May 28, 2014

Obama charts a new foreign policy course for a public that wants the focus to be at home

President Obama delivers a speech at West Point. Credit: Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama delivers a speech at West Point in 2009. Credit: Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama is expected today to lay out his vision for navigating the many foreign challenges now facing the nation at a West Point commencement address. Republican leaders have criticized the administration for failing to exert American leadership abroad, but the speech also comes at a time when the American public has less of an appetite for foreign involvement and believes American clout is not what it used to be.

President Obama addresses cadets at West Point Military AcademyA growing number of Americans want to see the U.S. less involved abroad after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a Pew Research Center survey last fall, 52% of the public said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” — the first time since 1964 than more than half the public held that view. About four-in-ten (38%) disagreed. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month produced similar results.

As crises like the ongoing civil war in Syria and Russia’s annexation of the Ukraine have tested his administration, Obama complained last month about criticism that he was not being tough enough. For example, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that the administration had led on anti-government forces in Syria and pro-western elements in Ukraine without doing enough to back them up. Obama said that some of these critics “would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”

In his West Point speech, a top White House foreign policy aide told the New York Times that Obama will make “a case for interventionism but not overreach” when it comes to addressing crises abroad.

About half (51%) of Americans agreed last fall that Obama was not tough enough on foreign policy and national security issues while 37% considered his policies about right. More specifically, an April survey on public reaction to events in the Ukraine found that 40% considered Obama’s response about right while 35% said he was not being tough enough.

But when it comes to specific challenges, public opinion reflects the general trend toward less direct U.S. involvement. Only 31% of Americans said what happens between Russia and Ukraine was very important to U.S. interests, according to an April Pew Research poll. About six-in-ten (62%) opposed sending arms or military supplies to the Ukraine government. On the “toughness” question, there was a clear partisan divide: 55% of Republicans called Obama not tough enough compared with 23% of Democrats.

This is all during a time when Americans believe U.S. influence in the world is declining. About half (53%) said the U.S. role as a world leader is less important and powerful than 10 years ago while only 17% said it was more important. Seven-in-ten said the U.S. is less respected by other countries than in the past. About an equal number favored a shared leadership role in the world with far fewer saying the U.S. should be the single world power.

One area where Obama reportedly is ready to take stepped-up U.S. action —possibly to be announced in the West Point speech — is Syria, where the U.S. may provide military training to moderate Syrian rebels.

However, public opinion on Syria is also reflective of some of the general sentiment on global engagement. A CBS News/New York Times poll last September found that 68% of those surveyed said the U.S. did not have a responsibility to do something in Syria to end the fighting.

Topics: Foreign Affairs and Policy

  1. Photo of Bruce Drake

    is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. M. A. Lockett3 years ago

    I believe President Obama is taking measured steps to prevent the US from being in a constant state of war. There is something to say about using brains over brawn and try as he might, some folks think that “weak”. I think it shows intellect and consideration. We have no business in Syria. We have no business in the Ukraine; Nigeria. We are not the world’s army and the sooner we realize this, the better off America will be as a whole. The President is a thinking man–not a bully or an egotistical maniac. If most of our elected officials had a 10th of his intellect, we could have accomplished much–to include a better standing in the world–these past six years. As it is, our elected “leaders” have chosen to do an internal battle and divide the country. We have regressed in our society, but it is because we keep shooting ourselves in the foot!

    1. slk3 years ago

      how did chamberlains intellect and consideration work out??? WW2!!!

  2. Larry Stanley3 years ago

    Isn’t it possible to reduce the military expenditures and foreign aid directed to the rest of the world and use the resultant savings to enhance our military defense preparedness? This would appease both sides of the debate.

    1. catherine kearney3 years ago


    2. slk3 years ago

      and throw in billions, by deleting many fed depts and programs!!!

  3. Skip Voorhees3 years ago

    Obama’s “weakness” is in making threats which he doesn’t either rescind or back up. Syrian gas is a prime example; it’s still there with Putin’s blessing. When Putin volunteered to broker the gas issue, what did Obama think he (Putin) was doing? Changing his spots. Hardly credibe.

  4. Robert Burns3 years ago

    We actually don’t seem to have a foreign policy at all but just knee jerk responses to anything that happens. We’ve backed the wrong people, we’ve excused the wrong people and we are funding causes we have no knowledge of. It’s easy to call out Russia but why haven’t I heard a word about the government we back in Ukraine overthrowing a Democratically elected one by violence? I truly doubt this country’s ability to even understand what’s happening on the International scene.

  5. slk3 years ago

    what a joke!!! being a guest speaker, you’re supposed to talk to the graduates, not campaign!!! and what is he campaigning for???

    1. Carl Mankat3 years ago

      Campaigning seems to be his primary passion. It doesn’t have to be for a specific thing, just campaign for the sake of it.