US flagging?
US flagging?Reuters

Growing numbers of Americans believe that U.S. global power and prestige are in decline, according to a Pew poll. And yet, most Americans think the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” The reason for this attitude appears to be “war fatigue” rather than a deeply rooted isolationism.

These are among the principal findings of America’s Place in the World, a quadrennial survey of foreign policy attitudes conducted in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which Pew describes as “a nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy.”

For the first time in surveys dating back nearly 40 years, a majority (53%) says the United States plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than doubled – from just 20% – since 2004.

An even larger majority says the U.S. is losing respect internationally. Fully 70% say the United States is less respected than in the past, which nearly matches the level reached late in former President George W. Bush’s second term (71% in May 2008). Early last year, fewer Americans (56%) thought that the U.S. had become less respected globally.

Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Barack Obama, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56% to 34% margin more disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. The public also disapproves of his handling of Syria, Iran, China and Afghanistan by wide margins. On terrorism, however, more approve than disapprove of Obama’s job performance (by 51% to 44%).

The public’s skepticism about U.S. international engagement – evident in America’s Place in the World surveys four and eight years ago – has increased. Currently, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement.

Pew says that this is “the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. 'minding its own business' in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.”

In a companion survey of 1,838 members of the CFR, 42% of CFR members point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or explicitly cite “war fatigue,” as the reasons for American's lack of enthusiasm for global engagements.

The surveys were completed before the multilateral agreement aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear development program. They found that most Americans do not believe that Iranian leaders are serious about addressing concerns over its nuclear program. Among those who heard at least a little about the nuclear talks, just 33% say they think Iranian leaders are serious about addressing international concerns about the country’s nuclear enrichment program, while 60% say they are not.

Iran’s nuclear program continues to be one of the top global threats to the United States in the public’s view. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans (68%) say that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the well-being of the United States. This is only a modest change from America’s Place in the World surveys in 2009 and 2005.

Views of other long-standing global threats, such as Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda (75% major threat), North Korea’s nuclear program (68%) and China’s emergence as a world power (54%), also have changed little in recent years.