Economic concerns and war fatigue drive US foreign policy attitudes


The new Pew Research Center study asks Americans what they think of their country's role in the world.

A majority of Americans want their country to "mind its own business internationally" (51%). While it's doing that, however, it should make sure that the US remains the world's only military superpower (56%) and has more involvement in the global economy (77%).

A generous interpretation of today's Pew Research Center poll is that Americans have a nuanced view of how they want their country to interact with the world - strong but humble, engaged economically but with a keen self-interest, working with allies but always ensuring US security priorities are protected.

A more critical reading would be that, when it comes to foreign policy, Americans don't know what they want.

"Americans are much more pre-occupied with what is going on here at home," said Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in an interview with the BBC's Katty Kay.

"It is one of many signs of a slow economy and also a considerable degree of intervention fatigue. There is a sense of some disillusionment and maybe also understanding about the limits, as strong as the United States is, to what we can accomplish in the world."

In addition, Americans don't have a very rosy view of their place in the globe. A majority view China as the world's most powerful economy (the US still is), and only 17% of respondents said that US global importance and power had increased over the last decade.

"Less powerful, less important, less respected - that's how a stunning majority of Americans view their place in the world today," writes Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star.

The BBC's David Botti takes a closer look at the numbers in this poll and notices some interesting nuggets:

  • When it comes to foreign policy, many of the public's top priorities - protection from terrorism, job growth, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and energy independence - are driven by domestic concerns.
  • Fifty percent of Americans said the use of military drones has made the nation safer from terrorism, while only 31% said that was the case with the war in Afghanistan.
  • More young Americans (age 18-29) think Asia had greater importance for the US than Europe, while older Americans (50-64) feel the opposite.

"Older Americans, ethnically, in many cases have more links to Europe," Mr Haass said. "But America is becoming less European in descent as we become more Hispanic, more Asian. I think this is a real signal to Europe... that the era in which Europe and Europeans so dominated American foreign policy, where the Atlantic alliance was central, this era is coming to an end."

Haass says the Pew poll shows Americans understand the limits of what the US can accomplish in the world

The poll also asks Americans whether they have a favourable view of specific nations. Canada (81%) and the United Kingdom (79%) come out on top, followed by Japan, Germany, Israel, Brazil and France. India (46%), perhaps because it is a destination for job outsourcing, has a negative rating. Mexico (39%) is surprisingly low. China (33%), Russia (32%) and Saudi Arabia (27%) finish out the bottom.

Council on Foreign Relations vice-president James Lindsay cautions that US politicians should think carefully before drawing conclusions from the poll results:

Aspiring presidential candidates who read only the headlines about the Pew Research-CFR poll may be tempted to conclude that isolationism will be the winning foreign policy theme on the 2016 campaign trail. That would be a mistake. Americans are ambivalent about global involvement, not opposed to it. So the most successful candidate will likely be the one whose own mixed message taps both isolationist and internationalist sentiments.

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus writes: "The survey results are arguably the product of two failed wars; political gridlock at home and an uncertain economic outlook."

The bottom line is that it all comes down to the bottom line: US foreign policy should make Americans richer and safer. Just don't ask Americans how to accomplish that.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    unabashed left liberalism is solid Western European culture, so nothing has changed or been diluted. You did hit two facts on the head; it is the Reps & Dems who are destroying America as they hand over our economy and wealth to those special interests who can buy their slice self-benefiting legislation

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The US is falling behind most other developed nations in the following areas: Education; Health Care; Energy Production & Distribution; Transportation Infrastructure; Basic Scientific Research & Development and Industrial Manufacturing/Production, among others. However, the decline in Education is the most troubling because it will have the greatest negative long-term impact on the Nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Unabashed far left liberalism and a primary tenant thereof, multiculturalism, are rapidly diluting our once solidly Western European-rooted culture, while sheer greed on the far right robs our once unparalleled wealth and concentrates it among the 1% who bear no loyalty to America and instead see it as a mere marketplace in their global realm. The Democrats and Republicans are destroying America.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    c'mon, there have been plenty of decades when we did not feel that our best days are behind us. The 1820s, 80s 1900s, 20s, 50s & 60s even the 80s & 90s. Just as often, Americans have felt that better days where ahead of us. Such pessimism is not as American as apple pie.

  • Comment number 10.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Americans have felt that the country is in decline ever since the day after we declared independence. We always feel that our best days are behind us. Occasionally, we may allow ourselves to feel we're slowing the rate of decay but never that we're reversing it.

    It's American as apple pie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The United States in not in decline clearly. Look at our energy situation, for example. China's advance is nothing new; they are where they belong to be as a country. The United States has a monkey on it's back, called the DEMUBLICANs, that is the Dem/Rep Duopoly. No vote cast for either party from here on out. That simple. The 21st century will be the US greatest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I believe you are mistaken as to who destroyed our country. It is clearly not the government, the US government is fine. Rather, it is the two political parties, the Ds & Rs, who have a stranglehold on our government and our country. Starting in the next election, it is the duty of every American to vote but to cast not a single vote for either Democrat or Republican.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @Anil. An empire was defeated? If you mean the corporate conglomerate that acts for their own interests then the interests of the American people? Hardly defeated. It survived and thrived and went on to invade Iraq and bring the country to it's needs. Hate to say this but multiply the "ignorance" that infects the average American by ten and it will equal ignorance the rest of world has about US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Our own government destroyed our country. The Repubs only care about the 1% and the Dems only care about lying their way to get reelected. Their concern about the American people doesn't exist. The corruption in both of them is beyond acceptable. None of them have stopped the flow of jobs overseas which made China a superpower in the fist place. Many in our government should in prison,

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    By most significant measurements the US appears to be in decline. To some degree its decline was inevitable because as the developing world has become more economically viable, the gap between developed nations and developing nations becomes narrower. However, unless it is willing to continue to lose ground to the rest of the world, the US must quickly address some of its internal issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    2. Anil

    We know enough to know that we're not an empire.

    Well, obviously not you, but most of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    As an Indian American, I understand well how this came about. It is the result of American Ignorance. It is wrongly believed that Americans are arrogant. The British, Australians, Gulf Arabs etc. are arrogant. Americans are not arrogant - they are ignorant. Ignorant about the world, ignorant about Islam. In a perfect storm, Ignorance met 9/11 and an empire was defeated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    We have a lot of problems in the US and the American people are tired of our overseas adventures. However, that doesn't mean we want to be isolationist and hide.

    Call us if you need us.


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