World Watch: U.S. public looking homeward
Smarting from the costly U.S. experience in Iraq, Americans are growing more cautious in their views on foreign policy and more preoccupied with being protected from overseas threats, reports an extensive poll of attitudes of the public and opinion leaders released today by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Internationalist sentiments are on the decline, and the study found a "spike in isolationist sentiment," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. The quadrennial survey found that 42 percent of Americans believe the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own."
Among both opinion leaders and the public, interest in or support for activist goals in foreign policy is declining. That includes some goals taken up by the Bush administration: promoting democracy in other countries and ensuring that the United States is the "first among equals" when it acts overseas. Favorable opinions of the United Nations have continued to drop, with only 48 percent expressing a positive opinion compared with 77 percent four years ago.
Most opinion leaders (ranging from religious and academic leaders to foreign-affairs specialists, the military, and the media) have come to believe that Washington will fail in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq. However, a majority of the public (56 percent) believes it will succeed. Iraq is seen by both the general public and by opinion leaders as by far the leading cause of global discontent with America.
Opinions of President Bush have also glided downward, and one surprise was that only 40 percent of military personnel surveyed gave the president a favorable job approval rating.
In terms of public perception, China has also gained ground as a result of the Iraq war and concern over terrorism. Four years ago, the survey showed China, with its growing power, being perceived as the greatest danger facing the United States. Now, North Korea and Iran are mentioned as threats by opinion leaders about as frequently as China. The public impression of China seems to be softening: A plurality (45 percent) view China as a "serious problem" but not an adversary.
The results suggest a public focused on terrorism and weapons proliferation but not on wider issues of international affairs, a trend that had been widely anticipated after 9/11. "September 11 is losing its power to shape views on foreign policy," said Lee Feinstein, deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Activism looks much less appealing ... . The costs of Iraq are dear, and the public doesn't want to pay it."
Nor does Bush's second-term foreign-policy theme of advancing democracy, particularly in the Arab world, appear to draw significant interest. The public ranks low the very cause that Bush has described as central to transforming the Middle East and removing a major, underlying cause of terrorism.
"Pushing democracy promotion as the linchpin of policy," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "won't replace" weapons of mass destruction as a focal point for the American public.
An attitude that comes through the many polling questions clearly is the public's priority of getting protection from overseas threatsa constant and apparently winning theme of Bush and Vice President Cheney. Revelations about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and allegations of mistreatment of prisoners at the U.S. base at Guantanamo in Cuba notwithstanding, the public seems to be staying preoccupied with the threat. Asked whether the torture of terrorist suspects is justified, only 32 percent of the general public said "never."
Fifteen said "often," 31 percent said "sometimes," and 17 percent said "rarely." And by 48 percent to 34 percent, the public is more worried about having "not enough protection" against terrorism than about "restricting liberties."
Civil libertarians and internationalists probably will not find much to like in this survey.