Americans Believe US Foreign Policy is Increasingly Constrained by Troubles at Home and Abroad; Findings from 2010 Survey of Public Opinion

September 16, 2010
Washington, DC
The American people want to play an active part in world affairs but their internationalism is increasingly constrained by economic troubles at home and diminished influence overseas. In light of these constraints, Americans are reassessing their foreign policy priorities, scaling back their ambitions, and becoming more selective in how they want to engage with the world—by lightening America’s footprint overseas and directing scarce resources to tackling critical threats, such as international terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

This is the central finding of Global Views 2010–Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities. More than 2,500 Americans were asked over one hundred questions on various aspects of US foreign policy, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, China’s rise, the Afghanistan War, and attitudes toward other countries. 

Marshall M Bouton, President of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, commented: “After nine years of difficult wars and the greatest financial crisis since the 1930, Americans want to focus on the homefront and be more selective in the application of US influence and resources abroad.”

Key specific findings include:
  • Nine out of ten Americans today think it is more important for the future of the United States to fix pressing problems at home than to address challenges to the United States from abroad. There is a decline in support for US military bases in Japan (-8%), Germany (-7%), Iraq (-7%), Turkey (-7%), and Afghanistan (-5%) compared to 2008.
  • Only one-quarter of Americans think the United States plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to ten years ago, a sharp drop from 2002.
  • More than two-thirds of Americans think that as rising countries like Turkey and Brazil become more independent from the United States in the conduct of their foreign policy, it is mostly good because they will be less reliant on the United States.
  • There has been a striking overall drop in the percentages of Americans who say that various countries are “very important” to the United States, with thirteen of the fourteen countries asked about in both 2008 and 2010 showing declines. The only country that did not decline in perceived importance is China.
  • Americans see few promising policy choices toward Iran if it continues with its nuclear weapons program. A narrow plurality (49% to 45%) believe that the United States cannot contain a nuclear Iran as it contained the Soviet Union. Only 18% say the United States should carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear energy facilities under present conditions. Overwhelming majorities believe that a military strike would result in terrorist attacks in the United States and retaliatory strikes against US targets in the Middle East; even so, if all other measures fail to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Americans are almost evenly split (47% in favor and 49% opposed) on whether the US should launch a military strike.
  • A majority of Americans think that if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran were to retaliate against Israel, and the two were to go to war, the United States should not bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel and against Iran.
  • Only 51% believe that because most Muslims are like people everywhere, we can find common ground and violent conflict between the civilizations is not inevitable. 45% say that because Muslim religious, social, and political traditions are incompatible with Western ways, violent conflict between the two civilizations is inevitable—up 18 points since 2002.
  • In a dramatic reversal from 2006, 67% of Americans now understand that China loans more money to the United States than the United States loans to China. In 2006 when the question was last posed, this percentage was only 24%. 51% of Americans consider this debt to be a critical national security threat. When asked whether US relations with eight other countries and the EU are improving, worsening, or neutral, Americans perceived relations to be on the neutral to good side. The only country with which a sub¬stantial number of Americans perceive relations as “worsening” is Mexico (47%).

This report is based on the results of a nationwide survey of 2,596 adults commissioned by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The Global Views survey was conducted between June 11 and June 22, 2010 and has a margin of error between 1.9 and 3.3 percent.