Isolationism among Americans is at highest level in 40 years

Almost half say the United States should 'mind its own business,' a Pew survey shows. War-weariness and economic concerns are pushing isolationism to 40-year peak.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If President Obama is looking for something that transcends the national divisions over healthcare reform and Afghanistan policy, he might try isolationism.

Roughly half of Americans now say the United States should "mind its own business" and let other countries hash out problems on their own, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The survey, conducted every four years with the Council on Foreign Relations among CFR members and the general public, finds America's perennial inward-looking strain at its highest level since pollsters first queried Americans about isolationist tendencies in 1964. Back then, just 18 percent of Americans supported a "mind our own business" approach. Today, it's 49 percent.

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The sour economy is one explanation for the isolationist spike, but so is disappointment and fatigue over the results of eight years of aggressive foreign policy under President Bush, analysts of the public's views of the world say.

"The American public is focused on the bad economy, and is feeling badly about the world," with US troops in two wars and concerns about terrorism, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, Mr. Kohut says, "we are coming off eight years of an aggressive foreign policy, and that [approach] was judged unsuccessful." That, he adds, "would lead some Americans to believe we are becoming less important."

The poll finds that nearly half of Americans already consider China to be the world's largest economic power. While the general public cites that and other reasons to consider China a rising threat, foreign-policy experts (in this case, the CFR members) tend to believe China will be one of America's most important future allies.

The experts and the public also differ on what country constitutes the biggest threat to US security. For Americans in general, it's Iran and North Korea. But for experts, it's Pakistan.

One dramatic shift the poll underscores: Americans' view of France. Today two-thirds of Americans have a positive image of France – up from a low of 29 percent when France stood up to the US over the Iraq war. Credit the pro-American President Nicolas Sarkozy, but also what Kohut says "may be [in hindsight] a greater appreciation of the French point of view" on Iraq.

Still, the poll finds a broad unease over America's engagement with the world, and that sentiment could spell trouble for President Obama as he escalates one war and pursues diplomacy to address one of the public's major worries – Iran.

"Barack Obama is navigating choppy waters in foreign policy," says James Lindsay, director of studies at CFR in New York. "People question whether multilateralism is going to deliver at the end of the day, and they worry the president is too accommodating."

The economy will be the major determinant of how US opinions evolve on foreign policy, Mr. Lindsay says. "When the economy dips, so does the public's enthusiasm for acting abroad. The public wants leaders focused on fixing problems at home and less on fixing problems overseas."

But he adds that "what bad economic times can take away, they can give back," as the fluctuations in America's enthusiasm for foreign involvement over recent decades demonstrate.

Still, Lindsay says the poll suggests that Americans continue to harbor concerns that Obama may not be "tough enough" to handle a hostile world. Iran, he adds, will likely be a crucial test for the president on that score.

"If Iran gets the bomb," he says, it won't represent for Americans simply "Iran's determination, but the president's weakness."

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