Event ReportsPublished on Apr 01, 2014
Talking about Americans' perceptions about the Obama administration's foreign policy, Mr Bruce Stokes, Director for Global Economic Attitudes at Pew Research Center, US, said 53% of Americans disapproved of his handling of foreign policy.
Majority of Americans disapprove of Obama's foreign policy

A majority of Americans believe that the United States needs to "mind its own business internationally" according to recent surveys, said Mr Bruce Stokes, Director for Global Economic Attitudes at Pew Research Center, Washington DC.

Speaking on ’How Americans View the World: US Public Opinion on Foreign and International Economic Policy’ at Observer Research Foundation on April 1, Mr. Stokes highlighted the fact that despite increasing support for strategic isolationism in the United States, Americans are still in favour of being involved in the global economy and are not in favour of protectionism.

Mr. Stokes outlined six important issues that shape American perceptions of the World. These are: American views on the United States’ role in the world, views on trade & global economy, long-term foreign policy objectives, US counter-terrorism policies, American perceptions of other countries and how Americans viewed Obama’s foreign policy.

Talking about American views of the United States’ role in the world, Mr. Stokes emphasised the fact that Americans’ views on the United States as a global power were at a forty-year low. Elucidating upon this, Mr. Stokes pointed out that a majority (52%) of US citizens believed that the United States needed to "mind its own business internationally." Additionally, the survey data pointed out that an overwhelming number (80%) of Americans want the United States to concentrate on domestic problems instead. Considering this, Mr. Stokes expressed his belief that the United States is currently experiencing its "peak moment" in isolationism.

Mr. Stokes went on to talk about the Americans’ perceptions of the United States globally. Although many Americans (48%) view China as the top economic power, an overwhelming number of Americans (68%) still believe that the United States’ military power is unrivalled. Furthermore, although many Americans (72%) favour the United States taking on a "shared leadership role" in the global order, they (56%) want the US to remain the sole military superpower. Interestingly, however, they are opposed to any increase in military spending.

Mr. Stokes clarified that Americans preferred "strategic isolationism" and that despite this, a majority (77%) of Americans were supportive of the United States’ involvement in the global economy. Mr. Stokes, however, did emphasize that Americans have mixed views on globalization. While Americans (62%) were in favour of foreign companies setting up operations in the United States, 73% were against American companies setting up operations in foreign countries. There is general opposition to immigration among Americans, regardless of whether they were high-skilled (50%) or low-skilled (52%).

Mr. Stokes also spoke on Americans’ foreign policy priorities. He pointed out that the top three priorities for Americans were: protecting the United States from terrorist attacks (83%), protecting American jobs (81%), and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (73%). Mr. Stokes also highlighted Americans’ lowest foreign policy priorities (in ascending order): promoting democracy abroad (18%), improving living standards in developing nations (23%) and promoting and defending human rights in other countries (33%). Furthermore, Mr. Stokes pointed out that most Americans wanted the United States to either decrease its involvement (39%) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or maintain its current level of involvement (36%).

Mr. Stokes went on to talk about Americans’ perceptions of its counter-terrorism activities. Considering the use of drone strikes, he pointed out that Americans (50%) believed the use of drones was making them safer. On the other hand, Mr. Stokes pointed out that Americans were divided (39% in favour, 14% against, 38% indifferent) on the issue of Government surveillance. Furthermore, he pointed out that a majority of Americans (83%) believed the decision to use military force against Iraq was wrong but, at the same time, believed (69%) the use of military force in Afghanistan was right. Despite this, Mr. Stokes pointed out that only a minority (31%) of Americans believed the Afghanistan War has made them safer.

Mr. Stokes discussed American perceptions of select countries. He pointed out the top three countries Americans viewed favourably: Canada (81%), Great Britain (79%), and Japan (70%). On the other hand, the countries viewed least favourably by Americans were (in ascending order), Saudi Arabia (27%), Russia (32%), and China (33). Additionally, Mr. Stokes also pointed out that only 46% Americans viewed India favourably. Mr. Stokes highlighted a reversal of opinion by pointing out that more Americans (50%) since January 2011, considered Europe to be more important for the United States than Asia. He did, however, point out that a majority (52%) of young people (18-29) found Asia to be more important than Europe. Lastly, Mr. Stokes also pointed out that most Americans (60%) doubted Iranian leaders’ "seriousness" about addressing international concerns about their nuclear enrichment programme.

Talking about Americans’ perceptions about the Obama administration’s foreign policy, he pointed out that a majority (53%) of Americans disapproved of his handling of foreign policy. Terrorism was the only issue which a majority felt (51%) was handled well by the Obama Administration. The primary criticism against the Obama administration, as Mr. Stokes pointed out, was the belief that his administration is ’not tough enough’ on issues of foreign policy and national security. Lastly, talking about the current situation in Crimea, Mr. Stokes pointed that a majority (56%) of Americans thought the United States should "not get too involved." Mr. Stokes brought out this contradiction in his presentation.

During the question and answer session, when asked a question on why the United States was developing a more isolationist approach to international politics, Mr. Stokes expressed his belief that America had hit its "tolerance ceiling" and was experiencing war-weariness. He suggested that after 10 years of engagement, there was a growing perception amongst Americans that there was no more the United States could do. Responding to another question on the impact of public perception on the United States’ foreign policy, he emphasized his belief that sustaining certain foreign policy objectives, without public support, is impossible, especially over long periods of time.

The meeting was chaired by Dr. C Raja Mohan, Distinguished Fellow and Head, Strategic Studies and attended by diplomats, retired diplomats, journalists and academicians.

(This report is prepared by Pranay S. Ahluwalia, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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