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Growing US Public Acceptance of Dwindling Global Role

A new survey reveals the American public is looking increasingly toward reducing Washington's role in world affairs, especially in conflicts that do not directly concern the United States.

Inter Press Service

Battered by two lengthy wars and a two-year-old economic crisis, the U.S. public appears increasingly reconciled to Washington's playing a declining global role in the coming years, according to the latest in a biennial series of major surveys released last Thursday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA).

The public also appears increasingly doubtful about the benefits of economic globalisation and sceptical that Islamic and Western civilisations can live together peacefully, compared to how it felt in 2002, according to the survey of nearly 2,600 respondents who were interviewed in June.

The survey report, entitled "Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities", also found wide differences on key foreign policy issues between Republican and Democratic respondents, particularly with respect to climate change, the importance of multilateral institutions, the Middle East, and the use of torture against suspected terrorists.

The survey's main message, however, was that the U.S. public is looking increasingly toward reducing Washington's role in world affairs, especially in conflicts that do not directly concern it.

While two-thirds of citizens believe Washington should take an "active part in world affairs", 49 percent – by far the highest percentage since the CCGA first started asking the question in the mid-1970s – agreed with the proposition that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own".

Moreover, 91 percent of respondents agreed that it was "more important at this time for the (U.S.) to fix problems at home" than to address challenges to the (U.S.) abroad – up from 82 percent who responded to that question in CCGA's last survey in 2008.

"I think the era where the United States was the provider of last resort may be coming to an end," noted Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who spoke at the survey's release at the Brookings Institution. "We may no longer be the driver of a robust, liberal international order in the way that we used to be."

The growing preoccupation with the country's domestic problems was coupled with a view that Washington's global influence is in decline vis-à-vis much of the rest of the world, and especially China, according to the 83-page report that presented the survey data.

Only 24 percent of respondents – down from 55 percent in 2002, just after the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan – said they think the U.S. "plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared to ten years ago". It was the lowest percentage ever recorded by CCAG, which carried out its first survey in 1974, just after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam.

And while most respondents believe Washington retains somewhat greater global influence than Beijing today, they believe China will likely catch up by 2020 and that the gap between U.S. influence and those of the European Union (EU), Japan, Russia, and India will also narrow over the coming decade.

Only one-third of respondents said they believed the U.S. will continue to be the world's leading power 50 years from now.

"In other words, it appears that Americans perceive that the world order is moving away from one of American dominance to one of increasing multipolarity," according to the survey. "All this is a sharp turn from the 1990s and early 2000s" when post-Cold War optimism about U.S. power was running high.

The prospect of a more multi-polar world, however, is not altogether distressing to the public, according to the report of average citizens, who – in contrast to elite sectors – have complained in various polls (79 percent in the latest CCGA survey) over the past decade that the U.S. was playing "the role of world policeman more than it should be".

Thus, asked whether it would be "mostly good" or "mostly bad" for emerging powers like Turkey and Brazil to become more independent from the U.S. in the conduct of their foreign policy, 69 percent agreed it would be "mostly good because then they do not rely on the U.S. so much".

Similarly, 68 percent of respondents said the U.S. should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China, while only 28 percent said it should "actively work to limit the growth of China's power".

While the public feels "uncomfortable with the role of global hegemon" or "world policeman", more than seven in 10 believe Washington "should do its share" in efforts to resolve international problems.

At the same time, the survey found continued support for a strong global military posture, including maintaining Washington's commitment to NATO and most of its network of overseas military bases.

The public generally backed what the report called a policy of "selective engagement" in deploying U.S. military power, not only in cases of clear and direct threats to the homeland, but also in support of low-risk, low-cost humanitarian emergencies and multilateral actions authorised by the United Nations Security Council.

But the public also favours a "lighter military footprint", according to the report, which noted a marked decline in support for maintaining long-term military bases in Germany, Japan, Iraq, and Turkey, compared to 2008.

Similarly, majorities oppose U.S. military intervention in conflicts that do not directly affect it.

While opinion is split as to whether Washington should take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if diplomacy and sanctions fail, 56 percent of respondents said the U.S. should not support Israel if it attacks Iran's nuclear facilities and Iran retaliates, while 38 percent – mostly self-described Republicans – believe it should.

Similarly, 56 percent of respondents said they would oppose the use of U.S. troops if North Korea invaded South Korea, although a majority would support such a move if the U.N. authorised such an action and other countries also contributed forces.

The survey found a sharp drop in support for strengthening international institutions, including the U.N., although a strong majority said it favoured the creation of a permanent U.N. peacekeeping force. Major multilateral economic agencies, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, suffered especially serious losses in confidence, compared to 2002.

While a 56-percent majority continue to see globalisation as "mostly good" for the U.S., that marked an eight-percent drop from 2004, suggesting a "longer-term trend", according to the report. A 50-percent plurality of respondents said globalisation should either be slowed or stopped altogether, a finding that could spell trouble for pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea, among others.

Despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to make the U.S. more secure over the past nine years, respondents did not feel particularly safer, according to the report. Half of them said the danger of a major terrorist attack is unchanged, while 26 percent said it was greater today than at any time since 9/11.

Moreover, forty-five percent of respondents – up from 27 percent in 2002 – now believe that "violent conflict" between the West and the Islamic world is "inevitable" due to the incompatibility of "Muslim religious, social, and political traditions with Western ways.”

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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