Disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are more wary of international engagement, with democracy promotion coming bottom of the list of priorities, according to the “gold standard” survey of public opinion on foreign policy.
“Americans have become increasingly selective about how and where to engage in the world,” with younger “Millennials” showing a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment, says the survey on Foreign Policy in the New Millennium from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the United States should take an active role in world affairs, but the 38 percent opposed represent the highest level recorded by the Chicago Council or comparable surveys since 1947.
While 83 percent of respondents believe “protecting the jobs of American workers” is a “very important” foreign policy goal of the United States, only 14 percent consider “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” to be a priority.
Some 72 percent say that “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons” is “very important,” while 64 percent stress “combating international terrorism,” while 28 percent prioritize “promoting and defending human rights in other countries.”
Democracy assistance practitioners may take some solace from the likelihood that the lack of political support for promoting democracy stems from its unfortunate and mistaken association with the Iraq war. But there will also be concern that a younger generation appears to conflate forcible or military forms of regime change with non-violent, low cost and demonstrably effective approaches to cultivating democracy through assistance to local activists and institutions.
“The Chicago Council has been conducting foreign policy surveys periodically since 1974,” notes James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and they have been the gold standard in the field for about as long.”
The survey reveals considerable generational differences, with millennials (between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine) in particular “less pessimistic than most Americans about their future status and are less alarmed about major threats facing the country, particularly international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the development of China as a world power.”
The democracy dividend that has proven elusive in the Arab world is similarly lacking at home.
“The public ultimately has not viewed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as successful, seeing neither security benefits nor an increase in democracy in the greater Middle East as a result of U.S. efforts,” the report states.
The survey finds little polarization between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy, but suggests that public opinion may drive a “reorientation in the new millennium.”
“New forces are having an impact on American foreign policy preferences, including the Millennials and Independents,” the Council suggests. “Yet there is great consistency over the past decade in American support for cooperating with allies, participating in international treaties, and intervening militarily against genocide and humanitarian crises. In this regard, Americans remain true to their underlying values and aspirations for the United States to play a positive international role.”
The Millennials are primarily responsible for an increase in isolationism, reversing the increased support for international engagement that emerged following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“In 2002 public support for taking an active part in world affairs rose to its highest level since the 1950s,” the survey notes. “In 2002, 71 percent preferred to take an active part, with only 25 percent wanting to “stay out.” Now 38 percent say that the United States should stay out of world affairs, the highest percentage recorded in any survey since 1947.”
A majority of Americans (52 percent) believeS Asia is now more important to the U.S. than Europe, a reversal of the findings two years ago when Europe was prioritized by a margin of 51 to 41 percent.
Large majorities of respondents favor diplomatic engagement with hostile or unfriendly states and terrorist groups.
“By margins of more than two to one, Americans say the United States should be ready to hold talks with the leaders of Cuba (73%), North Korea (69%), and Iran (67%),” the report states. “Somewhat fewer Americans favor negotiating with nonstate actors such as Hamas and the Taliban.”
Attitudes towards the Muslim world have shifted, perhaps as a consequence of Arab Spring.
Most Americans appear unconcerned that the withdrawal of U.S. support for authoritarian regime will facilitate the election of Islamist governments
Thirty-seven percent of respondents believe the current upheavals will have no impact on the United States, while 34 percent say they will be positive and 24 percent negative. Only 6 percent say that the United States should discourage democracy to prevent the election of an Islamic fundamentalist, while a majority (64%) says the U.S. should not take a position either way and 29 percent say that America should encourage democracy in any case.
Yet the survey reveals a “striking” 13-point increase in opposition to economic aid for Egypt, possibly in reaction to growing anti-American sentiment in Cairo manifested in the prosecution of US-funded democracy activists.
“For the first time since the question was initially asked in 2002, a majority of Americans say economic aid to Egypt should be decreased or stopped altogether (52%),” the survey notes.
Democracy promotion is one of several foreign policy issues on which Democrats and Republicans exhibit consensus. Some 21 percent of Democrats believe that “helping to bring democracy to other nations” is a very important foreign policy goal, while only 11% of Republicans and 10% of independents do so.
“Americans of all political stripes place importance on protecting jobs and do not think highly of bringing democracy to other nations, as has been the case for the past ten years,” the survey reports.