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.