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Americans Believe U.S. International Influence Declining, New Study Shows

William A. Galston

A stunning report just released by the Pew Research Center underscores the extent to which development at home and abroad have altered Americans’ attitudes toward international engagement. 

Among the report’s key findings:

  • For the first time in surveys dating back decades, a majority of Americans–53 percent–see the United States as playing a less important and less powerful role in the world than it did a decade ago.
  • Also for the first time, a majority—52 percent—agree that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
  • Fully 70 percent (up from 56 percent in 2009) believe that the United States is less respected by other countries than in the past.
  • By a margin of 80 to 16 percent, Americans endorse the idea that “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our national problems and building up our own strengths and prosperity here at home.”

The public distinguishes sharply, however, between military and economic engagement with the world, opposing the former while firmly embracing the latter.

  • 77 percent say that growing trade and business ties with the rest of the world are good for the U.S.
  • 66 percent say that great involvement in the global economy is good because it exposes the U.S. to new markets and opportunities.

The public’s long-range foreign policy goals reveal the intensification of a longstanding inward focus.

  • The goals receiving more than 60 percent support as top priorities include:

    • protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks
    • protecting American jobs
    • preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction
    • reducing our dependence on imported energy
  • The goals receiving less than 40 percent support as top priorities include:
    • Strengthening the United Nations
    • Dealing with global climate change
    • Promoting and defending human rights in other countries
    • Helping to improve living standards in developing nations
    • Promoting democracy in other nations

There is a wide gulf between the general public and foreign policy on many of these goals.  For example:

  • While 81 percent of the public believes that protecting American jobs should be a top priority, only 29 percent of elites agree.
  • 57 percent of the public regards combatting international drug trafficking as a top priority, compared to only 17 percent of elites.
  • Conversely, 57 percent of elites regard addressing climate change as a top priority, compared to only 37 percent of the public.

And while huge majorities of both the public and elites give top priority to preventing more terrorist attacks, they have divergent views about the progress we’ve made toward that goal.

  • 67 percent of elites think that terrorists’ ability to launch another major attack has diminished since 9/11; only 8 percent believe it has strengthened.
  • By contrast, only 36 percent of the public thinks the terrorist threat has diminished, and almost the same share—34 percent—view it as higher today than it was 12 years ago.

The public has strong views about one of the most urgent foreign policy challenges the United States faces—Iran’s steady movement toward a nuclear weapons capacity.

  • 68 percent view Iran’s nuclear program as a serious threat.
  • By a margin of 60 to 33 percent, the public believes that Iranian leaders are not serious about addressing the international concerns their program has sparked.

China is another important concern. 

  • 54 percent of the public believes that China’s emergence as a world power poses a major threat to the United States.
  • As recently as 2008, 41 percent thought that the United States was the world’s leading economic power, compared with 30 percent for China.  Today the reverse is true: fully 48 percent pick China, versus 31 percent for the U.S.

As for the world’s most unstable and conflict-torn region, the Middle East, the survey offered the public a choice between two different sets of policy priorities.

  • 32 percent said that democratic governments were more important, even if democratization means less stability in the region.
  • But twice as many—64 percent—opted for stable governments, even if that means less democracy in the region.
  • On this issue, notably, the views of the public and foreign policies elites are virtually identical.

There’s not a lot of good news for President Obama in this survey.

  • Fully 51 percent of the people believe that his approach to foreign policy and national security hasn’t been tough enough, compared to only 5 percent who think it has been too tough.
  • Public approval for his handling of specific foreign policy issues stands below 40 percent for all but one of the 10 issues tested.
  • 72 percent of policy elites believe that the administration’s handling of the crisis in Syria damaged the reputation of the United States.

China and Iran are tied for the top slot as the country that represents the greatest threat to the United States.  Coming in third was the United States itself.  If we are not yet our own worst enemy, the public seems to be saying, we’re getting there: our continuing inability to govern ourselves effectively is undermining much of what we care about, at home and abroad.

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