Economic concerns and war fatigue drive US foreign policy attitudes

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Media captionThe 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."

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Media captionHaass 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.