Americans see declining U.S. prestige
December 4th, 2013
09:46 AM ET

Americans see declining U.S. prestige

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

The debate over America’s alleged decline was one of the subtexts of policy debates during last year’s U.S. presidential election, and it remains a recurring theme in the partisan punditry of foreign policy scholars today. But at a time when the Obama administration has been focusing on domestic challenges like the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many foreign policy experts have turned bearish on the United States. And the American public appears to agree – U.S. global power and prestige are in decline.

Public support for U.S. global engagement was already near an historic low earlier this year, and it has declined further still. The public thinks that the United States does too much to try to solve the world’s problems, and increasing percentages want the U.S. to “mind its own business internationally” and pay more attention to problems at  home.

Indeed, for the first time in surveys dating back 40 years, a majority of Americans say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, according to the latest Pew poll “America’s Place in the World,” a quadrennial survey of foreign policy attitudes conducted in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations. The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled – from just 20 percent – since 2004.

An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally – fully 70 percent say the United States is less respected than in the past, almost identical to the level reached late in former President George W. Bush’s second term. The public’s sense that the United States has lost respect is up 15 percentage points since early 2012.

Meanwhile, the public’s skepticism about U.S. international engagement – evident in “America’s Place in the World” surveys four and eight years ago – has increased. Currently, just more than half of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38 percent disagree with the statement, the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. “minding its own business” in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.

After the recent U.S. confrontation with Syria over its chemical weapons program, the NATO involvement in the Libyan civil war and lengthy U.S. military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, about half of Americans say the United States does too much in helping solve world problems.  When those who say the U.S. does “too much” internationally are asked to  describe in their own words why they feel this way, nearly half (47 percent) say  problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.

So what is behind the shift? Partisanship seems to be a major factor in the public’s evolving view of U.S. global power. Nearly  three-quarters of Republicans say the United States plays a less  important and powerful role than it did 10 years ago, up from 50 percent four years  ago and just 8 percent in July 2004.

For political independents, the percentage who view the United States as less powerful has also grown, from about a quarter in 2004 to 55 percent today, while Democrats’ perceptions have changed little over this period; in the current survey one third say the U.S. is less powerful today than it was a decade ago.

Interestingly, partisan differences are not quite as pronounced in opinions about whether the United States is respected internationally. Majorities of Republicans (80 percent), independents (74 percent) and Democrats (56 percent) view the United States as less respected by other nations than in the past. And there is more partisan agreement that the United States should be less active internationally. Just over half of independents and Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats say the United States should mind its own business internationally. In 2002, following the September 11 attacks, about a quarter of independents and Republicans, and 40 percent of Democrats wanted the United States to mind its own business internationally.

Meanwhile, foreign policy experts are also negative about the ongoing U.S. role in the world. A companion survey of members of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy, found that they see the U.S. as a less important and powerful world leader – 62 percent express this view, compared with 44 percent in 2009 and 25 percent in early September 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks.

All this suggests that the debate over the United States’ supposed decline is likely to continue on editorial pages and political talk shows – it seems to be an irresistibly fascinating topic for Americans. But the reality is that the American public also seems to have already made up its mind.

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Topics: United States

soundoff (120 Responses)
  1. Chin Up

    I believe you are quite correct here James. Bush did absolutely no favours for the world view of America. As a Brit living in Australia I've heard many views of Americans over the past 20 years. The Regan years were fearing and respecting America, Clinton brought respect and admiration (with some secretary troubles!), Bush – well, may take America some time to recover from that, but Obama is doing a great job of that. He mends bridges, is admired on the world stage, appears to be looking after the poor with healthcare, and doesn't appear arrogant. Maybe America is back on the up. Personally, I hope it is, because if you are British, European or Australian, it certainly feels like a safer world with America on your side to help out with a rising china and a Russia with oil and gas making it wealthier. Stop beating yourselves up – so long as you don't repeat the Bush era mistakes we respect and admire you, AND we want you on our side!

    December 15, 2013 at 12:35 am | Reply
    • ahh

      Screw you Bush was a better President than Obama Australia treats Muslims like dirt

      December 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Reply
      • sparks2000

        saying Bush was a better president than Obama isn't saying much-–both have taken this country into the toilet--we need a courtesy flush because it is really starting to stink in here

        December 16, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Janise

      Cheers to you for a respectful opinion void of childish name calling and finger pointing. Every country has its downturns and this time it's our turn. There are still plenty of intelligent and willing people in America to pull us back up and continue to recover from Bush. Ignore ahh up there, he's just one of many bigots hiding behind a keyboard. Unfortunately he's also a symptom of another issue we have yet to conquer, but are slowly improving.

      December 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
    • Bruno

      The Jigs up, kiddies!

      December 19, 2013 at 7:59 am | Reply
  2. Danny

    £18trillion in debt and your government peddles in fear and paranoia. The rest of teh wolrd now pitys you as you have big brother watchign your every move and trying to spy on the rest fo the world. Unless you Americans learn to live without sharing the rest of the world along with a shred ethics value, you will continue to decline, living in za country built on revange and dropping bombs (half the time because of your own crimes overeseas) is no way to live in a global community! hitler tried and look where he is!

    December 16, 2013 at 8:39 am | Reply
  3. sparks2000

    When the US gov't starts wars over oil,kills innocent civilians,fights to defend drug fields in Afghanistan and starts revolts in country's like Egypt,is it any wonder that not only the world but many americans are skeptical?

    December 16, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  4. Rick McDaniel

    You might call that an understatement.

    Obama has made the U.S. look like an imbecile.

    December 16, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
    • Yankee Mike Bravo

      You're right. Two of Obama's international blunders are: (1) his continuing Bush's policy of spying on everyone and indeed expanding this policy and (2) his continuing Bush's policy of the use of drone-launched assassinations and indeed expanding this policy.

      Earth to Obama: If Bush started a policy, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a bad policy.

      December 20, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  5. markjuliansmith

    Another Neville Chamberlain Obama initiative. "Diplomacy at any cost." What happens?

    "Obama defends Iran nuclear deal"

    "China establishes an air defence zone over the East China Sea."

    "European countries bordering Russia's territory of Kaliningrad say they are worried at reports that Moscow has put nuclear-capable missiles there."

    Anyone who seriously believes the consequence of Obama's cultural relativist stance in convincing the rest of the world the US will not act with prejudiced to nullify tyranny be it cultural or a nation state is not going to lead in the end to WWIII simply has never picked up even the most rudimentary history text.

    December 16, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • desert voice

      The emplacement of Iskander missiles, having the 250 mile range is troubling to me. It needs to be countered immediately by a backbohe action by a backbone leader! Euroope can protect itself by means of an Iron Dome of a similar range. The U.S. should impose such a restriction on Russia, for threatening Poland!

      December 21, 2013 at 7:25 am | Reply
  6. Bill S.

    Great. Maybe foreigners won't ask us for money and free protection whenever trouble starts.

    December 17, 2013 at 2:13 am | Reply
  7. joe d

    bottom line..Israel, AIPAC and AIPAC owned congress have done more damage to the U.S. then all muslim terrorists combined..parasitic leaches to the core

    December 19, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
  8. joe d

    the beginning of Israel was the end to the U.S...great job israeli/jews, AIPAC.
    Will this be the 110 country that these parasites will be kicked out of? this is their last frontier

    December 19, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • rick

      Totally agree.

      The cost of US support for Israel has finally caught up.

      The cost of wars to defeat Israel’s enemies, the enmity of the entire Arab and Muslim population of the planet, distrust of traditional allies, the cost of the NSA, etc.

      Sponsoring the creation of Israel in 1948 was the biggest mistake the US ever made.

      The US congress has members who are more concerned with Israel’s interests than America's interests so I don’t think this will change any time soon. Americans can expect a continuing downward spiral for a long time yet.

      December 19, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  9. sparks2000

    the people of the USA are ok-–it's the gov't everyone hates-–

    December 19, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  10. max

    with a president with no backbone that has been bi tch-slapped by Putin, Assad , Afghan president, Egypt , Iran and .... do you expect respect?????!!!!!

    December 20, 2013 at 2:37 am | Reply
    • Yankee Mike Bravo

      Putin's bi+ch slap = adopting Kerry's proposal
      Assad's bi+ch slap = agreeing to dispose of his chemical weapons
      Afghan's bi+ch slap = agreeing to our proposed 2014 withdrawal date
      Egypt's bi+ch slap = losing military aid
      Iran's bi+ch slap = agreeing to international nuclear inspections

      GOP's suggested alternatives = 0

      December 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  11. johnny

    I dont know about the rest of the world, but in Asia USA is nowadays being pooh pooh for reasons like: shocking gun ownership laws, acquittal of confirmed white murderer Zimmerman, Congress circus shows, racist all white Tea Party's influence on American politics, the rodeos in Wall Street ... but America is forgiven by Asia – because they love Pres Obama.

    December 20, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  12. johnny

    ..... and of course who can forget this: Fed's ridiculous rescue that would never resolve USA serious US$17 trillion national debt problem : Quantiative Easing (printing more intrinsicly valueless American dollar) to kick the can down the road Wall Street.

    December 20, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Reply
  13. desert voice

    The sense of prestige is in leader's genes. How good it is in the case of President Obama, is everybody"s guess.

    December 21, 2013 at 6:57 am | Reply
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