US Role in the World
In This Chapter
say that the United States should play an active part in world affairsRead More
say the US should “stay out” of world affairsRead More
say that strong US leadership in the world is desirableRead More
say the US is as important or more important as a world leader than it was 10 years agoRead More
say the US is less respected today than it was 10 years agoRead More
see the development of China as a world power as a critical threat to US interestsRead More
of Democrats support an active international role for the United StatesRead More
of Republicans say large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US represent a critical threatRead More
Since the last Chicago Council Survey of 2012, many policymakers, politicians, and pundits have come to believe there is a new isolationist surge among Americans today. They describe a public that is turning inward and resistant to any sort of US military intervention to address the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, or Iraq. Many have pointed to public opinion polling to argue their points. Among Obama administration officials, Secretary of State John Kerry warned about “a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade” leading to “an excess of isolationism in this decade.”1 And in May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cautioned a Chicago Council audience that “America must not succumb to the temptation to turn inward.”2
Beyond the US administration, Senator John McCain has argued that the American public “has largely applauded” President Obama’s “restraint” on Syria, but that “our policies should be determined by the realities of the moment, not by today’s isolationism dictated by the past.”3 Roger Cohen has opined in The New York Times that “Obama has deferred to a growing isolationism.” And Niall Ferguson has observed that “the public mood is strongly against international intervention.” “If one looks at polls,” he continued, “we haven’t seen this lack of interest in the rest of the world since before World War II.”4
This is not a new argument. Americans had been said to be disengaging from the world in the wake of Vietnam and at the end of the Cold War. Yet, in the span of 40 years of Chicago Council Surveys, solid majorities of Americans have always supported international engagement on multiple levels. That continues to be the case today, as the results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey show.
Public continues to support an “active part” for the United States in world affairs.
In a time-honored barometer of American support for international engagement that asks respondents whether they prefer the United States to play an “active part” or “stay out” of world affairs, a solid majority of Americans (58%) continues to say that the United States should play an active part in world affairs (figure 1.1).
The highest percentage ever recorded of Americans saying the United States should take an active role was in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when 71 percent of Americans expressed this view. But by 2004—after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had begun—support for an active role fell back to previous levels. The lowest level recorded occurred in 1982, amidst a prolonged period of recession, the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis, and the deployment of a contingent of US Marines to Beirut as part of a multinational force after the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. By October 1982, just 54 percent of the public supported an active US role in world affairs.
The number preferring that the United States “stay out” of world affairs has been increasing in the post-9/11 era.
The current survey shows that 41 percent of Americans say the United States should “stay out” of world affairs—the highest percentage reported since the first Chicago Council Survey of 1974. As figure 1.1 illustrates, the gap between those who prefer the United States to take an active role and those who think the United States should “stay out” is at its narrowest point. This increased preference for “staying out” of world affairs is linked to increased criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a pronounced decrease in the public’s sense of international threat, a long-standing desire to focus on domestic concerns, and an increasing partisan divide among Republicans on this question.
As in 2012, the increase in the percentage of Americans preferring to “stay out” of world affairs coincides with a heightened desire to focus on domestic concerns in the aftermath of the US economic downturn and a lessening sense of threat. What’s new this year, however, is the growing desire among Republicans, who have traditionally expressed a more activist stance on world affairs than Democrats, to “stay out.” Indeed, more Republicans than Democrats now support “staying out” of world affairs (See Republicans than Democrats now support staying out of world affairs).
“Staying out” of world affairs is not the same as isolationism.
The increase in the number of Americans who say they would prefer to “stay out” of world affairs since 2006 might lead some to conclude that the belief that Americans want to disengage from the world is correct. But the full Chicago Council results show that this is not an accurate characterization of opinion. Few respondents who say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs express a desire to disengage.
The survey data show that majorities of those who say they want to “stay out” support many forms of international engagement, including alliances, diplomacy, trade agreements, and treaties (reviewed in chapter 3). Where direct threats to the United States are clear, they are willing to act. They recognize the value of military superiority and support deploying US troops to prevent genocide, respond to humanitarian crises, and to counter critical threats such as international terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. They are comfortable with globalization and economic aid to African countries. In fact, the inclinations of those who want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs generally reflect the overall views of the American public at large. Those who want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs are, however, even more selective than average when it comes to economic assistance, military expenditures, and the use of force (chapters 2 and 3).
Eight in ten Americans continue to support strong US leadership in the world.
A key indication that Americans want to remain globally engaged is that most Americans still see strong US leadership in world affairs as a good thing. A large majority of the public (83%) continues to say that strong US leadership in the world is desirable, consistent with views going back to 2002 (figure 1.2). This includes 37 percent who say that strong US leadership is “very” desirable. Even among those who say the United States should “stay out” of world affairs, a majority says that strong US leadership is desirable, though most say it is “somewhat” (50%) rather than “very” (19%) desirable.
Those who believe strong US leadership is desirable say it is because “the US should be a model for other countries to follow” (31%) or “because it is in our national interest” (29%). Others say it is because other countries will only “step up and do their part” if the United States exerts strong leadership (24%) or that the United States has a “moral obligation to lead because of our wealth and power” (14%).
The small percentage (16%) who say that strong US leadership is very or somewhat undesirable tend to believe so because “the United States should focus on domestic problems in the country rather than the world’s problems” (56%). Fewer believe strong US leadership is undesirable because “the United States should not interfere in other countries’ affairs” (22%) or “other countries should or can help themselves without US leadership” (16%).
The United States is still viewed as the most influential country in the world.
Along with endorsement for strong US leadership, Americans still rate the United States as the most influential country in the world, both today and 10 years from now. On a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the most influential, the public gives the United States a mean rating of 8.6, compared to 7.4 for China (figure 1.3). And in a decade, the public still expects the United States to have greater influence, even as China narrows the gap (8.2 for United States vs. 7.6 for China).
The European Union as a whole is rated just below China in terms of influence, with a 7.1 mean rating, recovering from a drop to 6.5 in 2012. Japan (6.3) and Russia (6.2) round out the second tier of countries perceived to be most influential. The next tier includes India (4.8), South Korea (4.7), and Iran (4.3).
Among those who say the United States should “stay out” of world affairs, perceptions of global influence are not much different. They give the United States an average influence rating of 8.4 and expect American influence to decline to 7.8 in the next 10 years. They rate China’s influence at 7.1 and expect its influence to grow to a mean of 7.2, still behind the United States.
In addition to rating the United States as the most influential country, two in three Americans (65%, down somewhat from 70% in 2012) continue to think that the United States “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” About a third disagree, saying that “every country is unique, and the United States is no greater than other nations” (34%, up from 29% in 2012).
Is America playing a less important role?
While Americans clearly view the United States as the world’s most influential country, a growing portion of Americans say their nation plays a less important role as a world leader compared to 10 years ago. While a bare majority of 51 percent says the United States is as important (30%) or more important (21%) as a world leader than it was 10 years ago, 48 percent say it is less important as a world leader. This is the highest level since the question was first asked by The Chicago Council in 1974 (figure 1.4).
Current public attitudes on this question are most similar to opinion in 1978 and 1982, both periods in which economic conditions had deteriorated (high rates of inflation and declining value of the dollar in 1978; deep recession in 1982). This result corroborates a November 2013 Pew Research Center finding in which 53 percent of Americans said that the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did 10 years ago, a rise of 20 percentage points since 1993 (See Spotlight 1.2). As documented in the 2012 Chicago Council Survey and again in 2014, the feeling that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the costs after a decade of involvement, combined with the slow economic recovery, appear to be contributing to these views.
Those who perceive that the United States is less important than it was 10 years ago seem to base their views on a sense of diminished American economic leverage. A substantial 45 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that China has already surpassed the United States in terms of economic power, with 27 percent thinking the United States is more powerful economically, and 26 percent thinking they are about equal. However, Americans are more likely to say that the United States is the stronger military power (54% United States, 14% China, and 32% about equal). Importantly, nearly eight in ten Americans say that economic strength (77%) is more important than military power (23%) in determining a country’s overall power and influence in the world—more than have ever said so in the past (figure 1.5).
Loss of respect in the world is an age-old American viewpoint.
While the 2014 Chicago Council Survey shows that Americans think the United States is less respected today than it was 10 years ago (61%), historical results show this is nothing new. Similar majorities have said the United States was less respected in various Chicago Council and Pew Research Center surveys over the past four decades (figure 1.6).5
Public wants cooperative, not dominant, leadership from the United States
While they support a strong leadership role for the United States, Americans seem comfortable living in a world where power is diffusing among nations and institutions. For example, Americans clearly see China as a rising power—and as previously noted, a substantial percentage of Americans mistakenly say that China’s economic power is greater than that of the United States. Still, only a minority sees the development of China as a world power as a critical threat to US interests (41%), compared to majorities in the mid-1990s (figure 1.7). A majority also believes that the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China (67%) rather than actively work to limit China’s growth (29%).
Americans also support more cooperative engagement, including through the United Nations. Six in ten agree that when dealing with international problems, the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations, even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (59%, up 7 points since 2008). And when last asked in 2010, a majority of Americans said that the United States “should do its fair share to solve international problems together with other countries” (71%), rather than withdrawing from efforts to solve global problems (19%) or being “the preeminent world leader in solving problems” (8%). These results align with a November 2013 Pew Research Center survey result showing that a solid majority of Americans favor a shared leadership role for the United States (72%) rather than a role as a single world leader or no leadership role at all.6
More Republicans than Democrats now support staying out of world affairs.
As in past surveys, men, the better-educated, and individuals from higher income households are more likely than others to favor an active part in world affairs. But for the first time in the history of the Chicago Council Survey, more self-described Democrats (64%) than Republicans (60%) support an active international role for the United States. Conversely, Republicans (40%) are now more likely than Democrats (35%) to say that the United States should stay out of world affairs. In fact, since 2006 the proportion of Republicans who say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs has doubled (from 20% to 40% today). As in previous surveys, self-described Independents are least likely to support an active role (51%) and most likely to want the United States to “stay out” (48%). Similar to the pattern among Republicans, Independents have grown substantially more likely to say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs, increasing from 30 percent in 2006 to 48 percent today (figure 1.8).
The 2014 data show that support for an active role among Republicans, like the public overall, is related to views that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were worth the costs of US involvement. However, the percentage viewing these wars as worth the costs has dropped more among Republicans than it has for Democrats. Figure 1.9 shows that in comparable questions asked in ABC News/Washington Post and Chicago Council Surveys, the percentage of Republicans who think the Afghan war was worth the cost has steadily eroded from 85 percent in 2007 to just a third today (34%). Support among Independents, too, has fallen from 55 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. Democrats have been consistently critical of the war, but have also grown more disillusioned since 2007 (from 36% in 2007 to 25% today).
There has been a similar pattern on attitudes about the Iraq war, with the gap between Republicans and Democrats narrowing significantly since 2006 (figure 1.10). Today, only four in ten Republicans say the Iraq war was worth fighting (40%), compared to seven in ten (71%) in the ABC News/Washington Post 2006 poll. At the same time, the minority of Democrats who think the war was worth fighting has grown somewhat from 14 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2014, while the proportion of Independents sharing that view has decreased (20% in 2014 vs. 30% in 2006).
Support for an active role among Republicans is also related to views that combating international terrorism is a “very important” foreign policy goal. Traditionally, more Republicans have placed a priority on combating terrorism than Democrats, and this gap widened until very recently. The Republican percentage has now dropped, with similar majorities of both Republicans and Democrats in 2014 saying that combating international terrorism is a “very important” foreign policy goal (see figure 2.6 in chapter 2).
For Democrats, support for an active role is related to positive views of globalization, which have increased among Democrats in recent years (see figure 3.8 in Chapter 3), and for support for foreign aid to other countries (which is also a key factor in support for an active role among Independents). For all partisans, support for an active role is linked to support for the use of US troops in various humanitarian scenarios and to the belief that building new alliances is an effective approach to achieving US foreign policy goals
Overall, Democrats and Republicans share similar foreign policy views.
Republicans and Democrats are generally on the same side when it comes to foreign policy, though to varying degrees or intensity. Majorities of supporters in both parties share similar concerns about top threats facing the country. They differ little in their preferred approaches toward China, Iran, and Syria (except that Democrats are more willing to accept Syrian refugees into the United States). The sharpest differences between Democrats and Republicans are on the issue of immigration and on US policy in the Middle East.7 In most cases, Republicans are more supportive of the use of force, while Democrats are more likely to favor peacekeeping missions. Independents generally tend to fall somewhere in between the views of Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats have become substantially less likely to label immigration a critical threat, while Republicans have remained concerned. In 2014 only two in ten Democrats (21%) say that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States represent a critical threat to US vital interests, while more than half of Republicans (55%) say the same. In 2002 six in ten Democrats (63%) and Republicans (58%) said that immigration was a critical threat.8
Historical results show that despite their long-standing focus on domestic concerns, Americans have consistently supported many forms of international engagement. That trend continues in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey. While the Council continues to document a substantial minority among the American public who want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs, a solid majority still supports an active role for the United States. This preference for “staying out” of world affairs is linked to increased criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a pronounced decrease in the public’s sense of international threat, a long-standing desire to focus on domestic concerns, and an increasing partisan divide among Republicans on this question. Furthermore, even those who say they want the United States to “stay out” of world affairs support many forms of international engagement, including the use of force in certain situations. While Americans think the United States is less respected today than it was 10 years ago, and a growing percentage says it is less important, they continue to believe that the United States is the most influential country in the world and support the United States playing a strong leadership role in the world.
What “staying out of world affairs” really means.
To shed more light on what Americans are signaling when they express a desire to “stay out” of world affairs, this Chicago Council Survey asked respondents to explain why they feel this way. The following themes emerged.
Give domestic problems greater priority.
Many respondents say they want the government to focus attention on domestic problems, a long-standing preference expressed in many public opinion surveys. Several respondents in the 2014 Chicago Council Survey elaborated along the lines that “our efforts and expenditures should be spent making America a stronger country;” “I’m tired of our government assisting other countries when our people here at home need help;” and “I think we need to get our country in order first.” Several criticized overstretch in terms of being “the policemen of the world.”
This focus on domestic problems has also been found in other survey questions. For example, in 2010 the Chicago Council Survey found that nine in ten Americans said it is more important for the United States to fix pressing problems at home than to address challenges to the United States from abroad (91%, up from 82% in 2008). Pew Research similarly found that slightly more in 2014 (80%) than in 2011 (76%) agreed with the statement “we should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” This current level rivaled the previous high of 78 percent in 1994.
Our involvement in the past has not been effective or appreciated.
Some believe our involvement will not make a difference in conflicts abroad. As one respondent said, “I don’t think we should keep trying to keep peace in some of these countries, as they have been fighting amongst each other for hundreds of years and will never change.” Another remarked that “we also make certain conflicts worse by getting involved in them far too much.” Others mentioned a lack of appreciation for our efforts in the past. Several put forth the idea that “other countries seem to resent Americans,” and “many countries hate us for being involved in everything.”
These views may reflect survey findings that reveal dissatisfaction with the US role in many interventions abroad, both recent and historical. Twice as many Americans see the US role in the 2003 war in Iraq as a dark moment in American history (42%) than as a proud moment (21%). A solid majority considers the US role in the Vietnam War a dark moment (58%, 12% proud moment).
Our involvement should be limited to direct threats.
Still others say that unless an issue “directly affects us” we should not get involved. For example, one respondent noted, “Well, my answer was stay out ... but if our security is at stake, then yes [take an active part], but if our domestic and abroad personnel are not in danger, then we should stay out.” Another advises, “We should only be involved if what is taking place has the potential of putting us in jeopardy now or later.”
Not a clear-cut question for several respondents.
Many who said that they would like the United States to take an active part or stay out of world affairs qualified their responses, saying that “it really depends on the situation.” In the words of one participant who selected the stay out response: “It really depends on what we are talking about. There are certain areas where the United States has gotten involved and I don’t see where it has much business.... In other areas, there could be problems with the United States just sitting back. North Korea is an example. It’s also really important to protect Israel.”
A few set limits on what is acceptable, like one individual who said the United States should take an active part “as far as education, health, and food relief, NOT in combat/war efforts.” Another who chose staying out commented, “I would entertain an argument either way. However, I do think we should honor our agreements with other countries and talk with countries that share our interests, but we need to be selective and cautious about how we do it.”
Historical Chicago Council Survey results put current polls in context.
Many commentators have used recent poll results to make the case that Americans are turning inward. Below is a comparison of several frequently cited results from Pew Research Center and NBC/Wall Street Journal (WSJ) surveys with 2014 Chicago Council Survey results. While recent survey findings tend to reinforce each other, the additional comparisons to earlier periods help to put current results in perspective.
US engagement in the world
One oft-cited poll was an April 2014 NBC/WSJ survey showing a significant increase from 14 percent in 2001 to 47 percent today in the portion of Americans who say the United States should take “a less active role” in world affairs. This is indeed a sharp increase, but the 2001 survey was completed just after the 9/11 attacks, a time of unusual public support for an activist foreign policy role. Since 9/11, in light of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public’s understanding of an “active role” has shifted considerably.
Rather than comparing results to 2001, a better comparison is with surveys conducted on behalf of the Wall Street Journal and Nikkei in May 1997 (32% less active) and March 1995 (34% less active). While the 2014 result for taking a less active role is still higher than it was during those years, it is more in line with these readings (table 1.1).
In a differently worded question, with two instead of three response options, Chicago Council Surveys also show a significant drop in the percentage of Americans who prefer an active role since 2002 (when 71% supported an active role compared to 58% today). But results from the intervening years show this has been more of a steady decline over the past decade and a return to more usual pre-2002 levels (table 1.2).
US status in the world—importance compared to 10 years ago
An October-November 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 53 percent of Americans say that the United States is less important and powerful than it was 10 years ago, a rise of 20 percentage points since 1993 (table 1.3).
Chicago Council results also show a similar rise of 22 percentage points since 1994 (from 26% to 48%). As discussed in chapter 1, comparisons to 10 years ago undoubtedly prompt a sense of economic decline, especially after the Great Recession of 2008. Attitudes today are most similar to opinion in 1978 and 1982, both periods in which the United States was having economic difficulties (table 1.4).
US status in the world—loss of respect
Several articles have pointed to the 2013 Pew Research Center finding that 70 percent of Americans said the United States is less respected “compared to the past.” But trends show that every year this question was asked, majorities have felt the United States had lost respect (table 1.5). The 2013 level was more negative than those reported after the election of President Obama in 2012 and 2009 (56% each), but in line with results from 2008 (71%), 2006 (65%), 2005 (66%), and 2004 (67%).
Chicago Council results in 2014 also find a majority saying the United States is less respected today than it was 10 years ago, similar to readings in 1982 (65%), 1978 (56%), and 1974 (62%). It seems that whenever this question is posed, the American public has some sense of a more golden age when the United States commanded worldwide respect (table 1.6).
Long-standing desire to focus on problems at home
Pew Research Center found that slightly more in 2013 (80%) than in 2011 (76%) agreed with the statement: “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” This current level rivaled the previous high of 78 percent in 1995, but it is not far from 2011 and 2009 levels either (table 1.7), and underscores a long-running preference to focus on domestic concerns.
The Chicago Council did not ask a variant of this question in 2014, but in open-ended, qualitative comments on why respondents say they want to “stay out” of world affairs, respondents make it clear that they want to focus government attention on domestic problems (see Spotlight 1.1). Chicago Council Surveys over the past 40 years show that Americans have long placed a higher priority on domestic problems compared to international problems. In 2010 the Chicago Council Survey found that nine in ten Americans said it is more important to “fix pressing problems at home” than to “address challenges abroad” (91%, up from 82% in 2008) (table 1.8).
In addition, protecting the jobs of American workers has been among the top foreign policy goals considered “very important” in all 14 surveys since 1974, placing first in no less than eight polls—higher than preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and combating international terrorism. Similarly, Americans have consistently supported the expansion of domestic federal government programs such as education, Social Security, and health care over defense spending or other international programs.
Chicago Council Surveys from 1978 to 2002 asked the public to cite the biggest problems facing the country. The percentage of responses related to foreign policy was tracked against domestic problems. Foreign policy problems only reached 26 percent of total problems cited in the six surveys before 2002. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the percentage bounced up to 41 percent, comparatively high, yet still less than domestic concerns.
This domestic focus, however, has not been accompanied by a desire to disengage internationally . In fact, Americans have a long-standing and clear commitment to international engagement, documented in Chicago Council Surveys since 1974 and in other surveys prior to that by NORC at the University of Chicago.
Minding its own business
Pew’s 2013 survey also reported the highest percentage yet (52%) of Americans who agreed that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best that they can.” Reports have highlighted the steep rise from 1964 Gallup results, when only 20 percent agreed with this same statement. While indeed higher than past results, the 2013 percentage is not that much of a jump from 2011 and 2009 levels (table 1.9).
Respondents may focus on the latter half of this question, in terms of letting other countries take care of themselves. Chicago Council Survey results have long validated this sentiment. In the 2014 survey, few Americans consider “defending US allies’ security” (38%), “promoting human rights abroad” (32%), “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (25%), or “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (17%) “very important” goals. In surveys since 1974, these items have ranked at the bottom of US foreign policy priorities.
- John Kerry, Commencement Address at Yale University, New Haven, CT, May 18, 2014, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2014/05/19/full-text-of-john-kerrys-speech-at-yale-commencement/.
- Chuck Hagel, “US Secretary of Defense on Priorities for the 21st Century,” Address to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago, May 6, 2014, http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/event/us-secretary-defense-priorities-21st-century.
- John McCain, “Remarks on Mass Atrocities in Syria as World Commemorates Anniversary of Rwandan Genocide,” Address to the US Senate, Washington, DC, April 10, 2014, http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2014/4/remarks-by-senator-john-mccain-on-mass-atrocities-in-syria-as-world-commemorates-anniversary-of-rwandan-genocide.html.
- Niall Ferguson, “A new grand strategy for America,” Stanford Daily, May 28, 2014, http://www.stanforddaily.com/2014/05/28/qa-2/
- See Spotlight 1.2 and “America’s Place in the World 2013,” PewResearch Center, December 2013, http://www.people-press.org/2013/12/03/section-1-americas-global-role/.
- Seven in ten have consistently held this view since 1997 in Pew Research Center surveys. In 2013, 72 percent supported a shared role for the United States (51% said the United States should be “as active as others” and 20 percent said it should be the “most active”). Just 12 percent supported the United States being the single world leader, and another 12 percent preferred no leadership role. See “America’s Place in the World 2013,” Pew Research Center, December 2013, http://www.people-press.org/2013/12/03/section-1-americas-global-role/.
- Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura, “Americans Prefer Neutrality in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, August 7, 2014, http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/blog-entry/americans-prefer-neutrality-israeli-palestinian-conflict.
- The Chicago Council will explore Americans’ views on immigration in more detail in a forthcoming report.