Public Uncertain, Divided Over America’s Place in the World
1. America’s global role, U.S. superpower status
The public remains wary of U.S. international involvement, although on some measures opposition to an active U.S. global role has declined since the last America’s Place in the World study in 2013. While more Americans say the U.S. does too much (41%) than say it does too little (27%) to solve world problems, the share saying the United States does too much globally is 10 percentage points lower than three years ago (51%).
The number of Americans who say the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally” – which in 2013 surpassed 50% for the time in a half-century (52%) – has declined to 43% in the current survey.
However, just 37% say the U.S. “should help other countries deal with their problems,” while a majority (57%) say the nation should “deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems the best they can.
Views of U.S. efforts to solve global problems
Republicans’ views of U.S. efforts to address global problems have fluctuated in recent years. In 2013, nearly three times as many Republicans said the U.S. did too much (52%) as said it did too little (18%) in helping to solve global problems (26% said it did about the right amount).
In 2014, as ISIS first emerged as a major concern, slightly more Republicans said the U.S. did too little internationally (46% vs. 37% who said it did too much), with 14% saying the U.S. was doing about right amount internationally. In the current survey, GOP opinion has shifted again: 44% think the U.S. does too much internationally, 33% too little and 17% about the right amount.
Currently, 36% of Democrats say the U.S. does too much internationally, 19% say it does too little, and 42% say it does about the right amount. These views are little changed since 2014, but in 2013 more Democrats (46%) said the U.S. did too much. Among independents, 43% say the U.S. does too much internationally, 30% say it does too little and 23% say it does about the right amount. Independents’ views, like those of Democrats, have changed little since 2014, but three years ago a majority of independents (55%) thought the U.S. did too much globally.
Among Democratic voters, 45% of those who support Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination say the U.S. does the right amount to help solve world problems; fewer (30%) Bernie Sanders supporters say this (42% say it does too much). Among GOP voters, a slim majority of those who support Trump (54%) say the U.S. does too much to help solve world problems. This is little different than views among those who prefer Cruz (48%), though fewer Kasich backers (30%) say this.
Most want U.S. ‘to deal with its own problems’
Nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) want the United States “to deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems the best they can.” Far fewer (37%) favor the U.S. helping other countries address problems.
There are substantial ideological and educational differences in these opinions. Liberal Democrats stand out for their support for helping other nations. Six-in-ten (60%) liberal Democrats say the U.S. should help other nations, while 37% say it should deal with its own problems.
Among other partisan and ideological groups – including conservative and moderate Democrats (57%) – majorities say the U.S. should deal with its own problems and let other nations cope with their own problems.
Across educational groups, most favor the U.S. dealing with its own problems, with the exception of those with postgraduate degrees. Postgrads are the only group in which more say the U.S. should help other countries (56%) than say it should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their problems (39%). Majorities of those with less education favor the U.S. dealing with its own problems and letting other countries deal with their own problems the best they can.
Long-term attitudes about U.S. global involvement
In the 2013 America’s Place in the World study, more Americans agreed (52%) than disagreed (38%) that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally” for the first time in nearly 50 years of opinion surveys. In the current survey, 43% agree that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally, while 50% disagree. That is similar to opinion on this question in 2011 (46% agreed, 50% disagreed).
While most Americans agree the U.S. “should concentrate more on our own national problems” – and have done so since the 1960s – fewer concur with this sentiment than did so in 2013 (69% now, 80% then). And since 2009, there has been an 11-point decline in the share of Americans who agree that “we should go our own way in international matters” without worrying too much about other countries (from 44% then to 33% now).
Partisan differences on these measures are relatively modest. Identical shares of Republicans and Democrats (39% each) – as well as 47% of independents – say the U.S. should mind its own business internationally. Republicans (73%) and independents (75%) are more likely than Democrats (64%) to say the U.S. should focus more on national problems and less on international terms. And more Republicans (40%) than Democrats (30%) or independents (31%) say the U.S. should go its own way when it comes to international matters.
Public to next president: Focus more on domestic than foreign policy
Looking ahead, 70% of Americans say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy than foreign policy. Just 17% say the next president’s main focus should be on foreign policy while 11% volunteer that both should be priorities.
This sentiment is not new. In September 2008, 60% said the next president should focus on domestic policy more than foreign policy. In the past, when asked whether the current president should focus more on foreign or domestic policy, large majorities also have prioritized domestic policy, with few exceptions.
In recent years, there has been only one occasion when the public was divided over whether it was more important for the president to focus domestically or internationally. In January 2007, after President George W. Bush announced he was sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq, 40% said Bush should focus on more foreign policy, while 39% said he should focus more on domestic policy.
In the current survey, large majorities of Democrats (73%), independents (73%) and Republicans (65%) say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy.
Majority favors keeping U.S. as sole military superpower
Despite the public’s ambivalence about U.S. global involvement, a majority of Americans (55%) support policies maintaining America’s status as the only military superpower. Only about a third (36%) say it would be acceptable if another country became as militarily powerful as the U.S.
Overall views are similar to those found in a November 2013 survey; the question in that survey asked if it would be acceptable if “China, another country or the EU became as militarily powerful as the U.S.” In that survey, 56% wanted the U.S. to remain the sole superpower and 32% said they would be OK with China, another country, or the EU becoming as powerful.
As in the past, there are partisan differences in opinions about whether the U.S. should try to maintain its status as the world’s sole superpower. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) say U.S. policies should be aimed at keeping the U.S. as the sole superpower, compared with about half of Democrats (50%) and independents (52%).
Democrats are divided ideologically over whether the U.S. should attempt to keep its superpower status. Nearly two-thirds of conservative and moderate Democrats (64%) say U.S. policies should try to keep the U.S. as the sole superpower, compared with just 35% of liberal Democrats who say the same. Among Republicans, majorities of both conservatives (70%) and moderates and liberals (60%) say the U.S. should try to maintain its superpower status.
Young people are far less likely than older adults to say U.S. policies should try to ensure its sole superpower status. Just 43% of those under age 30 support this goal, while 51% say it would be acceptable if another nation became as militarily powerful as the U.S. Among older adults, half or more – including 68% of those 65 and older – say policies should try to keep the U.S. as the only superpower.
Little change in views of U.S. global leadership, broadly defined
Going back more than two decades, the public generally has preferred that the United States play a shared leadership role. Currently, 73% say the U.S. should play a shared leadership role. Just 15% want the U.S. to be the single world leader, and even fewer (9%) want the U.S. to have no leadership role.
When those who favor a shared leadership role are asked if the U.S. should be the most active of leading nations, or about as active as others, a majority of this group (comprising 48% of the public) wants the U.S. to be about as active as other leading nations; 23% say the U.S. should be most active.
These attitudes have changed little since the early 1990s. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a third said the U.S. should be most active of leading nations, the highest level during this period. But the public’s fundamental preference for a shared leadership role was little changed.
Majorities of Democrats (78%), Republicans (67%) and independents (74%) say the U.S. should have a shared leadership role. About twice as many Republicans (23%) as Democrats and independents (12% each) say the U.S. should be the single world leader.