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Survey: Americans’ isolationism on the rise

December 4, 2013

Most Americans say the nation’s influence in world affairs is declining, disapprove of the way President Barack Obama is handling foreign policy and would prefer more emphasis on domestic affairs, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

The survey, conducted with the Council on Foreign Relations, finds just 17 percent of Americans think the country plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years ago, while 53 percent say it’s less important and powerful now. That’s the first time in polling dating back to the 1970s that a majority has said the country’s influence is on the decline.

Seven in 10 say the U.S. is less respected than in the past — nearly as high as in May 2008, when Obama’s campaign for president emphasized a foreign policy strategy aimed at rebuilding alliances damaged by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama’s approval ratings for handling foreign policy have since gone negative, with 56 percent disapproving in the new survey.

Nevertheless, 68 percent of Americans still think the U.S. is the world’s leading military power, and 51 percent say the country is doing too much to help solve world problems.

The survey, conducted by telephone Oct. 30 through Nov. 6 among a random national sample of 2,003 adults, was accompanied by a poll of 1,838 members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank focused on foreign policy. A plurality of council members who noted Americans’ skepticism over foreign involvement felt that was due directly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or to a general war fatigue, while 28 percent cited the U.S. economy or the costs associated with international engagement.

The poll’s findings suggest that for the general public, however, economic concerns loom larger than Iraq or Afghanistan.

When Americans are asked their priorities for foreign policy, 81 percent say protecting Americans’ jobs should be at the top, on par with protecting the country from terrorist attacks. Among members of the Council on Foreign Relations, just 29 percent called protecting domestic jobs a top goal for foreign policy.

The finding that the public prefers an inward focus is consistent with Americans’ recent focus on domestic issues. The economy rose to the top of the public’s priority list in mid-2008 — ending several years of attention to foreign affairs driven by terrorism and the Iraq war — and it remains the nation’s most pressing problem in the eyes of about half of Americans, according to Gallup.

The most frequently cited foreign affairs problem in that poll? Foreign aid and a focus overseas, cited by 2 percent of Americans. Just 1 percent named terrorism a top problem, less than 1 percent mentioned conflicts in the Middle East and no respondents mentioned North Korea or Syria.

As recently as January 2008 in Gallup polling, the war in Iraq outpaced the economy as the nation’s top problem.


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