Yesterday Pew Research released its very interesting survey of American public opinion on America's Place in the World, with the headline that Americans see US power declining as support for global engagement slips. One of the key findings underpinning this lead is that a majority (53%) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, and about the same proportion says that the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (52%). Both of these measures have increased substantially since Pew last asked these questions.
I looked at the numbers more closely last night, and agree with the interpretation that Jim Lindsay and Rachael Kauss (of the Council on Foreign Relations) put forth: American opinion is mixed on the future global role of the US. They prefer the US government to focus on problems at home and "mind its own business" abroad, yet they also want the US to play a (shared) leading role in world affairs. These views have been prevalent in Chicago Council Surveys for some time now. But I think one particular theme has been overlooked: Americans have become aware that the geopolitics of the world have changed over the past ten years, that global power is more diffuse, and that other countries have been catching up to the US economically. And their latest responses to the Pew survey questions seem to reflect this realization.
The finding that 53 percent of Americans say that the role the United States plays today is less important than it was ten years ago explicitly illustrates this point because it includes a decade reference point. By most absolute measures, the US is no longer as dominant a player on the world stage as it was ten years ago, especially after the experiences of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economic collapse of 2008. Chicago Council Surveys dating back to 2010 and 2012 show that growing numbers have said that the US role is less important than a decade ago (see figure below). They also show that pluralities in the post-Vietnam era (1974-1982) also expressed a sense of diminished importance as a result of that protracted war.
It's also important to consider the relative changes in countries' power status over the past ten years. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that while Americans rated the United States as the most influential country in the world, they also sensed that US influence will wane in ten years. At the same time, Americans expected that China's influence would rise, and approach the influence of the United States (see figure below). Other Asian nations, while still rated well below US and China's influence, are also seen as rising powers.
Global influence could be a combination of perceptions of a country's economic and military sway. The Pew results from 2013 (and 2011) show that a plurality of Americans [mistakenly] believe that China (48%) has surpassed the United States (31%) as the world's leading economic power. But the United States is still by far perceived to be the greater military power (68% US, 14% China).
The United States - and the world - have changed over the past ten years, and Chicago Council results indicate that Americans believe that way in which the US engages with the world should change accordingly. While they see value in being a strong military power, Americans seemed aware of the economic constraints and limits of military force to effect change. At least in 2012, Americans still believed the US to be the "greatest" and most influential country in the world, but they wanted a lower profile and a more cooperative stance with other countries. Of course, recent US approaches to Syria, Iran, and the NSA could have had an impact on these views since we fielded the survey in Spring 2012. It will be very exciting to find out when we launch our next biennial survey in Spring 2014.