The Public’s Mixed Message on America’s Role in the World

James M. Lindsay and Rachael Kauss
Council on Foreign Relations

Americans are conflicted about the U.S. role in the world. On one hand, record numbers of Americans think the United States should mind its own business internationally and focus on problems at home.  On the other hand, they want the United States to play a leading role in world affairs, and they see the benefits of greater involvement in the global economy.

That is the mixed message that emerges from the latest nationwide poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations. Which interpretation gains favor could have significant implications for how presidential candidates frame their foreign policy positions come 2016.

The headline-grabbing poll result is that 52 percent of the public thinks the United States should mind its own business internationally. That is the highest number recorded in response to a question pollsters have been asking since 1964. A decade ago only about one-in-three Americans said the United States should mind its own business abroad.

Americans are similarly skeptical that Washington is striking the right balance between domestic and foreign policy. A record 80 percent of the public says the United States should focus on problems at home rather than ones abroad. This year’s response is eleven points higher than a decade ago.

Explanations for the rise in isolationist sentiment abound. Skepticism of internationalism typically grows during tough economic times. Intervention fatigue after a dozen years of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is also at play. A majority (51 percent) of the public believes the United States does too much in the world, a far higher number than thinks it does too little (17 percent) or the right amount (28 percent). And Americans believe Washington is less respected (70 percent) and less important (53 percent) in the world today.

But responses to other questions in the poll suggest that as frustrated as the public is with foreign policy, it isn’t ready to abandon internationalism or to embrace unilateralism. When asked what kind of role the United States should play in the world, 72 percent opt for shared leadership. That is in line with past responses. Fifty-six percent reject the idea that the United States should go its own way in the world, while 77 percent say the United States should take the views of its major allies into account when making foreign policy decisions.

Americans also are not ready to cede their number one spot as a military power to China, even if a near majority (48 percent) mistakenly believes it has become the world’s leading economic power. Majorities of the public and CFR members (56 and 64 percent respectively) agree the United States should try to maintain its military supremacy. Indeed, views of China have darkened. Its favorability among the public has fallen to a low of 33 percent, while 78 percent of CFR members surveyed see it as an adversary or a serious problem, up from 63 percent four years ago.

The public also remains relatively positive about globalization. Two out of three Americans believe greater involvement in the global economy benefits the United States by creating new markets. The public sees growing trade and business ties as either very good (23 percent) or somewhat good (54 percent). Nearly two in three think foreign companies setting up shop in the United States mostly helps the U.S. economy. Nearly three in four, however, see U.S. companies setting up operations overseas as mostly bad.

The broader public and the CFR members surveyed generally agree on which foreign policy issues should be first and second tier priorities for Washington. Both groups see preventing terrorist attacks and stopping nuclear proliferation as top priorities. Neither group considers promoting democracy, defending human rights, or improving living standards in the developing world to be top priorities, though majorities of both groups say all three issues merit some priority.

The public and CFR members disagree on the relative priority that should be given to protecting the jobs of American workers; 81 percent of the public regards it as a top priority while 56 percent of CFR members surveyed give it some priority. CFR members (57 percent) are more inclined than the public (37 percent) to make climate change a top priority, while the public (37 percent) is more inclined than CFR members (17 percent) to make strengthening the United Nations a top priority.

The poll does not contain much good news for the White House. More Americans now disapprove of the job President Obama is doing overseas (56 percent) than approve (34 percent).  Disapproval of Obama’s handling of specific issues like Afghanistan, China, and immigration has jumped by more than ten percentage points since he started his second term.

Nearly identical percentages of the public (57 percent) and CFR members surveyed (59 percent) pan the president’s handling of Syria.  Seventy-two percent of CFR members surveyed think events in Syria have weakened the United States, and seventy-four percent believe they have strengthened Russia. And 57 percent of CFR members surveyed say the U.S. response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons will not discourage other leaders from using weapons of mass destruction.

More broadly, 51 percent of the public and 52 percent of CFR members surveyed doubt President Obama is tough enough on foreign policy. Four years ago, just under half of the public and about a third of CFR members surveyed held this view. The perception of weakness could hurt Obama’s ability to persuade Congress to cooperate with his diplomacy toward Tehran. Six out of ten Americans believe Iran is not serious about addressing concerns about its nuclear program.

As President Obama tries to regain momentum in foreign policy, the politically minded will increasingly be looking to the 2016 presidential campaign. The results of the Pew Research-CFR poll suggest that votes can be had by tapping either the isolationist or internationalist impulses in the American public. The most successful candidate, however, is likely to be the one who taps both.

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