Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How Americans View an Unruly World

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 6, 2014
BY ANDREW Kohut, a founding director of the Pew Research Center.

They’re dismayed by the president’s foreign policy but still don’t think the troubles are their business.

The American capacity to look the other way on world affairs hit a high point in July. By any standard a lot was going on. The extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham conquered a large swath of Iraq, adding to the territory the group holds in Syria. A commercial airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine and a new bloody war broke out in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Despite the growing mayhem, a mere 3% of Americans in a midJuly Gallup poll named an international issue as one of America’s most important problems.

According to a mid-July Pew Research Center survey, however, international issues are a problem for President Obama. His approval rating on his handling of foreign policy is falling among the same public that itself seems indifferent to events overseas.

The 3% level of intense concern about foreign affairs is fairly typical of public opinion in recent years. The Pew Research Center’s findings on the subject have typically registered in the single digits, averaging about 7%, in national surveys conducted since the beginning of the Obama administration.

The percentage of Americans citing an international concern as a most important problem was markedly higher, in the 50% range, in the years following the 9/11 attacks. It was higher during the Cold War, too.

While the recent 3% finding doesn’t represent the full extent of public concern for world affairs, it does suggest the public’s relative priorities. When Americans look at the world’s trouble spots, majorities are inclined to say they aren’t their problem.

The mid-July Pew Research Center national survey found 39% of respondents saying the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq, while 55% said it doesn’t. Only 32% said they are paying very close attention to the fighting between Israel and Hamas, which is typical of the level of news-attentiveness regarding all three of July’s major international problems.

The only trend running counter to the public’s international disengagement was on Russia and Ukraine, parts of which have been occupied or attacked by Russianbacked insurgents since March. In the week following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (presumably by those insurgents), the percentage of people saying events in the region are very important to the U.S. climbed to 48% from 31% in April, when the conflict was claiming only Ukrainian lives.

Americans’ disengagement on foreign affairs has been the norm in recent years, as shown by a lack of public response, as measured by Pew Research Center polls, to serious troubles in Egypt, Libya and Syria. This isn’t the first time in the modern era when the going got tough internationally and the American public said “not our problem.”

Even Ronald Reagan could not get public support for his efforts to support the armed resistance to communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and Bill Clinton was on very thin ice with U.S. involvement in the Balkan wars. The Serbs called it quits in 1999 just as the American public’s limited patience with U.S. intervention was running out.

While foreign crises have failed to fully engage the public, they have had negative consequences for President Obama. A July Pew Research Center survey found 36% approving of the way he is handling foreign policy and fully 55% disapproving.

This continues a trend of poor ratings. In a major Pew Research/ Council on Foreign Relations survey released in December 2013, fully 51% of the public said that Mr. Obama is not being tough enough with respect to foreign policy generally. A Pew Research survey in April 2014 reported that while 40% thought the president was handling the Russia-Ukraine crisis about right, just about as many, 35%, thought he was not being tough enough.

Whether the new sanctions on Russia that were announced last week will change perceptions of the president’s “toughness” is an open question. But the bigger issue is what—short of a direct attack on America—will increase the number of citizens who see the world’s mounting crises as important problems for the U.S.

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