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Global Geopolitics

Public, Elite See U.S. Power in Decline

WASHINGTON, Dec 4 2013 (IPS) - For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, both the U.S. public and the foreign policy elite see Washington as playing a less important and powerful role in the world than it did a decade before, according to the latest quadrennial survey released here Tuesday by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Pew Research Centre.

A majority of 53 percent of adult respondents in the latest edition of America’s Place in the World said the U.S. was less important and powerful in global affairs than in 2004, which was shortly after Washington invaded Iraq. That event had much of the commentariat here comparing the country’s dominance to the Roman and British empires.

Sixty-two percent of a representative sample of CFR’s membership agreed that Washington is less powerful today than in 2004. CFR’s members, who consist mainly of current and former policy-makers, academics, business executives, journalists, columnists, and other elite professionals who are invited to join, is generally seen as the U.S. foreign policy “establishment”.

The new survey found a strong public ambivalence about Washington’s global role today.

On the one hand, 52 percent of the public agreed with the notion that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other nations get along the best they can on their own.” That was the highest percentage since the question was first asked by pollsters nearly a half century ago and nine percent higher than in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

Similarly, a record 80 percent agreed that Washington should “concentrate more on our national problems” than on its international activities, and 11 percent higher than in 2004.

On the other hand, two-thirds of the 2,003 respondents in the public survey, which was carried out between Oct. 30 and Nov. 6, said greater U.S. involvement in the global economy was a good thing, and 56 percent rejected the notion that the U.S. “should go our own way in international matters” (although that was the highest percentage who took that position since 1964).

“Americans are conflicted about the U.S. role in the world,” noted James Lindsay, CFR’s senior vice president, commenting on the survey. “(A)s frustrated as the public is with foreign policy, it isn’t ready to abandon internationalism or to embrace unilateralism.”

The latest survey, which asked respondents scores of detailed questions, showed, as it has in other years, significant gaps between the public and elite on a number of key foreign policy issues.

On Washington’s role in the world, 12 percent of both groups agreed that the U.S. should be “the single world leader,” while 72 percent of the public and 86 percent of CFR members, respectively, disagreed, insisting instead that it “should play a shared leadership role.”

But of those large majorities who opted for “shared leadership,” 55 percent of elite respondents said the U.S. should be “the most assertive” of the world powers, while only 20 percent of the public agreed. A 51-percent majority of the public said Washington should be “no more or less assertive” than other powers.

The same majority said the U.S. was doing “too much” in addressing global problems, as opposed to “too little” or “the right amount.” By contrast, only 21 percent of the elite said “too much.”

Asked to identify to top foreign policy priorities, the two groups both rated “protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks” and “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” at or near the top.

But there were major differences on other issues; for example, 81 percent of the public respondents identified “protecting jobs of American workers” as a top priority, but only 29 percent of CFR members did so. Similarly, 57 percent of the public named combating international drug trafficking, while only 17 percent of elite respondents agreed.

The public also gave reducing illegal immigration (48-11 percent) and “strengthening the United Nations (37-17 percent) a much higher priority, while the elite rated “dealing with global climate change” as its third highest priority (57 percent), compared to only 37 percent of the public who agreed.

On more specific issues, CFR members (69 percent) and the public respondents (56 percent) believed that Washington made the right decision in using military force in Afghanistan (although 87 percent of the elite respondents took that position in 2009).

On the other hand, only 14 percent of elite respondents said they believed the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the right decision, while a 49-percent plurality of the public said it was correct.

Asked which was more important to the U.S. in Middle Eastern politics – democracy or stability — the two groups were generally agreed. Just under a third of respondents in both polls opted for “democratic governments,” even if that results in less stability. Almost two-thirds opted for “stable government” at the expense of democracy.

Although CFR members were often quite critical of President Barack Obama’s performance on specific foreign policy issues, they were markedly more approving of his general performance than the public – by a margin of 60 percent to 41 percent.

On specific foreign-p licy issues, majorities of elite respondents also gave him much higher marks than the general public – by 20 percent or more on his handling of Afghanistan (56-34 percent); Iran (72-37 percent, although more recently conducted polls have shown majority public approval for his Iran policy); China (69-30 percent); terrorism (73-51 percent), immigration (67-32 percent); and international trade issues (66-38 percent).

On these and other issues, the survey found major partisan differences, with Democrats naturally tending to be considerably more supportive of Obama’s policies than Republicans.

Nonetheless, a 52-percent majority of elite respondents said Obama has “not (been) assertive enough” in his approach to foreign policy. Fifty-one percent of the public agreed. At the same time, a majority of elite respondents, in contrast to the public, said they favoured reductions in the defence budget.

For elite respondents, Obama’s handling of Syria – notably his failure to follow through on his threats of military action in retaliation for Damascus’s use of chemical weapons — was particularly disappointing and contributed importantly to the impression that U.S. power is declining. Nearly three out of four CFR respondents said the episode had left the U.S. weaker, and 59 percent of them disapproved of his actions.

More than four in 10 elite respondents attributed the public’s growing disenchantment with an active U.S. role in the world – as shown by their answers to with “war fatigue”; 28 percent cited the costs to the U.S. economy; and another 19 percent to the impression that recent U.S. initiatives have been ineffective.

Despite the perception that U.S. power and influence has declined, more than two-thirds of the public believe that Washington remains the world’s leading military power. However, consistent with the polling since the 2008 financial crisis, a strong plurality of public respondents believe that China has become the world’s leading economic power.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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