Going It Alone in Tough Times

James M. Lindsay and Parke T. Nicholson
Council on Foreign Relations

Tough economic times have always led the American public to turn inward rather than look beyond America’s shores. The Great Depression sparked a surge of isolationism that only ceased after Pearl Harbor. The stagflation of the 1970s combined with the fallout from Vietnam to shake America’s confidence as a global leader. Even the relatively mild recession in the early 1990s sparked complaints that the United States and the Soviet Union had fought the Cold War but Germany and Japan had won it.

The latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations shows this inward looking dynamic at play during today’s global financial crisis. That reality has significant implications for President Obama’s handling of foreign policy.

The most telling results come in response to the question of America’s role in the world. When asked whether the United States should mind its own business internationally, 49 percent of Americans say yes. That is up seven points compared to when the question was last asked in 2005 and the first time that a plurality of the public has said the United States should mind its own business abroad. Just as important, only 44 percent of Americans disagree.

The surge in isolationist sentiment cuts across partisan lines. Roughly half of Democrats and independents, and four out of ten Republicans, say the United States should mind its own business.

When asked whether the United States plays a less important role as a world leader today, 41 percent of the public and 44 percent of CFR members say yes. The public’s response is the highest since the United States was mired in an economic malaise in 1978. It is also a 21-point increase over 2004, the last time this question was asked.

As in past polls, overwhelming percentages of the public and CFR members—seven in ten members of the public and nine in ten CFR members—say they would prefer that the United States share global leadership duties. CFR members and the public disagree, however, on how much the United States should share. Three out of five CFR members say the United States should be the most “assertive country.” In contrast, only one in five members of the public wants the United States to be the “most active” country. That is six points lower than five years ago, and among the lowest percentages the poll has recorded.

The financial crisis has not changed how Americans view the desirability of U.S. military superiority. Almost two out of three members of the public name the United States as the world’s leading military power. Nearly as many want Washington to pursue policies that would keep things that way. Half of CFR members agree, with a quarter being willing to maintain U.S. predominance even at the risk of alienating allies.

The financial crisis has, however, changed who Americans think dominates the global economy. In 2008, 41 percent of the public named the United States as the world’s leading economic power, and 30 percent named China. Today the numbers are flipped, with 44 percent naming China and 27 percent naming the United States. This turnaround has happened before. At the end of the Cold War, as the U.S. economy slumped, a majority of Americans believed that Japan had passed the United States as an economic power.

The preference for shared global leadership and pessimism about U.S. economic power has not increased support for multilateralism. To the contrary. When asked whether the United States should go its own way in international affairs, 44 percent of the public agrees that it should. This is a 16-point jump since the question was last asked in 2005. It is ten points higher than the previous high, recorded in 1995.

These poll results highlight a potential political problem for President Obama. He campaigned on a pledge to use energetic diplomacy to restore American global leadership. So far, though, his multilateral efforts have come up short. Iran and North Korea refuse to halt their nuclear programs. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains frozen. America’s image in Europe has improved, but European governments remain skeptical of many of Obama’s policies.

Against this backdrop, Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is politically risky. Majorities of both the public and CFR members believe that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is going poorly. Although half of CFR members favor a troop increase, 59 percent of the public favors reducing U.S. troops or keeping them level. Both the public and CFR members doubt that additional U.S. troop deployments would stabilize the country; 57 percent of CFR members and 47 percent of the public say it is unlikely that Afghanistan can become stable enough to withstand the Taliban threat.

These findings suggest that the public will want quick results from Obama’s surge. If that doesn’t happen, he could find himself under intense pressure to bring the troops back home. More broadly, he could face greater political resistance, from both ends of the political spectrum, to his activist foreign policy and multilateralism.

The White House can find good news in the Pew-CFR poll. The president still gets good marks overall, with 51 percent of the public and 77 percent of CFR members approving of the job he is doing. The public also supports his Iraq policy, with 49 percent saying that he is handling U.S. troop withdrawals “about right” compared to 29 percent who say he is moving “not quickly enough.”

The White House also knows that what the economy takes away it can also give back. Periods of pessimism about America’s role in the world can pass. A quick economic turnaround would lift the public’s spirit, lessen isolationist sentiment, and give the president more political room to maneuver. The critical question for Obama’s ambitious foreign policy plans, then, is whether the economic recovery will happen soon enough.

James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Parke T. Nicholson is a Research Associate.