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.