Poll: America's Place in the World

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As President Obama seeks to expand America’s global role on issues ranging from Afghanistan to climate change, the U.S. public is turning decidedly inward. For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.

The quadrennial survey finds both the general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations apprehensive and uncertain about America’s place in the world. In particular, there is considerable pessimism about prospects for long-term stability in Afghanistan. However, while 50% of CFR members favor increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, just 32% of the public agrees; the survey was conducted before Obama’s Dec. 1 speech outlining his plans for a troop increase for Afghanistan.

Growing numbers in both groups see the United States playing a less important role globally, while acknowledging the increasing stature of China. But the public takes a less benign view of China’s rise than do members of the Council on Foreign Relations. A majority of the public (53%) continues to see China’s emerging power as a major threat to the U.S.; just 21% of CFR members express that view, down from 38% in 2001. Moreover, most Council members (58%) predict that China will be a more important U.S. ally in the future – up from 31% in 2005.

Meanwhile, a plurality of the public now says that China, not the United States, is the world’s leading economic power. Currently, 44% of the public says China is the world’s leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. As recently as the beginning of last year, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China.

The poll also finds:

- Both isolationism and unilateralism have reached four-decade highs among the public. While nearly half of the public says the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” nearly as many (44%) say the U.S. should go its “own way” in international matters and not worry about whether other countries agree.

- Obama receives much higher ratings on most foreign policy issues from Council members than the public. But just 42% of CFR members approve of Obama’s job performance on Afghanistan, which is only somewhat higher than his rating among the public (36%). Afghanistan and Pakistan also are mentioned most frequently by CFR members as the worst thing about Obama’s foreign policy.

- Fully 85% of the CFR members surveyed say that political instability in Pakistan is a major threat to the U.S.; just 49% of the public agrees. By comparison, greater percentages of the public than CFR members regard China’s growing power and North Korea’s nuclear program as major threats.

- CFR members assign a far lower priority to several globally oriented policy goals than they did at the beginning of the decade. Promoting democracy abroad, defending human rights, strengthening the United Nations and improving living standards in developing countries are all viewed as less important priorities by CFR members.

-- Despite widespread anxiety over the economy, public support for free trade agreements has increased since 2008. A modest plurality now sees free trade agreements as good for the U.S.; in April 2008, a plurality said such agreements were bad for the country.

-- France’s image among the American public has recovered dramatically since the early days of the Iraq war. Fully 62% of the public says they have a favorable opinion of France, up from just 29% in May 2003.

--Favorable ratings of Pakistan, by contrast, have become more negative just in the past year. Currently, just 16% of the public expresses a favorable opinion of Pakistan, down from 37% in the spring of 2008.

The survey was conducted this fall among 2,000 members of the public and 642 members of the Council on Foreign Relations. The survey is for immediate release and is available on our website: http://www.people-press.org. For a direct link to the full report, go to: http://people-press.org/report/569/americas-place-in-the-world. It includes a related commentary by Council on Foreign Relations Director of Studies James M. Lindsay.

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