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Americans divided on military power, new poll shows

In the poll released Monday, only 49 percent of Americans said they believe the US is the number one military power in the world.

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A flag bearer holds the American flag as American forces take part in the opening ceremony of Flintlock, anti-terrorism training in Thies, Senegal

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Americans are split on their perception of US military strength, marking the first time a Gallup poll has found less than half of respondents saying America wasn't the world's strongest power.

In the poll released Monday, only 49 percent of Americans said they believe the United States is the No. 1 military power in the world – down from 59 percent in a similar survey conducted in February 2015, and the lowest percentage recorded in 23 years.

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Gallup posed the question to 1,021 American adults between February 3rd and 7th.

While two-thirds of Americans said it is important to be the number one military power, views on this issue divide along party lines. Republicans were more than three times as likely as Democrats to say that the US spends too little on its military, with 66 percent of Republicans saying so. Twenty percent of Democrats and 27 percent of independents agreed. Only nine percent of Republicans said spending is too much, with 39 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats agreeing.

Yet by any metric – military spending, number of worldwide bases and alliances, and quality of technology – America's military is by far the world's most powerful. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the US spends more on defense than the next seven countries behind it. In 2015 alone, the United States spent $610 billion, while China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom, India, and Germany reached $601 billion together.

Why, then, are Americans' faith in the country's military strength decreasing?

The 10-point drop in the percentage “may reflect worries about international terrorism, which the public views as the most critical international threat the nation faces,” Gallup said. “It may also reflect the discussion of the military and defense in the current presidential election campaign. The uptick in Americans' view that the nation is spending too little on its military may partly reflect these two dynamics, but also follows the classic ebb and flow of attitudes about military spending in response to ups and downs in the nation's actual spending.”

However, the shifting views reflect something else. As Vox reported, public attitudes “likely reflect the past three presidents' approach to the military, in terms of both rhetoric and actual policy.”

While President George W. Bush's foreign policy relied on the belief that military force could fundamentally change the world, Presidents Clinton and Obama have been less willing to deploy American forces. "Obama especially has emphasized the limits of American power to solve problems like [Islamic State], even in the face of widespread public fear about the group,” according to Vox.