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As U.S. Expands Role Overseas, Survey Finds Isolationism on the Rise

5 years ago
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Just as President Obama has outlined his broad strategy for Afghanistan and is pushing ahead with other global initiatives, the percentage of Americans who believe the U.S. should mind its own business and let other countries get along on their own has reached an all-time high, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations conducted Oct. 28 - Nov. 8.

The Pew survey found 49 percent of Americans holding that view. The previous highs were 41 percent in both 1995 and 1976. Forty-four percent in the poll disagreed.

Those who believe the U.S. should go its own way and not worry about whether other countries agree reached 44 percent , which was the highest number since 1995, when 34 percent took that position. Still, 51 percent disagreed with that point of view.

While a solid majority believes the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was the correct one, 40 percent want to see U.S. troops decreased, 32 percent support an increase, and 19 percent said troop levels should stay the same. Eight percent were undecided. Fifty-seven percent believe the U.S. military effort is not going well, while 36 percent say it is going fairly or very well.

Pew says these numbers show that "isolationism and unilateralism have reached four-decade highs among the public."

In an analysis of the poll, the Council's James M. Lindsay and Parke T. Nicholson wrote: "Against this backdrop, Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is politically risky. . . . These findings suggest that the public will want quick results from Obama's surge. If that doesn't happen, he could find himself under intense pressure to bring the troops back home. More broadly, he could face greater political resistance, from both ends of the political spectrum, to his activist foreign policy and multilateralism."

Seventy-six percent agreed with the statement that the U.S. "should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home."

Forty-one percent believe the U.S. plays a less important role as a world leader than it did 10 years ago. Pew says the last time that that high a percentage of Americans felt this way was in the 1970s. In 2004, a plurality of 45 percent said America played a more important role than it had 10 years before. The view that America is playing a less important role is more pronounced among Republicans and independents than it is among Democrats.

While 63 percent say the U.S. is still the world's leading military power, a plurality -- 44 percent -- see China as the top global economic power. Twenty-seven percent still name the U.S. as the top economic power.

Forty-seven percent of Americans say Obama is not tough enough in his foreign policy, while 43 percent call his approach about right, 3 percent say it is too tough, and 7 percent don't know. That's a reversal from June, when 51 percent said Obama's approach was about right and 38 percent said it wasn't tough enough.

Twenty-nine percent believe that terrorists' ability to strike against the U.S. is greater than it was on Sept. 11, a number that increased from 17 percent in February. Thirty-eight percent believe the reach of terrorists is about the same as it was on Sept. 11, while 29 percent believe it is less. (A Gallup poll, conducted Nov. 20-22 and released Wednesday) said 57 percent of Americans believed a terrorist attack in the U.S. was not too likely or not likely at all, while 39 percent said one was somewhat or very likely).

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