Over the past few years, Americans have overwhelmingly pinpointed Iran as public enemy number one. But as a recent Gallup Poll illustrates, Americans are now focusing their attention on several new perceived threats — a sure sign of the world's complex and ever-changing geopolitical balance.

According to the poll, half as many Americans now view Iran as their greatest enemy from just two years ago. The current rankings now show China (20%) at the top, followed closely by North Korea (16%) and Iran (16%). From there, it trails off to Russia (9%), Iraq (7%), Afghanistan (5%), Syria (3%) — and the United States itself (2%). These are the results, along with historical rankings (Gallup has only been doing this since 2001):


Lots has changed in a short period of time. Back in 2005, with the U.S. nearly two years into the Gulf War, Iraq and North Korea each topped the list at 22%. A year later, Iran was up top at a 31% disapproval rating. And it has sat there until this year.

Interestingly, it's not so much that China is being perceived as more enemy-like; it's just that other countries are jockeying around for position. Nuclear agreements, for example, may be fueling these sensibilities. As Gallup writes:

The drop in mentions of Iran as the greatest enemy in this year's poll has been accompanied by increases in the percentages mentioning North Korea (from 10% in 2012 to 16%), Russia (from 2% to 9%), and Syria (from less than 1% to 3%). The percentage mentioning China, however, has stayed virtually the same. Thus, China now tops the list mainly because Americans' views on the nation's enemies are more divided among several countries rather than focused on one dominant country, as in recent years.

Iran reached an agreement last November with several of the world's largest nations, including the United States, to limit its nuclear activity. Those nations in return agreed to ease some of the sanctions on Iran. That agreement may be the main reason the American public is taking a less antagonistic view of Iran. This week, Iran and the same countries agreed to a framework for continued negotiations toward a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear capabilities.


In terms of subgroups, there aren't major differences in current perceptions of the greatest U.S. enemy. Slightly more older Americans and Republicans see Iran as the top enemy, while younger Americans and Democrats view North Korea as the prime troublemaker.


My own take on these results is that Americans are clearly threatened by China's assent to economic, military, and technological superpower status. It's also interesting to see Russia jump from 2% to 9% in just two years — likely an indication of Putin's ongoing authoritarianism, his attempts to re-assert Russia as a world power, and the country's perceived meddling in the Syria crisis.

Lastly, it's unfortunate that the pollsters did not include non-state actors into their questionnaire. According to the recent "Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community," some of the country's worst threats come from terrorist groups, such as Al-Qa'ida, Hezbollah, and home-grown terrorists. Indeed, as time passes, and as economic and political globalization take hold, the world's nations won't have to fear each other — they'll have to fear the asymmetric enemy.


[ Gallup | Top image: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images]

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