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American Isolationism, With a Very, Very Big Stick

American Isolationism, With a Very, Very Big Stick

In a modern-day melding of the worldviews of Charles Lindbergh and Teddy Roosevelt, Americans in this election year want to step back from the world but carry a big stick, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

As the presidential primary election campaign winds down and the general election season nears, the American public views the U.S. role in the world with considerable apprehension and concern. Nearly half say the United States is a less powerful and important world leader than it was 10 years ago. A majority of Americans say it would be better if the United States just dealt with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own challenges as best they can.

At the same time, public support for increased defense spending has climbed to its highest level since a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, given presidential campaign rhetoric to date, voters’ views of America’s place in the world are highly partisan, with Republicans more inward-looking than Democrats, but also more willing to use force when they perceive U.S. interests being threatened abroad.

Nearly six-in-10 Americans (57 percent) want the United States “to deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with their own problems as best they can.” This sentiment has increased since 2010, when 46 percent held such views. In part this may be because more Americans think the United States does too much (41 percent) in terms of solving world problems compared with those who think it does the right amount (28 percent) or too little (27 percent).

Moreover, it is clear that the public wants the next president to focus on issues at home. Seven-in-10 Americans say it is more important for whoever wins in November to focus on domestic concerns rather than foreign policy. Just 17 percent say the next president’s main focus should be on international affairs. Such sentiment is not new, but it has grown. In September 2008, six-in-10 said the next president should focus on domestic issues more than foreign ones.

Despite the public’s ambivalence about U.S. global involvement, a majority of Americans (55 percent) support policies aimed at maintaining America’s status as the only military superpower. Only about a third (36 percent) say it would be acceptable if another country became as militarily powerful as the United States.

Opinions on defense spending lend further support: 35 percent say Washington should increase spending on national defense, 40 percent say defense spending should be kept about the same as today, and only 24 percent say it should be cut back. The share favoring more defense spending has increased 12 percentage points since 2013.

The public suggests one thing they would do with a stronger military. Eight-in-10 Americans say the Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria (the Islamic State) is a major threat to the well-being of the United States. And 47 percent voice the view that using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world, up from 37 percent in 2014. An equal proportion (47 percent) believes that relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism, but that reluctance is down 10 percentage points from two years ago.

The pairing of inward-looking sentiment with renewed bellicosity is largely, but not solely, a partisan affair.

Some 62 percent of Republicans, compared with 47 percent of Democrats, want to let other countries deal with their own problems while the United States focuses on its own challenges. Yet large majorities of both Democrats (73 percent) and Republicans (65 percent) say it is more important for the next president to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy.

Fully 70 percent of Republicans say the use of overwhelming military force is the best approach to defeating global terrorism, including 77 percent of Donald Trump supporters. By contrast, 65 percent of Democrats, including 75 percent of Bernie Sanders backers and 64 percent of Hillary Clinton partisans, say relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism only creates hatred that leads to more terrorism.

Support for more defense outlays has increased across the partisan spectrum. But the gap in support for higher military spending between Republicans and Democrats, which was 25 percentage points three years ago, now stands at 41 points. Among those who identify with the GOP, roughly six-in-10 (61 percent) want to boost the Pentagon budget. But just 20 percent of Democrats agree.

Among Democratic voters, Sanders supporters are far more likely than those who support Clinton to favor cutting back U.S. defense spending (43 percent versus 25 percent).

With the likely Democratic nominee to be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the presumptive GOP standard-bearer to be Donald Trump, who advocates what he calls an “America First” foreign policy, international issues are likely to play a larger than normal role in the fall presidential campaign. The two candidates will be trying to woo an electorate that is neither isolationist nor interventionist, but an amalgam of both sentiments. And whoever prevails in the election will need to formulate a U.S. foreign policy that appeals for public support by weaving together these differing strains.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images