Americans’ appetite for world leadership has waned significantly since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with more than two-fifths saying the United States should mind its own business, according to a major new survey released Thursday.
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The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations, found an isolationist streak that rivals sentiments that emerged in the mid-1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations conduct the survey, titled “America and Its Place in the World,” every four years. The last survey was conducted in the summer of 2001, just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, providing a useful gauge of changes in Americans’ attitudes after the attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“September 11 is losing its power to shape views on foreign policy,” Lee Feinstein, deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a briefing for reporters. “Activism looks much less appealing.”
Most striking is the sharp rise in Americans’ distaste for the nation’s leading position in world affairs, which the survey indicates reflects a deeper distrust of foreign institutions in general.
Four years ago, 30 percent of Americans agreed that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” In the new survey, which was conducted from Sept. 5 through Oct. 31, that proportion had grown to 42 percent.
That sentiment grew most sharply among Democrats and independents; indeed, it is now shared by a majority of Democrats, at 55 percent, the survey found, up from 40 percent. Among independents, 42 percent shared that view, up from 27 percent.
The Council on Foreign Relations said its analysis found “a striking revival of isolationist sentiment among the general public.” In fact, more than a third of Americans (35 percent) said it would be just fine with them if a second superpower were to emerge to challenge U.S. leadership.
At the same time, fewer than half of Americans — 48 percent — have a positive opinion of the United Nations, down from 77 percent just before 9/11.
“What we are seeing is a more sober assessment for the U.N. instead of the extremes of loving it or leaving it,” Feinstein said.
Elites even more downbeat
The quadrennial report is especially significant because it surveys two separate populations: Americans at large and a sample of what Pew calls “opinion leaders” — journalists, academics, state and local government officials, religious leaders and experts in foreign affairs, national security, science, engineering and the military. The results, which are reported separately, paint a vivid picture of an America deeply at odds with those whom it pays to do its thinking for it.
If anything, the “influentials” (the report’s shorthand for its sample of opinion leaders) are even gloomier about America’s world prospects than the public as a whole. For example, 37 percent of Americans as a whole believe the U.S. effort to establish a stable democracy in Iraq will fail, but that view is held by 84 percent of scientists, 71 percent of foreign affairs specialists and 63 percent of journalists.
Meanwhile, while 44 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq has damaged the international struggle against terrorism, higher percentages in every opinion leader category hold that view — including military leaders and 82 percent of those who study foreign affairs for a living.
And, except for military leaders, all of the categories of “influentials” are more downbeat about prospects for democracy in the Middle East. Even then, only 34 percent of the public (and the same percentage of military leaders) believe it will ever happen; by comparison, only 17 percent of foreign affairs specialists and 14 percent of security experts agree.
Prospects for Republicans cloudy
Republicans suffered a poor showing in off-year elections this month, and with next year’s midterm races approaching, the survey suggests that candidates allied or identified with Bush could have a struggle on their hands. Overall, 51 percent of Americans in general disapprove of Bush’s handling of foreign affairs, and 57 percent disapprove specifically of his handling of Iraq.
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression on Iraq,” Feinstein said. “Once the public sours on a war, they don’t unsour, and the consequences for the president’s foreign policy are that the revolution is over.”
All categories surveyed agreed that the U.S. image abroad has declined since 9/11 — including half of Republicans. The reasons for this, however, are another indicator of the divide between the nation as a whole and its opinion leaders. All categories agree that the war in Iraq is a major factor, but the general public largely dismisses U.S. support for Israel as a reason (a factor cited by 39 percent), while large majorities of most of the “influentials” — 78 percent of journalists and 72 percent of both military leaders and security experts — cited it as significant.
For the general survey, Princeton Survey Research Associates International questioned 2,006 adults by telephone. It reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
For the survey of “influentials,” Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations questioned 520 opinion leaders in eight fields: news media; foreign relations; security; state and local government; colleges, universities and think tanks; religious organizations; science and engineering; and the military. Respondents were interviewed by telephone and through a screened, invitation-only Web site. The survey did not report a margin of error.
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