For First Time, Americans Say U.S. Power In The World Is Declining

For the first time in 40 years, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, according to Pew's America's Place in the World poll. The Pew poll also finds that more Americans disapprove than approve of President Obama's handling of foreign policy. Robert Siegel talks about the poll results with Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, to make sense of what the results might mean.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Americans see U.S. power in the world declining. That is the key finding of a survey by the Pew Research Center. It also finds that most Americans think the U.S. should be engaged in the global economy, but ought to concentrate on solving domestic problems. Michael Dimock is here to talk about this poll. He's the director of the Pew Research Center. Good to see you again.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, how many Americans say the U.S. role is declining and how significant a number is that?

DIMOCK: Well, it's 53 percent, so just over half feel like America is less important and powerful in the world than it was 10 years ago. That's the highest we've seen in over 40 years on this question, a real sense that America's role is less powerful and the respect for the U.S. has declined as well.

SIEGEL: Now, 10 years ago, the U.S. was the leader of a multinational assault on al-Qaida and just getting into a war with Iraq. Is one message here, please, no more Iraqs, take care of things at home?

DIMOCK: Yes, definitely. There's a corollary with this, is a sense of hesitance among the American public, at least, if not resistance, to foreign engagements, both military and even diplomatic or other roles the U.S. can play geopolitically, a sense from the public that we should be focusing on the issues at home, both economic and political, more so than engaging with the rest of the world.

SIEGEL: But you note, people draw a distinction between global leadership and participation in the world economy. You said that this means we're not seeing evidence of a broad isolationism among Americans.

DIMOCK: Absolutely. Isolationism is far too strong of a word and too blunt of a word for where the American public stands right now because they see much more opportunity than risk when it comes to economic engagement. They think that participating in the economy is going to bring more good to the U.S. It'll grow our economy.

The highest numbers we've seen, in terms of support for international trade and closer ties between businesses in the U.S. and elsewhere, a real sense that the way we get out of this economic problem is not through retraction or protectionism, but engagement.

SIEGEL: But people have very different views in this survey of foreign companies coming to the U.S. and presumably hiring Americans and American companies going abroad and outsourcing jobs.

DIMOCK: That's right. That's right. I mean engaging economically is not without risks, to be sure, and jobs are a high concern for Americans. One of the highest foreign policy priorities they have is protecting American jobs. And they do see U.S. companies setting up operations overseas as problematic because it does potentially risk U.S. jobs.

SIEGEL: Place this poll in time with respect to U.S. moves with regard to Syria and Iran recently.

DIMOCK: Yeah. I mean Syria was a real nadir for Barack Obama's foreign policy. He came into office with actually very strong public support for his foreign policy agenda. Syria has been a real problem. It was a sense of weak leadership, a sense that it's really damaged America's role. From the public's perspective, there was never any interest in active military engagement, and once that was on the table, the public got very hesitant to get involved with Syria.

But even though that was averted in the end, the public looks back on that event in a very negative light.

SIEGEL: And Iran?

DIMOCK: Iran continues to be seen as a big threat. People are concerned about Iran's nuclear program, but diplomacy is far preferable to other approaches that could be taken here, and while people may not be terribly optimistic that we're going to solve the issue within the next few months, they do want to support these engagements.

SIEGEL: One basic message here, though, for somebody who would be facing the public on foreign policy is anti-interventionism is a strong stream in American thought right now.

DIMOCK: It really is. Any way that the U.S. is trying to inject itself into the affairs of other parts of the world are viewed with a lot of skepticism right now and it reflects not just war fatigue, but there's a broad sense among the American public right now that our efforts to affect policy in other parts of the world often either do little good or in fact may do more harm than good. And that's a big part of why they're so hesitant right now.

SIEGEL: Michael Dimock, thanks for talking with us about today's poll.

DIMOCK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Dimock is the director of the Pew Research Center.

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