James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Should the United States Mind Its Own Business Internationally?

by James M. Lindsay
September 10, 2013

Syrian-American demonstrators protest in front of the White House (Jim Bourg/Courtesy Reuters). Syrian-American demonstrators protest in front of the White House (Jim Bourg/Courtesy Reuters).


Separate polls out today by the New York Times/CBS News and the Wall Street Journal/NBC News show considerable public opposition to President Obama’s call for military strikes against Syria.  Both polls show something else as well: Americans doubt the wisdom of U.S. activism overseas more broadly.

The Times/CBS News poll asked whether the United States should take the lead in solving foreign conflicts. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said no; just 34 percent said yes.

The WSJ/NBC News poll asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “America is doing too much in other countries around the world, and it is time to do less around the world and focus more on our own problems here at home.” Nearly three-in-four Americans agreed.

These responses are clearly influenced by the current debate over Syria. When a WSJ/NBC News poll asked back in May whether the United States was “doing too much” overseas, just 54 percent said yes.

But the public’s skepticism of foreign policy activism is not just about Syria. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars and a financial crisis that exposed weaknesses in the U.S. economy had many Americans questioning the wisdom of international activism long before Syria’s chemical weapons came to dominate the headlines. When the Pew Research Center asked back in 2009 whether the United States should mind its own business internationally, 49 percent of those surveyed said yes. That was up seven percentage points from a 2005 Pew poll.

So the public’s skepticism about the benefits of an activist foreign policy is not a passing fad. To be sure, fading memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, robust economic growth, and events overseas could combine to restore the public’s appetite for global activism. But for now, most Americans look content to let others lead.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for the elaboration of some previous points made elsewhere,

    I’m obviously not a politician, but I believe this author has found his mark. The key semantic is “global leadership”. The American public can get their head around that a little easier, if couched with some supporting argumentation, imo.

    I am all for U.S. leadership globally. All things are relative and the world would be a better place with U.S. leadership than without. I just don’t agree with the method applied thus far, although there does appear to be a shift. I hope and dream the President will mention something about leadership tonight, and I think it would generate the most favorable outcome from the public, again imo.

    – kk

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The sort of leadership America has demonstrated is neither to America’s nor the world’s liking. In harmony with the physician’s saying, “First, do no harm,” Americans will be glad to trim their country’s role in world affairs. America has done much harm in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Americans, being instinctively a moral people, are becoming proactive and against what the current national leadership has to offer, both domestically and internationally.

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