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Poll Shows US Isolationist Sentiment Growing

A new opinion poll shows the American public growing more isolationist and less supportive of U.S. missions abroad.

U.S troops stationed in Afghanistan (File)
U.S troops stationed in Afghanistan (File)

A new opinion poll shows the American public growing more isolationist, less supportive of U.S. missions abroad, less certain of American clout on the world stage and more concerned about rising economic powers like China.  Analysts say the survey numbers present a challenge for President Barack Obama as he tries to rally the nation in support of a troop surge in Afghanistan.

Isolationist sentiment is on the rise in the United States, according to a poll conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.  Forty-nine percent of Americans, the survey says, believe the United States should "mind its own business" and let other nations get along on their own.  That is up from 30 percent in 2002.

"The American public is focused on a bad economy and also feeling badly about the world," said Pew President Andrew Kohut.  "There are two wars that the public thinks are not going well [Iraq and Afghanistan]."

Rising isolationism does not surprise Council on Foreign Relations Studies director James Lindsay.

"When the economy dips, so does the public's enthusiasm for activity abroad," he said.  "The public understandably wants its politicians to worry about fixing problems at home and is less worried about fixing problems overseas."

Lindsay says a growing preoccupation with domestic concerns has implications for U.S. foreign policy in general and President Obama's new Afghan war strategy, in particular.

"The president is sailing into a stiff wind," added Lindsay.

Recent public opinion surveys have shown declining support for sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  The Pew poll, conducted before President Obama's Afghan strategy announcement this week, shows only 32 percent backing for an expanded U.S. military mission.

Kohut says Americans are increasingly skeptical about U.S. intervention abroad.

"We had eight years of an assertive national foreign policy [under former President George W. Bush]. And that foreign policy, in the end, was judged to be unsuccessful," he said.  "Coming away from an experience like that, it would lead some Americans to believe that we are going to play a less influential, less powerful role in the world."

And which nations do Americans see as filling the vacuum created by a perceived loss of U.S. clout on the world stage?

"The public takes a less-benign view of China's rise.  Fifty-three percent [of Americans] see it as a threat, its emerging power as a threat to the United States," said Kohut.  "Although it is not really a negative attitude towards China, there is worry.  And, more dramatically, for the first time a plurality of Americans think that China - not the United States - is the world's leading economic power."

But if such pessimism and isolationist instincts are fed by current U.S. economic troubles, could an economic recovery reverse the trend?

"What bad economic times can take away, it can give back.  And if the American economy turns around and we see a sustained period of economic growth, I would expect to see these poll numbers change yet again," said Lindsay.

American public opinion also appears to be diverging from that of U.S. foreign policy experts.  A recent poll of 600 members of the Council on Foreign Relations, or CFR, shows 50 percent backing for a troop surge in Afghanistan, and 58 percent listing China as an important future U.S. ally.  Seventy-eight percent of CFR members see China as a minimal threat or no threat at all to the United States.

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