Have Americans turned inward?
September 7th, 2012
10:43 AM ET

Have Americans turned inward?

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is the director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Full survey results are available here. The views expressed are his own.

Foreign policy is the forgotten stepchild of the 2012 U.S. presidential election. At a time when the United States is engaged in the longest war in its history in Afghanistan, when in the eyes of foreigners U.S. stature as the hegemonic power is in question, and when a euro crisis could derail the American economy’s tenuous recovery from the Great Recession, voters choosing their next president are turning inward, preoccupied with domestic affairs to an extent unprecedented in recent times. Nevertheless, when the national security of the United States is seen as threatened by Iran or terrorism, voters remain aggressively internationalist.

Mitt Romney, in his speech accepting the Republican presidential candidacy, failed to mention the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the civil war in Syria or the legacy of Iraq. NATO, the principle U.S. security alliance, was ignored. There was scant reference to China. And the single mention of Russia was intended to show that Romney would be tougher than president Barack Obama in dealing with Moscow.

Obama devoted more time to foreign policy in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, reminding voters that he ended the war in Iraq, has set a withdrawal date for Afghanistan, has been tough with China and would not restart the Cold War with Russia. But he too made no mention of Syria or NATO.

Romney’s downplaying of foreign policy appears more in line with voter concerns this election season.  Roughly eight-in-ten (83 percent) Americans now believe that the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home, according to an April Pew Research Center survey. Such isolationist sentiment is up 10 percentage points since 2002. And, for the first time, it is higher among Republicans (86 percent) than among Democrats (80 percent). But, in a sign of the partisan nature of this shift, while Democratic isolationism has fallen seven points in the last five years, it has risen 19 points among the GOP.

Going into the 2012 presidential election campaign, just 9 percent of Americans said they thought the president should focus on foreign policy concerns, 81 percent said he should preoccupy himself with domestic issues. Just five years ago, in 2007, 40 percent of the public put international issues at the top of their presidential agenda.

This domestic preoccupation is reflected in voters’ attitudes toward specific items on the next president’s international agenda.

Six in ten Americans think the president should remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to an Pew Research Center survey in April. This includes 66 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents. Republicans are split – 48 percent supported removal and 45 percent backed keeping the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, possibly one reason Romney failed to mention the war in his acceptance speech.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, meanwhile, say the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, according to a Pew Research Center survey in March. And when asked more specific questions by CNN in mid-August, they opposed sending ground troops into Syria and were divided about establishing a no-fly zone or supplying Syrian rebels with arms. In contrast, in 2006, roughly half of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said America should do something about the ethnic genocide in Darfur.

However, there is no such reticence to engage internationally and to use force when U.S. national security is deemed to be at stake.

When Romney said in his acceptance speech that “every American is less secure today because [Obama] has failed to slow Iran's nuclear threat,” he was touching a nerve he knew was sensitive.

About nine in ten Americans oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, according to a 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey. And, of those, 63 percent support the use of military force, if necessary, to deny Tehran a nuclear arsenal.

Similarly, three quarters of Americans support U.S.-led efforts to combat terrorism around the world. And 62 percent approve of the U.S. conducting drone missile strikes to target extremists in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. This includes a majority (58 percent) of Democrats and nearly three-quarters of Republicans.

So, as Americans head to the polls this November, they are wary of new entangling foreign engagements. But such domestic preoccupation is not the same as passivity. Americans remain ready to use force in defense of U.S. interests.


soundoff (153 Responses)
  1. Hoo Boy

    Never in history have we had such a symbiotic relationship with other countries pertaining to how they affect our
    economy. Looking out is entwined with looking in. This article is a gross generalization and myopic.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  2. NIN

    Hey Liberals,

    If Mitt is elected and the war in Afg. ends with him in office (per the time table laid out by Obama) are you going to give Mitt the credit for ending the war, Like you claim credit for Obama for ending the war in Iraq per GWB's time table?

    September 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • Rinse And repeat

      If Mitt is elected and the war in Afg. ends with him in office

      I wouldnt worry about that.
      If Mittens gets in the white house, you will find us in
      Syria and Iran, regardless of Afganistan.

      Should we give Mittens a pat on the back from pulling out of Afganistan
      when we find ourselves with 2 new wars ?

      He wont make it to the white house anyway.
      It would take a miracle, or some major vote rigging.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  3. dd

    Obama's polarizing politics threatens civil war in the US. Obama has destroyed the poor and the middle class. NO ONE ELSE. You don't threaten job creators – businesses – unless you want them to do something. The job creators have decided.
    Obama hates employers. Don't hire until the moron is out of office. Every business in the US knows that. You might not like it. But the fact remains. Employers will not begin hiring until Obama is gone. The poor and the middle class need to make a decision. Do they want to be more poor and less middle class or do they want jobs. They can march on Washington any day they want and demand Obama resign. Or they can vote Democrat and watch their kids starve.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Rinse And repeat

      Obama hates Smurfs.

      Today president Obama ordered the Military to attack the Smurf Village,
      claiming papa Smurf was a terrorist.

      All the Smurfberries have been confiscated as WMD.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Fearless Freep

      You are a bigger threat to this country than Obama could ever be.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • russ

      would you feel better if Obama were white?

      September 7, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • Boo

      Keep drinking the right wing koolaid....and by all means....vote against your interests....if you think after 8 years of failures in the Bush administration can be "fixed" quickly then I suggest you haul your sorry a*** to Lourdes and pray for a miracle.

      September 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
    • .

      @ russ: Jimmy Carter was white. I disagreed with his politics, too.

      You'll lose every argument if all you do is make it about race.

      September 8, 2012 at 6:49 am | Reply
  4. davecu

    "Twas ever thus:
    Charity begins at home.

    If I have a surplus you can have SOME but if I'm not filled you're not getting ANY!

    What national security?
    People traipse across our borders with impunity because they know Barry needs the votes.
    Not all are guest workers.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  5. Grim

    The reason most Americans are turning inward is because most of the money spent on helping/developing/defending these other countries are bleeding us dry, that money should be spent here.
    If you were helping someone learn how to fish and you broke your leg you would stay home until you were better, then go help. The US needs to heal before it can help.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  6. Jokesterer

    It's not that we want to meddle in other countries affairs or that we need to defend our interests. It's just that it's so much fun to drop bombs on people! We can't get enough of it. What better way to take our minds off of our problems than dropping some bombs on poor people around the world.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  7. profart

    I think we HSOULD be worried about our own house first. When cutting budgets, cut the aid packages to other countries first, and take that money to invest in our own citizens and infrastructure. What is left can then be given out to others.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • .

      I got a better idea. Cut aid to countries that hate us and use the money to pay down our children's debt.

      September 8, 2012 at 6:47 am | Reply
  8. ugg

    Left wing....Right wing.... you are bad.......no, you are bad...... Sounds like my daughters daycare. Both sides are guilty and we all know it. We were once all proud Americans. Now we stand divided. "We the people"......"No, We the people" Tastes great!.....Less filling! We have been conquered by a beer commercial tactic. Maybe......Just maybe if we worked together, we could solve some of these problems and get our house in order.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  9. xirume

    Democrats are preoccupied with losing their jobs to other countries and their hard-earned houses to corrupt banks. Republicans are obsessed about stopping people they've never met from having abortions and are preoccupied with inserting "intelligent design' in school textbooks. That's the problem folks... until we eject these retrogrades from public life, down is the only way for us. They are too distracted pushing their dogma down the nation's throat to be effective leaders at all.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  10. pozin

    There are a lot of us that are tired of fighting the world's battles. The whole world not just the USA benefits when we strong arm tyrants into behaving. The world benefits from the relative peace so if we are going to act like a security firm let's at least get paid like one. For those people indicating we cause a lot of the violence I would ask you to honestly ask the question how peaceful things would be if the USA was not in the front line.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  11. Walter

    Not only are we turning inward when it comes to foreign policy, we're turning inward with regards to domestic policy. People are realizing they need to look out for themselves, the nanny government days are coming to a close.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  12. Dan, TX

    Romney's plans for new tech jobs: We must reform America’s legal immigration system to attract and retain the best and the brightest, and equip more Americans with the skills to succeed. I will raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in relevant fields, and restructure government retraining programs to empower individual workers and welcome private sector participation.

    He's right, we need to bring in smart people from other countries and loser Americans can get jobs mowing their lawns.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  13. Paul

    I still wonder why Obama claims he ended the Iraq war. We left Iraq on the timetable that was created under Bush. Obama tried to get Iraq to let us stay longer in Iraq, but that was rejected. So, his failure is somehow to his credit?

    September 7, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      Bush had a "Horizon." You know, one of those things you walk towards all your life than you never get any closer to? Obama set a date.

      September 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • Dan, TX

      Paul I agree Obama should not get the credit for planning to get out of Iraq, but he should get credit for actually following through, particularly since John McCain stated clearly that he would not have withdrawn. Thus, if McCain had won, it is likely we would still be in Iraq. In addition for not getting credit for planning to get out of Iraq, Obama should get the credit for the for the weak economy that also was a result of the Bush administration.

      September 7, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
      • Dan, TX

        Garbled there – ...Obama should not get the blame for the weak economy given to him by the Bush administration.

        September 7, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  14. The Jackdaw

    We need to globalize inovation and progress and stop ignorance, fear and hate. I have a blue pill that solves all of that at once....

    September 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • .

      Take two of them and call Barack Obama in the morning.

      September 8, 2012 at 6:46 am | Reply
  15. Realist

    Bush's folly in Iraq has ruined our economy more than any other factor.

    September 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  16. Chris

    At some point it boils down to cost. It's costing us too much money and too many American lives to run all over the Middle East (and now Africa) trying to save people who have no respect for our way of life. When it gets down to it, we're also spending too much money on social services such as lifetime benefits for welfare (Obama has nearly doubled money to his favorite voters), public housing (have you seen how nice the newer buildings have become?), Obamacare (which again, is for his favorite voters who will pay nothing), and food stamps (which are all too often sold for cash so people can buy drugs or pay their boyfriends. Have you looked at how much money is paid to workers in social welfare programs are earning? It's mostly clerical work and yet they are earning money that PHD's would be proud of. Americans no longer want to support these types of actions/programs.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      > Americans no longer want to support these types of actions/programs

      You've spoken to every American? Where's your poll data?

      September 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  17. mikem

    If we are indeed turning inward, why all the hoopla with both parties about Israel. Why does a country on the other side of the world, about the size of New Jersey, has such importance on our lives? Is it the lobby?

    September 7, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  18. mikem

    In many ways Mexico is attacking us. They may as well be sending troops. Yet Bush, and now Obama, send troops to fight terrorism. Meanwhile, we are being take over by illegals.

    September 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  19. POD

    If you don't take care of your own business.....you are in no position to take care of someone else's business

    September 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  20. ffc

    where are th jobs?

    September 7, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • .

      You didn't build that. Someone else did it for you.

      September 8, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
  21. pbernasc

    GOP: inward self inflicting economic crusaders that lead to boom and bust losing economic cycles and threatening the roots of democracy
    DEM: progressive forward thinking and leading to economic progress with stable predictable democracy reinforcing growth

    Chose wisely or die.

    September 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  22. .

    Have Americans turned inward? No. We just reelected Jimmy Carter.

    But we'll fix that problem in November.

    You betcha!

    September 8, 2012 at 6:45 am | Reply
  23. deniz boro

    Isn't that the same in all island people? Something like Galapagos. Isolated creatures do tend to develop differently. And İn their daily life in their cosy islands they may "dislike" foreigners. This is called xenaphobia for some time in psycology. Xenaphobia may reach over the border and become a "UFO watching event" or well..." being kidnapped by extracelestials".
    European or Asian people are as far remote from the common Americans as the E.T. Well, other than those who have migrated into USA ages ago. I do not believe that tha common American people have a sense of the rest of the world. Or care about it.
    Unlike EuroAsia their lives have ever been secluded. Where Europe did suffer and mastered the ways of democracy, USA had the evolution of a sepereate island. It will take the common Americans sometime to get accustomed to a global world.
    Sept 11 was a inhuman and shocking reminder that there are other people out there, beyond the island.

    September 8, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  24. worldunitynetwork

    Everybody is right or left and wrong
    Outside is a burden, only US, only me
    The world by the way, it's one
    Everything, everyone is connected
    It does not matter who is wrong or wrong
    It only matters who you are connected

    September 9, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
  25. advocate

    You mean dropping superficial knowledge in pursuit of a greater existence? Dropping age-old concepts that don't function in a modern world? Hahaha, my friend, we are not but Americans in a world of chaos and no direction.

    Welcome to being a human run by chemical processes. Maybe the reason we're so on edge is because this era of war brings everything up to your face. The pictures say it all. If watching the chronological frame of pictures in Syria from the tank blast doesn't stir your emotions... You aren't getting the point. Imagine if war was in your front yard, like so many Americans today have to deal with on the various streets in well populated cities. Race is definitely a factor in these neighborhoods. :) Just ask the local crack dealer on the street what areas to avoid. Gangs are derived from the violence and poverty these individuals saw and had to deal with on a regular basis. We are all in a state of misunderstanding and mistrust. We have lived for so long thinking we have to have someone to hate. Someone to vent our human anger at and attempt some sort of social prowess over the rest of everyone. Whether that be material or over the internet or gossip at a public setting. We do this simply because we are human. Until we realize we're all basically on the same page and that superficial things like "age-old concepts based on false truths" are nothing but barriers to the human mind. We can't go anywhere.. but down.

    Wait, a thought. Why don't we just assume that he's right and she's right and whatever you want to believe is your lot in life. Another thought.. Why do I have to hate you because you're a Republican, or a Democrat, or Muslim? Or a Jew? Or a Crip? Or a Blood? Or MS-13? Or Mexican Mafia? It makes no sense to the gangsters or anyone else really. We just do work because we must.

    If there is anything to learn from this transition to the internet age its that if you lie, you will be uncovered. If you attempt to brigade yourself as a criminal, you will be caught. And if you attempt to overthrow your government, please have a backup plan that doesn't involve a religious organization. And please humanity can we find a better chemical process for transportation that doesn't involve screwing the place we reside on or those living on it?

    September 12, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
  26. 100 % ETHIO

    Awwuu! Awwuu!! Awwuu!!! Awwuu!!!! Awwuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!....

    You all barking-UP (united pets), on wrong tree.

    If you serve America, Militarily, you should learn responsibility, respect and civility.

    Some of your discussions are aimed to disrespect the American Greatest Armies, who fought day and night for you, me and for next generations of the World.

    You know, it is so simple, to be behind the key-boards and to type all kinds of gossips. But, it takes a real heart and mind, carrying 75 KG Militarily equipments and being in Iraq, Afghanistan,...and other strange places, due to a call to serve.

    Please, respect the American Armies. They know, what we don't know.

    September 17, 2012 at 4:39 am | Reply
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