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Independence Day blues? Americans sense a decline and look inward.

A poll on the eve of Independence Day confirms: More Americans see the nation as less powerful and more vulnerable. They want leaders to focus less on the world and more on challenges at home.

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“America’s fiscal situation and the over-all economy are driving a lot of Americans to look more inwardly, no question,” says Robert Zarate, a policy adviser at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington and a former House Republican legislative assistant. “But it doesn’t help when we have a president who seems to want to back out of our engagement” in the world, he adds.

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Mr. Zarate points to Obama’s recent Afghanistan address, which he says “turned out to be more of a domestic policy speech.”

Obama is focused on addressing the national security threats emanating from places like Yemen and Somalia, Zarate adds, but he says the president should do more to explain to the American people why a US role in those places and elsewhere is necessary – a process he says might also act as an antidote to Americans’ isolationist tendencies.

Others insist that while it may be the economic downturn that is feeding America’s turn inward, it will also be a better understanding of today’s global economy that will convince Americans of the necessity of remaining engaged in the world.

“Americans have often been reluctant to engage in world affairs, and yet they recognize the need to do so,” says Mark Green, a former US ambassador to Tanzania and former Republican congressman from Wisconsin who is now senior director of the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). “When we talk about the tremendous opportunities for job growth and economic growth through building good relations around the world, people understand that.”

That may be, but it is still true that Congress, in another isolationist turn, has started to take a knife to the next fiscal year’s proposed international affairs budget.

In response, the USGLC last week sent a letter to Congress – signed by more than 50 of the country’s most prominent corporate leaders – encouraging members to consider the link between America’s strong engagement in the world and a robust economy.

Ambassador Green notes that the total international affairs budget – primarily the State Department and US Agency for International Development budgets – is only 1 percent of the total budget. But “that 1 percent is very efficient spending when you consider the role it plays in building our presence in the world,” he says.

But are Americans, who seem to be looking inward and worried most about domestic issues, making the connection between a better economy at home and the wider world?

Green says yes, and cites his former constituents back in Wisconsin, in what is an agricultural district.

“People knew that to grow markets and sell more of what they produced, it was going to take opening up global markets,” he says. “And that leads people to realize that it’s crucial to our future to build our presence in the world.”


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