December 3, 2009

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 1: State of the World and America’s Global Role

The public overwhelmingly continues to express dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the United States. Just 25% say they are satisfied with national conditions – a figure that has changed little over the past several months.

Americans express even more negative opinions about the way things are going in the world. Just 15% say they are satisfied, which is little changed from the previous America’s Place in the World survey in October 2005.

More Democrats (35%) than independents (22%) or Republicans (17%) express a positive opinion of the way things are going in this country. There are more modest partisan differences regarding the way things are going in the world – just 18% of Democrats, 14% of Republicans and 13% of independents are satisfied.

Four years ago there was a much larger partisan divide in views of the world – 29% of Republicans were satisfied with the way things were going in the world, compared with just 9% of Democrats. Age also is a factor in assessments of global conditions. Those younger than 30 are far more likely than those 65 and older to say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the world. This is consistent with surveys going back to 1993 in which younger adults have consistently offered more upbeat assessments of the world. The 2005 survey was an exception in this regard, with little difference in satisfaction across age groups.

Public Says Keep Focus at Home

A rise in isolationist sentiment – already apparent in polling conducted during George W. Bush’s second term – has continued in Barack Obama’s first year in office. For the first time in nearly half a century of polling, the public is divided over whether the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Nearly half (49%) agree with that statement while 44% disagree. And on a related question, 76% now say we should “concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home” rather than think in international terms. This is approaching the previous 45-year high set in the early 1990s.

Isolationist views have typically been more prevalent among Democrats than among Republicans, and that remains the case today. But the rise in isolationism is evident across partisan lines: overall, 49% say the United States should mind its own business internationally, up from 30% in 2002. Currently, 53% of Democrats express this view, up from 40% in 2002. Among Republicans, 43% agree the U.S. should mind its own business, up from 22% in 2002. Roughly half of independents (49%) offer this opinion, compared with 27% in 2002.

The public also overwhelmingly continues to say that it is more important for President Obama to focus on domestic policy than foreign policy. Currently, 73% say Obama should focus on domestic policy, while just 12% say he should address foreign policy. These opinions are virtually unchanged since shortly before Obama took office in January.

Disengagement at 45-Year High

As has been the case consistently over the past 45 years, there is a broad agreement that “the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies.” Just over three-quarters (78%) agree with this today, and there is little difference across party lines. But there has been a sharp increase in the share saying that the U.S. should “go our own way in international matters” and not worry about whether other countries agree. While still a minority view, 44% agree with this statement today, up 16 points from 28% in 2006 and far exceeding the previous peak of 34% in 1993 and 1995.

Half of Republicans and 45% of Democrats believe the U.S. should go its own way in international matters regardless of what other countries think. Independents stand apart – just 37% believe the U.S. should act unilaterally and not worry about what others think.

U.N. Support Slips

Only about half of Americans (51%) believe the United States should cooperate fully with the United Nations, slightly fewer than in 2005 (54%) and the lowest percentage since 1976. As recently as 2002, 67% said the United States should cooperate with the United Nations. At the same time, 38% disagree with the idea that we should cooperate fully with the U.N., up from 28% in 2002.

There are sharp partisan divisions over whether the U.S. should cooperate with the United Nations – 65% of Democrats say this, compared with 47% of independents and 39% of Republicans. These partisan divisions are hardly new. Even in 2002 when two-thirds of Americans backed working with the U.N., the party divide was about as large, with 80% of Democrats, 65% of independents and 58% of Republicans favoring full cooperation.

U.S. Leadership Role

As in previous America’s Place in the World surveys, a large proportion of the public (70% currently) favors a shared leadership role for the United States. Far smaller minorities say the United States should be the single world leader (14%) or, conversely, that it should have no leadership role (11%).

Among the large majority of the public favoring a shared U.S. leadership role, far more think that the United States should be about as active as other leading nations rather than the most active of leading nations (48% vs. 19%). These opinions have changed little from previous years.

The members of the Council on Foreign Relations continue to favor a more expansive U.S. global role than the public. Fully 62% of CFR members say the United States should be the most assertive of leading nations; just 25% say the U.S. should be about as assertive as other leading nations.

Fewer See U.S. as Important Leader

While opinions about the optimal approach to U.S. global leadership are largely unchanged, growing percentages of both the public and CFR members say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago.

Among the public, 41% say the United States plays a less important role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, 30% say it is about as important, while 25% say it is more important. In 2004, just 20% said that the United States was less important than it had been 10 years earlier and in early September 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, 26% expressed this view.

Among CFR members, 44% see the United States as a less important and powerful world leader compared with 10 years ago, up from 25% in early September 2001. Four-in-ten CFR members (40%) say the United States is as important while 16% say the United States is a more important world leader.

The decline in public attitudes about America’s global standing has been driven almost entirely by changes among Republicans and independents. Fully 50% of Republicans say the U.S. is less important than it was a decade ago, compared with just 8% who expressed that view in July 2004, during the Bush administration.

Republicans also are much more likely to see the United States as a less important world leader than they were during the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president. In 1993, 32% of Republicans said the United States was less important than it had been a decade ago, and four years later that percentage was largely unchanged (29%).

Currently, 45% of independents say the United States plays a less important and powerful role as world leader than it did 10 years ago, by far the highest percentage in surveys dating to 1993. In 2004, just 23% of independents said the United States was less important than it had been a decade ago.

Democrats’ views about America’s importance as a world leader have changed very little from 2004. Currently, 29% of Democrats say the United States is a less important and powerful leader compared with a decade ago; in 2004, 27% of Democrats said that the U.S. was less important.

Views of U.S. Global Image

Though impressions are better than they were when George W. Bush was president, most Americans continue to believe that the United States is less respected by the rest of the world. A majority (56%) still says that the U.S. is less respected by other countries than in the past, but that is down from 70% a year ago. The number saying the U.S. is more respected than in the past jumped from 5% last September to 21% today, while 20% say it is as respected as in the past.

Not surprisingly, the change from a year ago is highly partisan – 30% of Democrats today say the U.S. is more respected, up from just 2% in September 2008. There has also been a 15-point rise (from 6% to 21%) in the percentage of independents saying the U.S. is more respected than in the past. About two-thirds of Republicans (68%) now say the U.S. is less respected by other countries, up from 55% a year ago.

CFR members generally view America’s international image as very important to U.S. foreign policy. Fully 73% say the image of the United States around the world is very important to the successful conduct of foreign policy; another 22% see it as somewhat important. Just 4% say the U.S. image is not too or not at all important to U.S. foreign policy.

Most Favor Keeping U.S. as Only Superpower

A majority of the public (57%) says that future U.S. policies should try to maintain America’s position as the only superpower; 29% say it would be acceptable for China, another country or the European Union to become as militarily powerful as the United States.

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations are somewhat more accepting of another country or the EU becoming as militarily powerful as the U.S. While roughly half (49%) of CFR members say U.S. policies should ensure America’s position as the only military superpower, nearly as many (43%) say it would be acceptable for another country to be as powerful.

However, those who favor policies aimed at keeping the United States the lone military superpower are divided over whether those policies should be implemented if they risk alienating principal U.S. allies. Overall, just 23% of the public and 26% of CFR members say the United States should pursue policies keeping it as the only military superpower even if such policies risk alienating principal U.S. allies; 28% the public and 21% of CFR members say such policies should not be pursued if they risk alienating key allies.