Americans and the world


US public and foreign policy elites agree – the nation should mind its own business


The global image of the United States as an advocate for development, multilateralism, liberty and democracy – typified by the catalytic role the nation played in creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan that rebuilt war-torn Europe, President Jimmy Carter’s championing of human rights and President George W. Bush’s promise to support democratic movements around the world – has never had the unanimous support of the American public. And now, at a time of Americans’ war weariness and widespread concern about the domestic economy, both the public and the US foreign policy establishment are particularly wary of such idealistic foreign policy endeavours.

In 2013 there is an unprecedented lack of support for American engagement with the rest of the world. The public suggests that the nation does too much to solve world problems: About half of Americans, 51 percent, tell interviewers that the United States is overextended abroad, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Centre. And when those who say the US does “too much” internationally are asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way, 47 percent say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.

The public’s scepticism about US international engagement has increased. Currently, 52 percent 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 that statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favour of the US “minding its own business” in the nearly 50-year history of pollsters asking this question.

When it comes to working with the United Nations, the embodiment of the ideal of nations working together, 56 percent of the American public agrees that the United States should cooperate fully with the international organization. But that support is down from 77 percent in 1991 and 67 percent in 2002. And only 37 percent say strengthening the UN should be a top US policy priority.

There is partisan divide on this issue among Americans:  Democrats, at 69 percent, are more likely than Republicans, 46 percent, to say the US should cooperate fully with the United Nations. And Republicans or independents who sympathize with the Tea Party are even less likely to want the US to work closely with the UN. Looking forward, 50 percent of Democrats want to strengthen the UN, but only 25 percent of Republicans agree and just 12 percent of Tea Party adherents would strengthen the multilateral body.

Championing human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries and promoting democracy also rate as relatively low priorities for the American public.

Promoting human rights in other countries is a top foreign policy goal for just 33 percent of the American public. While low, this support is actually up from the 24 percent who prioritized human rights in 2011. Again there is a partisan divide: 41 percent of Democrats, but just 27 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Tea Party adherents see human rights as a top priority.

Helping boost economies in low-income countries has never been high on Americans’ to-do list. Nor is it today. Only 23 percent make helping improve the living standards in developing nations a high priority. This includes 32 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of Republicans and just 6 percent of Tea Party sympathizers.

Despite a long history of official US democracy promotion in other nations, an official commitment that goes back at least to President Woodrow Wilson, Americans have never viewed this as very important: In September 1993, just 22 percent saw it as a top foreign policy priority. In early September 2001, 29 percent said it should be a very important priority. And today just 18 percent of Americans rate this as a high US policy objective. Again, there is a partisan difference: 27 percent of Democrats, but just 16 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of Tea Partiers rank democracy promotion as an important goal.

Nearly three years after the enthusiasm surrounding the wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring, 63 percent of the polled Americans say stable governments are more important in the region, even if there is less democracy. Fewer chose stability over democracy earlier – 52 percent in 2011 and 54 percent in 2012. Just 28 percent say democracy is more important than stability in the Middle East. While the balance of opinion among all partisan groups is in favour of stable governments, Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to endorse democracy over stability; 39 percent of Democrats say democratic governments are more important, compared with 25 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Tea Party sympathizers.

American foreign policy experts, at least those who belong to the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in US foreign policy, are generally no more committed than the public to strengthening the United Nations, improving living standards in developing countries, or promoting human rights and democracy.

Just 17 percent of CFR members say bolstering the UN should be a top foreign policy priority of the United States, down from 45 percent in 1993.

Only 12 percent of the foreign policy experts surveyed say promoting democracy in other nations is a major priority for American foreign policy, compared with 44 percent in 2001.

Most CFR members, like the general public, prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East: 64 percent say stable governments are more important, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 32 percent say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.

And foreign policy experts are reluctant to see the United States become more deeply involved in changes in political leadership in the region. Just 24 percent say the US should be more involved in changes in political leadership in Middle East countries such as Egypt or Libya. This may be, in part, because CFR members are pessimistic about the potential for increased democracy in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

CFR members, like the American public, view improving living standards in developing countries, at 25 percent, and the promotion of human rights, at 19 percent, as lower foreign policy priorities. Bolstering the economies of developing countries is viewed as a less important long-range policy than in previous Pew Research Centre surveys. Just 25 percent of CFR members say it should be a top priority, as compared with 48 percent in 2001 and 47 percent in 2005.

Just 19 percent of CFR members see the promotion of human rights as a top policy goal. These opinions are little changed from recent years, but in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, 43 percent rated human rights as a top policy priority.

Americans have long prided themselves as a benevolent society, a nation committed to working with others through a foreign policy rooted in fundamental values of democracy and human liberty. And other nations have looked to the United States to be a promoter of development, democracy and human rights. But in the wake of two costly wars and a prolonged economic slowdown, the American people and foreign policy elites are less committed to those ideals than they have been for some time.


Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Centre.