Americans deeply divided on U.S. role in world
July 9th, 2014
10:55 AM ET

Americans deeply divided on U.S. role in world

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.
If you thought that Americans were deeply divided on the proper U.S. role in the world, think again. It is even worse than you think. But it is also more complicated.

Americans are more inward looking today on foreign policy issues than they have been at any time in the last half century. And new survey data from the Pew Research Center highlights the fissures that separate one American from another on international affairs – divisions that are far more nuanced than a simple left-right disagreement. They pit Americans who are socially conservative against pro-business conservatives and old-line liberals against younger liberals.

Charting a course on the world stage for Americans has never been easy. But in today’s deeply partisan political environment it’s a particularly challenging task.

Three-in-five Americans say the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on challenges at home, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, while just over one-third say it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs. A decade ago, about half of the American public wanted Washington to focus less on international problems.

This confirms the findings of a December Pew Research Center survey that found that about half of Americans thought the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Only one-in-five felt that way in 1964 and roughly two-in-five in 1995.

But while partisan polarization – the vast and growing gap between Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of American politics today, U.S. global involvement also divides partisans who generally agree on many domestic issues, making for some strange bedfellows.

The public on the right of the political spectrum differ markedly on foreign policy. As might be expected, “Business Conservatives,” who by their nature are generally pro-Wall Street and account for 10 percent of the public, express strong support for an active U.S. global role, with two thirds saying it is best for the country to be active in world affairs. “Steadfast Conservatives,” whose values are generally populist on social issues and make up 12 percent of the population, take the opposite view and prioritize focusing on problems at home by a 71 percent to 24 percent margin.

“Hard-Pressed Skeptics,” who are financially stressed and generally pessimistic about their lives and the future of the country, meanwhile, overwhelmingly (87 percent) want the U.S. to focus more on problems at home. “Young Outsiders,” who are conservative about the role of government but not conservative on social issues, also strongly desire a greater American focus on domestic issues.

On the left, narrow majorities of “Solid Liberals” (55 percent), and the “Next Generation Left” (54 percent), who are young and liberal on social issues, say it’s best for the country to be active in world affairs. On the other hand, the “Faith and Family Left,” who are religious and racially diverse, disagree, with 54 percent saying it would be better to concentrate on problems at home.

Still, despite the public’s reticence about global involvement, more than half say that problems in the world would be even worse without U.S. involvement. But such guarded faith in the efficacy of American interventionism masks deep partisan divisions that again defy a neat left-right divide. The extreme left and the extreme right have their doubts about an activist U.S. foreign policy, for example, while the middle generally still supports such engagement.

“Business Conservatives” express the strongest backing for U.S. efforts to solve problems around the world: Three-quarters say the global situation would be worse without U.S. intervention, a view largely shared by large majorities of the “Faith and Family Left” and “Next Generation Left.” But “Solid Liberals” have some doubts – just 54 percent think that international challenges would be harder to overcome without U.S. involvement.

Such partisan discord has policy implications. Among the American public generally, just 37 percent say using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism, while a majority says “relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.”

By greater than three-to-one, “Steadfast Conservatives” and “Business Conservatives” agree on this issue, and they are joined by about half of the “Faith and Family Left,” who also believe in using overwhelming force in the war on terrorism. But all other subdivisions of the American body politic – on both the left and in the center – say the use of force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.

There are different partisan divides on the contentious issue of what the U.S. should do about China, the world’s rising superpower. Overall, more Americans prioritize building a stronger relationship with China on economic issues (51 percent) over getting tougher with China on economic policy (41 percent). But “Steadfast Conservatives” strongly back a tougher stance against Beijing. Fewer “Business Conservatives” agree, and less than half of “Young Outsiders” want to get tougher on China. Meanwhile, over half of Americans on the left say they want a stronger economic relationship with Beijing.

For those Americans who care about international affairs, and for those outside the United States who must live with the consequences of U.S. action or non-action on the world stage, the partisan rift in American politics over foreign policy can be both troubling and confusing. And there is no evidence this is likely to change any time soon. The fact is that America’s partisan divide – and the divide within both the American left and right on international issues – is the world’s problem.​


soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    What we need to do is to try to work with other countries in order to find peace in the Middle East instead of using military force.

    July 9, 2014 at 11:07 am |
    • chocopoppy

      You don't think we have talked and negotiated and written proposal after proposal to settle grievances?

      July 9, 2014 at 11:52 am |
    • Gullible White Cattle

      Americans are not divided. The hostile elite are on side, America is on other side. The world is 93% non-White, only 7% White. But 3rd world colonizers are aggressively advancing their agenda to annihilate gullible Whites, just as China annihilates Tibet.

      Gullible Whites should reject subversive ideologies- libertarianism, feminism, liberalism- & hostile slanders of racism. Peace to all humanity, but White people must organize to advance their interests, their fertility, their homelands. Spread this message.

      July 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm |
      • banasy©

        Your assertion is erroneous, and your fear is palpable.
        You have no more privilege to exist than any other human, no matter what you Klan leader tells you. Grow up. You're part of the divide.

        July 9, 2014 at 9:38 pm |
      • You are racist

        If you divide people based on colors then you are racist. White and Black are about 5 billion (70%) and there are about 2 billion Asians.

        July 11, 2014 at 10:37 am |
      • Jeffery D Smith

        2 billion asians? I can name just two Asian countries and already have way over 2 billion. Might want to check those numbers.

        July 13, 2014 at 10:18 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      I wouldn't write that 11:07 AM post.

      July 9, 2014 at 5:05 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

        I did. Our interventionist policies do far more harm than any good.

        July 9, 2014 at 6:18 pm |
      • banasy©

        So write it under your own name, instead of stealing another's to write your hyperbole, faux Joe.

        July 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm |
  2. Allan Kinsman©

    A problem with poles are the questions which are asked. I sometimes observe the choices which are offered do not truly reflect a reasoned response. This is not a accident. The politic in America have long ago left the idea of balance and a measured response in the dust. The shape of Washington is changed from the days of certainty from world war 2. The ideals of liberty have been left as power and it's control have been a focus. As we continue to spend our way into a dark future any relevant reason misses public and political conversation.

    July 9, 2014 at 11:09 am |
    • Jeffery D Smith

      Poles, like Polish people or polls, like surveys?

      July 13, 2014 at 10:25 am |
  3. palintwit

    Just remember... you can always take the trash (Sarah Palin) out of the trailer, but you can never take the trailer out of the trash (Sarah Palin).

    July 9, 2014 at 11:17 am |
    • So true

      Her supporters think they are upper class because they have a 1970's Double Wide with only 48 payments left to go.

      July 9, 2014 at 12:18 pm |
      • palintwit

        They also have that new-fangled indoor plumbing.

        July 9, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Only a stupid, crazy fool would advocate any continuation of our stupid interventionist foreign policies which led to nothing but heartache, death and destruction over the last 60 years. This needs to change.

    July 9, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  5. The GOP Solution

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    July 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
  6. U.S.A. role in the world

    a. New foreign policy orientation: NATO. No Asia (no China, no S.& N.Korea, Vietnam, ...). b. PEACE keeping – no wars. c. Innovation, research and development.

    July 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Wrong, wrong and wrong, U.S.A. role in the world. The first step to world peace is the elimination of NATO. the unholy alliance. This organization has brought pain and suffering to millions of people as it is currently doing in Ukraine by propping up the Neo-Nazi, Petro Poroshenko.

      July 9, 2014 at 3:13 pm |
  7. Allan Kinsman©

    We would be far ahead if those in Washington who think they know would not express their opinion. So if we go bankrupt doing all this good how is that going to work for us. Why don't we steal away the rest of the American dream under the guise of another have to war. We spend ten times on our military than the next closest military and the way it is used we are creating a military of walking wounded by over using these highly skilled assets in a means they were never meant. If you eere going to do it wrong then we are on the right track.

    July 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
  8. j. von hettlingen

    The Pew results reflect the flip-side of democracy – division and opposition! Still it's more desirable than autocracy.

    July 10, 2014 at 8:59 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      I agree that the expression of conflicting viewpoints is a national treasure. However, the extreme polarization and simplistic nature of current USA citizens' and residents' views is caused by ersatz education achieved without the development of the ability to reason.

      July 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm |

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