PRINCETON, NJ -- A slim majority of Americans (54%) say the United States is the No. 1 military power in the world, down from 64% in 2010, with an average of 59% since 1993. The lowest reading, 51%, was recorded in 1999 as the U.S. was involved in a NATO-led multinational air campaign against Kosovo.
The current results are based on the 2012 update of Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted Feb. 2-5.
While political and ideological groups view the United States' military power similarly, there are significant gender and educational differences. Men are much more likely than women to say the U.S. is No. 1 militarily, and post-graduates are significantly more likely than those with less formal education to believe this.
When asked to assess the strength of the U.S. national defense, 54% of Americans say it is "about right," with 13% saying it is "stronger than it needs to be" and 32% believing it is "not strong enough."
Gallup has asked this question annually since 1999 as well as in 1984 and 1990. Typically, Americans have been more likely to believe the country's national defense is appropriately strong. The only exceptions were in 2007 and 2008, when slightly more said the nation's defense was not strong enough than said it was about right. Those readings came as the United States was fighting concurrent large-scale military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which began in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
On this question, political differences are apparent, with Republicans and conservatives most likely to think the United States' national defense is not strong enough, and Democrats and liberals most likely to believe it is about right.
There are no meaningful gender or education differences on this question.
Americans Most Likely to Say U.S. Spends Too Much on Military and Defense
Although a majority of Americans believe the strength of the national defense is about right, barely one-third are satisfied with the amount the country spends for military and defense purposes. Specifically, 32% say these expenditures are about right, while 41% say the United States spends too much and 24% say it spends too little.
The question is being asked at a time when defense cuts are already set to occur, which could become even greater given the additional cuts triggered when the debt ceiling supercommittee failed to reach agreement last November. It is not clear whether respondents answered the question only in terms of current defense spending levels or took additional cuts into account when answering.
Gallup has asked Americans for their opinions on defense spending a total of 28 times since 1969. Over that time, an average of 35% have said the U.S. spends too much on defense, 23% have said the U.S. spends too little, and 36% have believed spending is about right.
However, there have been notable shifts of opinion over time, such as in 1981 and late 2000 through early 2001 -- time periods near the end of Democratic administrations and the beginning of Republican administrations -- when the greatest percentage of Americans said the U.S. was spending too little on defense. But that typically has been the least common view, with Americans generally alternating between thinking the U.S. is spending too much (as in the late 1960s through early 1970s and mid-to-late 1980s) and spending the right amount (as in the post-9/11 era through 2007) on defense.
There are wide political differences in opinions on the appropriate amount of defense spending, with the greatest percentages of Republicans and conservatives saying the U.S. spends too little and majorities of Democrats and liberals saying the U.S. spends too much.
The United States has always maintained a strong military, and a majority of Americans have consistently believed the U.S. is the No. 1 military power in the world. The current percentage who believe that, however, is on the low end of what Gallup has measured over the past two decades.
It is unclear if the modest decline in perceptions of the United States as the leading military power is a reaction to cuts in defense spending in recent years as well as proposed cuts for coming years. Defense officials have argued that automatic cuts in defense spending, part of the legislation passed last summer to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, would severely weaken the U.S. military.
However, since the military makes up a large share of the overall U.S. budget, any efforts to get federal spending and the deficit under control are likely going to involve some cuts in military spending. Although the largest percentage of Americans believe too much is spent on the military, it is still less than a majority. When Gallup asked Americans last summer whether they favored defense cuts as a way to reduce the deficit, 47% were in favor and 51% opposed.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 2-5, 2012, with a random sample of 1,029 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
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 and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. 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, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in 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.