about equally likely to mention North Korea, Iran, and China as the greatest U.S. enemy. China generally rates behind Iran and ahead of North Korea as the greatest enemy in the eyes of Americans aged 50 and older.
Political conservatives are twice as likely to name Iran as any other country as the greatest enemy of the United States. Liberals are about evenly divided as to whether Iran or North Korea is the greatest U.S. enemy. And moderates are equally likely to assign China, Iran, and North Korea this status.
These differences are not apparent by political party, though, as Iran is perceived to be the top U.S. enemy by Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
Enemies, Least Favorite Countries Not Always the Same
In addition to naming Iran as the greatest U.S. enemy, Americans also rate it last in Gallup's country favorability data. North Korea gets low favorable ratings similar to Iran's, but Americans are less likely to regard that country as the United States' greatest enemy, perhaps because they view Iran as more threatening now or because Americans remember the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979-1981.
Americans' favorability ratings of China are much more positive than those for Iran and North Korea, but a significant proportion of Americans regard China as the United States' greatest enemy. That likely is a result of the economic threat China poses to the United States, as evidenced by Americans' perceptions that China is now the leading economic power in the world.
Americans have become consistent in naming Iran as the greatest U.S. enemy since the Iraq war began. The trend in Americans' perceptions of the greatest U.S. enemy has been responsive to international events, and given this history, these perceptions are likely to change in the future. This is particularly true as the focus of U.S. foreign and military policy changes over time, as old regimes around the world are replaced with new ones (as in Iraq), and as international threats such as terrorism and nuclear power rise and recede in importance.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 2-5, 2011, with a random sample of 1,015 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.