The Obama Decline

A new Pew poll gives neo-isolationists hope leadership can turn U.S. sentiment around.

By + More

This month the Pew Research Center published its findings on a survey conducted in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations entitled "America's Place in the World 2013." The findings are causing consternation in internationalist circles and some odes of joy among neo-isolationists.

Primarily the attention the media has paid to this survey centers around the findings of America's role in the world. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed believe that the United States plays a less powerful and important role in the world than it did a decade ago. This is the first time a majority has believed this since this question has been asked in 1964. Seventy percent believe the United States is less respected. Neo-isolationists will feel vindicated with the reported 52 percent of Americans desiring Americans to "mind its own business internationally." Republicans will see vindication in the area of President Obama's foreign policy: In almost all variables, Obama's ratings are below 50 percent approval in foreign policy and national security. He received especially low marks in general foreign policy, his handling of Syria, Iran, China, Afghanistan and immigration. The survey clearly shows most Americans support both shared leadership with our allies and working with the United Nations, and continue to see the threat from Islamic extremism and North Korea as tangible. The public continues to worry about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and how foreign policy affects jobs. However, they are clearly favorable to international trade and economic engagement. Europe has re-emerged in the public mind as a place for great interest, opportunity, and concern. One of the great paradoxes with the public's belief is the perception that America is playing a less influential role coupled with the clear desire (56 percent) that America remain the sole military superpower.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

There are three great disturbing trends coming from this report: The first is the rising American reluctance for greater worldwide involvement. Many analysts have concentrated on the 42 percent who cite "war fatigue" and the 28 percent who name the economic cost of involvement. This is not the real story. It is quite probable that the majority of the public could be brought back to supporting the reasons for involvement, (including military intervention and support) given real leadership from Washington. Pundits prior to this report were creating data out of whole cloth stating that at least two-thirds of the public had both war fatigue and were unwilling to bear the economic cost. Strike one for the pundit class and mainstream media. The second major issue is Obama's dismal track record on leadership and foreign affairs. This is a symbiotic relationship to the first problem. His inability to handle the great issues of his tenure in office like Syria, Iran and the role of the American military (to name a few) is only dwarfed by the simple lack of grand strategy and leadership.

From day one the administration has seemed uninterested in leading and more interested in a dubious domestic agenda and "managing American international decline" rather than establishing America's position for the 21st century. His negativity in foreign affairs and national security has influenced the electorate in a damaging self-fulfilling prophecy of this administration's creation. The worst variable to be reported is the American public's view of democracy promotion – support for it is down from 29 percent in 2001 and the current figure of 18 percent is disheartening. It is made exponentially worse knowing that when the Bush administration made this the key priority for American national security the nation began to understand both the need and complexity of this issue. The current administration took previous American commitments to eradicate tyranny and genocide and placed them in a black hole. They could have championed democratic forces in Syria, Libya and Iran, but in every single case, failed to do so. They let the Arab Spring become the Arab Chaos because to do otherwise would have meant clear leadership and thus the taking of responsibility. They have let the issue of democracy in Iraq wither and the issue of basic stability in Afghanistan deteriorate. The president has seen fit to try to reduce America's geopolitical impact, and attempt to stress "leading from behind." Massive defense cuts have placed American primacy in danger. The Obama administration has failed to understand that one needs to calculate military threats based on capability, not intentions. There has been nothing but quietude over the human rights atrocities in North Korea, Sudan, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, Tibet, Iran and Syria.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

And this is the strike three of the report. If the White House refuses to lead, the public will no longer see the importance of our country. This is the real story behind the report; it is a climate of decline, pessimism and lack of vision that has begun to erode the American people's idealism and vision. The need to recapture this is the greatest vital and national interest to the nation and the people. The world cannot wait for the natural good character of the American people to organically overcome the depressing lack of enthusiasm from Washington. Those struggling for the values America has always stood for cannot bide their time in refugee centers, concentration camps or under a hail of gunfire. If the Pew report demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that Americans clearly understand the dangers and opportunities of the world; they only need the right leaders to tap into their natural inclination and spirit.

Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

  • Read Mark Eades: Liu Xiaobo, China's Nelson Mandela, Is Still in Jail
  • Read Mackenzie Eaglen: The Murray-Ryan Budget Deal Is Not All Good News for the Pentagon
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad