by Richard C. Auxier, Pew Research Center

Leaders from 47 nations assembled in Washington, D.C. this week for meetings devoted to preventing nuclear material from reaching terrorists. Even at a time when U.S. prestige was at a low point, a 2007 Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey found that in many countries the United States was cited as the entity that should be responsible for dealing with the spread of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the poll found people around the globe who are most concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons were also the most likely to say the U.S. should take responsibility for addressing nuclear proliferation.

In 2007, the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked respondents in 47 nations (not the same 47 nations attending the summit) which of five dangers — spread of nuclear weapons; religious and ethnic hatred; AIDS and other infections diseases; pollution and other environmental problems; growing gap between the rich and poor — poses the greatest threat to the world.

Many in Africa cited infectious diseases, while respondents in the Americas were more likely to cite environmental concerns. However, in 27 nations more than a third of respondents cited nuclear proliferation as the first or second greatest threat facing the world.

The perceived danger of nuclear weapons was especially high in Japan and Israel. In both countries roughly two-thirds said nuclear proliferation was a major threat to the world. While concern about the spread of nuclear weapons was less widespread in the U.S., 45% of Americans said nuclear proliferation was a major threat, tying it with religious and ethnic hatred as the most cited danger to the world. This was down, however, from 2002 when 58% said nuclear weapons were a major threat to the world.

In the Middle East, a majority of respondents in Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon as well as Israel said the spread of nuclear weapons was a major threat. The proportion who name nuclear proliferation as a top global danger increased in Jordan (by 21 percentage points), Turkey (11 points), and Lebanon (eight points) from 2002 to 2007. Middle East nations that had a high percentage of respondents saying that nuclear weapons were a major threat, also tended to have a high percentage citing religious and ethnic hatred as a major danger, views they share with the United States.

In Japan (47%) and Israel (40%), pluralities said the U.S. should be responsible for addressing the problem, far more than said the U.N. or their own country should take responsibility. Many Americans also agreed that the U.S. should take the lead on this global danger. Far fewer in Middle Eastern countries shared that view. For example, many more people in Lebanon wanted the United Nations (70%) than the U.S. (18%) to deal with the issue, while a plurality in Turkey would like to see their own country take the lead (31%) and just a fifth (22%) say the U.S. should lead.

While the summit is dedicated to securing existing weapons material, the possibility — and the ramifications — of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon have been much debated in recent years. A 2009 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found worries about Iran developing nuclear weapons very high in America (82% say that this would be a major threat to the well-being of the U.S.) as well as in Western Europe where similarly large majorities in all nations surveyed said this would be a major threat. Fewer expressed concern in Eastern Europe, though majorities in five out of eight nations surveyed saw Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities as a threat to their countries. In Russia, however, only 41% said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to their country.

A 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll found majorities of Muslims in six of eight countries with large Muslim populations opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. However, in five of these eight countries, majorities of Muslims still did not think a nuclear-armed Iran would represent a threat to their country.

A Closer Look at the U.S.

A fall 2009 Pew Research survey found that half of the American public (52%) believes that an attack on the United States with a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is a greater danger now than it was 10 years ago. This survey also asked members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) their opinion. CFR members (61%) were even more likely than the public to say the danger has increased in the past decade. Only about one in ten in both groups felt the danger had decreased.

Similarly, a new ABC/Washington Post poll found slightly fewer than half of Americans (48%) saying that the possibility that terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons was “the single biggest threat the world faces,” (12%) or “one of the biggest” world threats (36%).

The fear of nuclear weapons was much lower following the end of the Cold War. In 1997, just 36% felt the chance of a WMD attack was greater than it was a decade prior, while close to a third (30%) thought it was less of a threat at that time. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, however, close to half the country thought the threat had increased, and in August 2003 nearly two-thirds of Americans said that a WMD threat was greater than it was 10 years ago.

Americans are also willing to take dramatic steps to prevent another country from obtaining nuclear weapons. While a majority of Americans support direct negotiations (63%) with Iran and tougher sanctions (78%) against that country, a strong majority (61%) also says that it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action. Just a quarter of Americans (24%) support avoiding a military conflict, even if it means Iran may develop nuclear weapons.