Public Sees U.S. Power Declining as Support for Global Engagement Slips
America’s Place in the World 2013
Growing numbers of Americans believe that U.S. global power and prestige are in decline. And support for U.S. global engagement, already near a historic low, has fallen further. The public thinks that the nation does too much to solve world problems, and increasing percentages want the U.S. to “mind its own business internationally” and pay more attention to problems here at home.
Yet this reticence is not an expression of across-the-board isolationism. Even as doubts grow about the United States’ geopolitical role, most Americans say the benefits from U.S. participation in the global economy outweigh the risks. And support for closer trade and business ties with other nations stands at its highest point in more than a decade.
These are among the principal findings of America’s Place in the World, a quadrennial survey of foreign policy attitudes conducted in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy.
The survey of the general public, conducted Oct. 30-Nov. 6 among 2,003 adults, finds that views of U.S. global importance and power have passed a key milestone. For the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority (53%) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled – from just 20% – since 2004.
An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally. Fully 70% say the United States is less respected than in the past, which nearly matches the level reached late in former President George W. Bush’s second term (71% in May 2008). Early last year, fewer Americans (56%) thought that the U.S. had become less respected globally.
Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Obama, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56% to 34% margin more disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. The public also disapproves of his handling of Syria, Iran, China and Afghanistan by wide margins. On terrorism, however, more approve than disapprove of Obama’s job performance (by 51% to 44%).
The public’s skepticism about U.S. international engagement – evident in America’s Place in the World surveys four and eight years ago – has increased. Currently, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. “minding its own business” in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.
After the recent near-miss with U.S. military action against Syria, the NATO mission in Libya and lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about half of Americans (51%) say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems, while just 17% say it does too little and 28% think it does the right amount. When those who say the U.S. does “too much” internationally are asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.
But the public expresses no such reluctance about U.S. involvement in the global economy. Fully 77% say that growing trade and business ties between the United States and other countries are either very good (23%) or somewhat good (54%) for the U.S. Just 18% have a negative view. Support for increased trade and business connections has increased 24 points since 2008, during the economic recession.
By more than two-to-one, Americans see more benefits than risks from greater involvement in the global economy. Two-thirds (66%) say greater involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it opens up new markets and opportunities for growth. Just 25% say that it is bad for the country because it exposes the U.S. to risk and uncertainty. Large majorities across education and income categories – as well as most Republicans, Democrats and independents – have positive views of increased U.S. involvement in the world economy.
To be sure, the public sees some harmful consequences from the movement of companies and people across borders. A majority (62%) says that more foreign companies setting up operations in the United States would mostly help the economy. But 73% think that the economy would be hurt if more U.S. companies move their operations abroad.
The public has mixed views of the impact of attracting more high-skilled and low-skilled people from other countries to work in the United States: 46% say more high-skilled workers from abroad would mostly help the economy while 43% see benefits from increasing the number of low-skilled workers from other countries.
Views of Council on Foreign Relations Members
A companion survey of 1,838 members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), conducted online from Oct. 7-Nov. 11, provides a unique perspective on public attitudes about America’s place in the world. The organization’s members have a decidedly internationalist outlook: For example, majorities see benefits for the United States from possible effects of increased globalization, including more U.S. companies moving their operations overseas.
The CFR members, who were enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s presidency four years ago, offer some significant criticism today. More than four-in-ten (44%) say Obama’s handling of foreign policy is worse than they expected, while just 16% say it is better than expected; 40% say it met their expectations. A particular area of disappointment stands out among the CFR members: that Obama’s handling of the situation with Syria weakened America’s reputation around the world.
Notably, there is consensus among the organization’s members that the public has become less internationalist. Fully 92% say that in recent years “the American public has become less supportive of the U.S. taking an active role in world affairs.”
When asked why the public has become less supportive of global engagements, 42% of CFR members point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or explicitly cite “war fatigue.” About a quarter (28%) mention the struggling U.S. economy or the costs of international engagement. Other factors cited are the ineffectiveness of recent U.S. interventions (mentioned by 19%) and failures of U.S. leadership (17%). (For more on how members of the Council on Foreign Relations view America’s Place in the World, see section 6).
The surveys, which were completed before the multilateral agreement aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear development program, find that most Americans do not believe that Iranian leaders are serious about addressing concerns over its nuclear program. Among those who heard at least a little about the nuclear talks, just 33% say they think Iranian leaders are serious about addressing international concerns about the country’s nuclear enrichment program, while 60% say they are not.
Members of the Council on Foreign Relations have more positive views of Iranian leaders’ intentions. Still, just half (50%) of the organization’s members say Iranian leaders are serious about addressing concerns over its nuclear program, while 44% disagree.
Among the public, there are partisan differences over whether Iranian leaders are serious about addressing concerns over the country’s nuclear program. Majorities of Republicans (73%) and independents (62%) who have heard at least a little about the nuclear talks say Iranian leaders are not serious in addressing nuclear concerns. Democrats who have heard about this issue offer more mixed evaluations; 42% say Iranian leaders are serious and 48% say they are not.
Iran’s nuclear program continues to be one of the top global threats to the United States in the public’s view. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) say that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the well-being of the United States, which is changed only modestly from America’s Place in the World surveys in 2009 and 2005.
Views of other long-standing global threats, such as Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda (75% major threat), North Korea’s nuclear program (68%) and China’s emergence as a world power (54%), also have changed little in recent years.
However, the public now is deeply concerned by an emerging security threat, possible cyber-attacks against the United States. Seven-in-ten (70%) say that cyber-attacks represent a major threat, placing this on par with Islamic extremist groups and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In terms of China and Russia, in particular, the public does not view either country very favorably – just 33% have a favorable opinion of China while 32% view Russia favorably.
Yet there is no evidence of growing public alarm about either China or Russia. Only about one-in-five Americans (23%) regard China as an adversary, while 43% see the country as a serious problem but not an adversary; 28% say China is not much of a problem. That opinion has held fairly steady for more than a decade. Similarly, relatively few (18%) view Russia as an adversary; 36% say Russia is a serious problem but not an adversary and 40% think the country is not much of a problem.
When asked which country represents the greatest danger to the United States, identical percentages volunteer Iran and China (16%). Nearly one-in-ten (9%) say that the United States itself represents the greatest danger, while 7% each cite North Korea and Iraq.
As in the past, many leading foreign policy priorities reflect domestic concerns. While 83% say that protecting the United States from terrorist attacks should be a top long-range foreign policy goal, about as many (81%) rate protecting the jobs of American workers as a top priority.
Majorities also say that reducing the country’s dependence on imported energy sources (61%) and combating international drug trafficking (57%) should be top priorities, while nearly half say the same about reducing illegal immigration (48%).
Many of the public’s domestically oriented goals are not shared by most members of the Council on Foreign Relations: Just 29% say protecting the jobs of American workers should be top policy priority, compared with 81% of the public. And only about one-in-ten CFR members (11%) sees reducing illegal immigration as a top long-range policy goal; 48% of the public views reducing illegal immigration as a top priority.
Climate change stands out as an issue of greater priority to CFR members than the public: A majority of the organization’s members (57%) say that dealing with global climate change should be a top foreign policy goal, compared with 37% of the public.
Promoting human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries and promoting democracy rate as relatively low priorities for both the public and CFR members. These views have changed only modestly in recent years.
Perceptions of U.S. Global Power
In the public’s view, China long ago surpassed the United States as the world’s top economic power. In the new survey, 48% say China is the world’s leading economic power while just 31% say it is the United States. That is little changed from recent years.
Yet, most Americans (68%) continue to say that the United States is the world’s leading military power. Just 14% think China has overtaken the United States in military strength.
In general terms, however, an increasing share of Americans think that the United States plays a less important and powerful role as world leader than it did 10 years ago. Currently 53% see the U.S. as a less powerful world leader, up from 41% in 2009.
Members of the Council on Foreign Relations also believe that U.S. power has declined. A majority of the organization’s members (62%) express this view, compared with 44% in 2009.
Partisanship is a major factor in changing public opinion about U.S. global power. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (74%) say the United States plays a less important and powerful role than it did 10 years ago, up from 50% four years ago and just 8% in July 2004.
Yet, the percentage of political independents who view the U.S. as less powerful also has grown, from 23% in 2004 to 45% in 2009 and 55% today. Democrats’ views have changed little over this period; in the current survey, 33% of Democrats say the U.S. is less powerful than it was a decade ago.
Partisan differences are not as pronounced in opinions about whether the United States is respected internationally. Majorities of Republicans (80%), independents (74%) and Democrats (56%) say the United States is less respected by other nations than in in the past.
In contrast with attitudes about America’s global power, there is more partisan agreement that the United States should be less active internationally. About half of independents (55%) and Republicans (53%) and 46% of Democrats say the United States should mind its own business internationally. In 2002, following the 9/11 attacks, 27% of independents, 22% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats wanted the United States to mind its own business internationally.
Barack Obama’s overall job approval rating has fallen over the past year, and he gets low ratings for his handling of number of foreign policy issues. His job rating is below 40% for nine of 10 foreign policy issues tested, including his overall handling of the nation’s foreign policy. Terrorism is the only issue on which more approve of the job he is doing (51%) than disapprove (44%).
Views of Obama’s job performance in handling foreign policy issues are mostly on par with ratings of his performance on some domestic issues. The survey finds that 37% approve of the way Obama is handling health care and just 31% approve of his handling of the economy.
About half of Americans (51%) say that Obama is not tough enough in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues; 37% say his approach is about right while 5% say he is too tough. The share saying Obama is not tough enough has risen 10 points since September (from 41%), though it is only slightly higher than the percentage describing him this way in April 2010 (47%).
With regard to specific security policies, 50% say the use of military drones to target extremists in Pakistan and other countries in the region has made the United States safer from terrorism, just 14% say it has made the U.S. less safe, while 27% say it has not made a difference.
The government’s phone and internet surveillance programs get mixed grades: 39% say they have made the nation safer from terrorism, 14% less safe and 38% say they have not made a difference. Finally, as the war in Afghanistan is winding down, just 31% of the public say the 12-year-long conflict has made the country safer from terrorism, 21% say it has made the U.S. less safe, and the plurality view (43%) is that it has not made a difference in U.S. security.
Read the full Pew report on citizens’ attitudes about the U.S. in the world