The Debate

Why Are Americans Suddenly Pessimistic About the Future of US Power?

Pew Research findings show that isolationism reaches new highs as perceptions of US power reach new lows.

Ankit Panda
Why Are Americans Suddenly Pessimistic About the Future of US Power?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

new poll conducted by Pew Research indicates that the American public has an increasingly isolationist outlook with regards to foreign policy. The results are from the “America’s Place in the World” survey of foreign policy attitudes among the American public, which is a joint effort between Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Pew measures isolationist attitudes by asking its poll respondents to determine whether they agree that the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Affirmative responses are nearing the highs set in the 1930s. 52 percent of Americans as per the Pew poll believe the United States ought to “mind its own business internationally.”

The Pew study, conducted around a month ago with a sample size of 2,003 representative U.S. adults, also found that the for the first time ever in about 40 years, more Americans believe that the United States has declined in power from its relative position in the international system 10 years ago. The numbers indicate a clear perception of American decline. Interestingly, a plurality of Americans continue to view China as the top economic power in the world despite the United States’ continued dominance on most non-growth economic indicators. The trend has edged upwards since 2009, which was the first year that Pew found that Americans perceive Chinese economic clout as greater than the United States’. Despite the widespread misperception of the global economic picture, Americans correctly perceive the United States is the world’s leading military power.

Despite perceptions of decline and a preference for a somewhat more isolationist or non-interventionist foreign policy, Americans don’t seem to see any benefit in the United States ramping down its involvement in the global economy. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agree that growing trade and business ties across the world will be positive for Americans. Specifically, the Pew survey indicates that Americans believe that the most beneficial economic boost would come from more foreign companies setting up operations in the United States. Increasing foreign immigration, both for high-skilled and low-skilled jobs, and boosting U.S. private sector activity abroad, are all perceived to hurt the economy in the long-run.

Despite what some might say, public opinion does affect foreign policy outcomes in developed democracies. Pew finds that the Obama administration’s foreign policy approval rating has declined sharply from the earlier days of his presidential tenure. Pew finds that a majority of Americans disapprove of the administration’s handling of “Syria, Iran, China and Afghanistan by wide margins.” Obama, however, continues to reap the rewards of hunting down Osama bin Laden, with a majority of Americans approving of his handling of global terrorism. This last point is further clarified by a finding that 50 percent of Americans believe that the United States’ use of drones to target Pakistani extremists yields a net positive for American security.

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The isolationist trends indicate that Americans may increasingly begin to favor legislators and presidential candidates with a less interventionist foreign policy posture. The current administration has had to wrangle with public opinion over Syria and Iran. Indeed, the growing rift between the Obama administration executive branch and Congress might be emblematic of this broader shift — Congressional constituents, particularly for members of the House of Representatives, could be leaning towards non-interventionist foreign policy platforms. It’s unclear what effect foreign policy will have on the 2016 presidential elections; Obama’s victory against Mitt Romney in 2012 wasn’t in the least predicated by either candidates’ views on foreign policy.

For our region of interest here at The Diplomat — the Indo-Asia-Pacific — the trends should be concerning given the United States’ strategic “pivot” or rebalance to Asia. If push came to shove over the Diaoyu/Senkaku flashpoint in the East China Sea or a crisis erupted on the Korean peninsula, the United States would find itself in an uncomfortable position where it would be legally bound to honor years-old security cooperation treaties for important allies. Given the reluctance of the American public to even deploy a limited aerial strike against Syria, talk of shifting carrier battle groups might be politically unsustainable.

Democracy and foreign policy weren’t bedfellows during the heyday of the Cold War; American involvement in Vietnam continued despite widespread public disapproval. The Bush administration experienced its own public opinion roller coaster from its post-9/11 response in Afghanistan to its final days where it found itself quagmired in two intractable wars. American presidents have a tendency to find a way around public opinion in matters of public policy — a trend that President Obama notably breaks with. His decision to ask Congress to authorize the use of force was lauded for its deference to the legislative branch and respecting the separation of powers in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The current president appears to be deeply risk averse in this sense.

Ultimately, for those who would rather see American primacy endure into the 21st century, the Pew survey provides certain reassurances. A survey of members of the Council on Foreign Relations indicates a preference for internationalism and global engagement. The CFR members, ostensibly members of the United States’ foreign policy “elite,” recognize the broader shift in the American public towards isolationism — 92 percent of CFR members polled acknowledged this. When asked why, they cite the usual culprits: Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, ineffective interventions in the past, and a failure of leadership.