Faced with a long-running and difficult war in Iraq, continued worries about terror attacks and growing economic uncertainty at home, the public became less supportive of global engagement during the final years of the Bush presidency. That marked a significant change from the period immediately after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when there was a sharp rise in internationalist sentiment.

Following the attacks, the United States benefited from a significant measure of goodwill around the world. Much of that would not last. Surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Western Europeans were already skeptical of Bush in the summer of 2001, seeing him as more eager than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to make decisions based entirely on U.S. interests. Then, the build-up to the war in Iraq, the administration’s largely unilateral approach, and the execution of the war led to higher disapproval ratings for Bush and his policies in many corners of the world.

Most Americans believe that global respect for the United States has eroded. In a September 2008 survey, seven-in-ten voters said the nation is less respected than in the past, and nearly half (48%) said they saw that as a major problem. Fully 81% of Democratic voters said the United States is less respected, compared with a much smaller majority of Republican voters (55%).

As war in Iraq continued, Americans also appear to have had second thoughts about the best way to reduce the risks of terror attacks. In the summer of 2002, before serious public discussion of removing Saddam Hussein from power had begun, nearly half of Americans (48%) said that the best way to reduce terrorism was to increase our military involvement overseas. Just 29% said less involvement would make the nation safer. Four years later, as the war dragged on, fully 45% said the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. was to decrease America’s military presence overseas. In the fall of 2008, that number stood at 48%.

The public – both Democrats and Republicans – also saw a Bush administration misstep in early 2006 in the handling of a bid by an Arab-owned company, Dubai Ports World, to buy a company that controlled operations at several major U.S. seaports. An administration panel initially approved the deal, but faced a great backlash in Congress once the decision was made public.

Most Americans (58%) said Congress acted appropriately in strenuously opposing the deal, while just 24% said lawmakers made too much of the situation. There was broad opposition to the proposed deal from across the political spectrum, including two-to-one disapproval among conservative Republicans (56%-27%).

Dubai Ports never took control of the American ports, but the skirmish highlighted Americans’ unease about potential points of U.S. vulnerability. Still, a majority (53%) at the time said foreign companies investing in the U.S. was good for the U.S.

An Inward Focus

In the September 2008 survey, the public’s top long-term foreign policy goals were decidedly America-centric. Defending the country against terrorism, protecting U.S. jobs, and weaning the country from imported energy all drew extensive bipartisan support. As in the past, there were substantial political disagreements over most other international priorities: about twice as many Democrats as Republicans rated reducing U.S. military commitments as a top priority, and nearly three times as many attached great importance to dealing with global climate change.

Though the public was feeling better about how the war in Iraq was going, it also showed a sharply diminished appetite for U.S. efforts to deal with an array of global problems. Fewer people than at any point in this decade assigned high priority to such foreign policy goals as preventing genocide, strengthening the United Nations, promoting and defending human rights, and reducing the global spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases.

With widespread economic uncertainty at home, the public clearly wants the next president to devote most of his attention to domestic concerns. Six-in-ten Americans said in September that it is more important for the new president to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy, compared with just 21% who say foreign policy should be the primary focus. Opinion about this issue was more evenly divided in January 2007, shortly after Bush announced plans for the military surge in Iraq; at that time, 40% said the president should focus on foreign policy, while 39% said he should focus on domestic policy.

Little Confidence in Bush Abroad

As President Bush’s second term neared its final months, people in many nations were keeping an eye on the American election. Many were looking forward to change in the United States. In 2008, the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked citizens of 24 countries whether they could count on Bush to do the right thing regarding foreign affairs. Majorities in only three (India, Nigeria, and Tanzania) said they had a lot or some confidence. Both African nations have benefited from Bush’s efforts to tackle AIDS around the globe.

On the other side of the ledger, majorities in 19 of the 24 countries in the survey had little or no confidence in the American president. In the four Western European countries surveyed, majorities without much confidence ranged from 81% in Great Britain to 88% in Spain. In the Middle East, majorities rose as high as 89% in Turkey and Jordan.

The survey also found a widespread belief that U.S. foreign policy “will change for the better” after the inauguration of a new American president next year. Among people who had been following the election, large majorities in France (68%), Spain (67%) and Germany (64%) said they believed th
at U.S. foreign policy would improve after the election.

But that belief was far from universal. In Jordan and Egypt, more people who were following the election said they expected new leadership to change U.S. foreign policy for the worse than said they expected a change for the better. Two-thirds of the Japanese (67%) following the election said it would not bring about much change in U.S. foreign policy. That was the plurality opinion in Russia and Turkey as well.

In nearly every country surveyed, greater numbers expressed confidence in the ultimate winner in the presidential race – Barack Obama – than in John McCain.