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Defining America's Role in the World

Several recent public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the United States' standing in the world and that they prefer a change in the country's foreign policy.

Many political scientists note that soon after the Cold War, international concerns and foreign policy issues became less important for most Americans. But, they say, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States changed Americas' thinking about the world and its role in it. Feeling exposed to international terrorism, many experts note that Americans became more attentive to events beyond their borders and more willing to take action in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, to reduce their vulnerability.

But Frank Newport, a pollster with The Gallup Organization headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey, notes a growing number of Americans are unhappy with the United States' foreign policy.

"Before 9/11, a majority of Americans was satisfied with the position of the U.S. in the world. After 9/11, they were too. But since the Iraq War began in the spring of 2003, those numbers have come down. This year, we found 61 percent saying that they were dissatisfied. That's a big shift," says Newport.

In a 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs public opinion survey, 76 percent of the respondents opposed the U.S. taking the leading role in trying to solve international problems.

Many Americans want to see U.S. leadership bolstered through cooperation with other nations. In a recent German Marshall Fund of the United States public opinion survey, 91 percent of the respondents wanted the U.S. to work with its allies in addressing threats to national security.

“Even before the Iraq War, a majority of Americans would say that they think the U.S. is too much out in front, that the U.S. is taking on too much responsibility and also pushing others around, says Steven Kull, Director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. ”They want the U.S. to take a more cooperative stance in world affairs. And since the Iraq War that has intensified. And there is more discomfort with the way the U.S. is involved in the world."

America's Top Concern

The Gallup Organization's Frank Newport says Americans see international terrorism as a top problem facing their country, but they don't see the Iraq War as part of that threat.

"Everybody is against terrorism because terrorism implies acts of violence, killing and death. And, of course, people are opposed to that. Therefore when you say, 'What about the war on terrorism?' Americans say, 'Well, of course, we should as a nation take actions to try to prevent terrorist acts,” says Newport. “That, we think, should be a function of any president or any government of the U.S.' So Americans are in favor of the war on terrorism, but they don't necessarily connect that with the war in Iraq."

A recent Harris Poll found that support for military action in Iraq has faded from 55 percent in 2003 to 35 percent this year. Regina Corso is Director of The Harris Poll, a leading private public opinion research firm based in Rochester, New York.

"When the war first started, a majority of Americans said that taking military action was the right thing to do. Now, only a third say it was the right thing to do and mostly because of what they see the situation is for the U.S. troops. Forty-two percent are saying it is getting worse. And that is why they are focusing negatively on Iraq," says Corso.

The Role of Democracy Building

Although most Americans favor putting diplomatic and public pressure on foreign governments to respect human rights, many surveys show they are increasingly reluctant to make democracy building a central theme in U.S. foreign policy.

The new German Marshall Fund public opinion survey shows support for promoting democracy around the world fell from 52 percent to 37 percent since 2005. John Glenn, a foreign affairs specialist at The German Marshall Fund, says the view has weakened across political lines.

"This has traditionally been a strong U.S. value. But we've seen over the past three years that this policy has had a declining support on the side of both Republicans and Democrats. Down from the 70s to the low 50s [in percentage terms] for Republicans, down from the high 40s to the 30s for Democrats. And it suggests to me that this is a reflection of the 'Iraq effect' we've seen on both sides of the aisle," notes Glenn.

Still, he says, domestic approval for America to remain active in world affairs remains strong. And supporters of both major political parties firmly agree.

"When you ask Republicans and Democrats alike whether the United States should exert strong leadership in world affairs, we find overwhelming support on both sides of the political aisle. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats and 93 percent of Republicans feel that the United States should exert strong leadership in world affairs,” says Glenn. “There is little data that Democratic or Republican voters feel that the United States should be turning away from its responsibilities in the world.”

Overall, University of Maryland political psychologist Steven Kull says recent polling research portrays the average American as perceptive and fair about international affairs. "If you take the majority position in a whole series of polls of the American public and you try to imagine one person that took all those positions, that person is a pretty reasonable person. That person says something that is pretty coherent, somewhat nuanced and with a clear point of view."

Kull adds that such views are not uncommon around the world as well.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.