Majority of Americans See the United States as Less Powerful
America's Place in the World
With a majority of the American public now saying that they view U.S. global power and influence as being in decline, CFR President Richard N. Haass and Pew Research Center President Alan Murray sit down to discuss the latest "America's Place in the World" survey. Among the poll's major findings is an increased desire for the United States to "mind its own business" and focus its efforts more on solving domestic problems at home. Nevertheless, support for continued U.S. involvement in international economic matters remains strong.
GJELTEN: Well, hello, everyone. I guess welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations supper club, or whatever this is. I haven't seen a venue quite like this here before.
But I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. And you're all here tonight to learn about America's place in the world. We're going to be discussing a new survey report from the Pew Research Center that was conducted with the support of the Council. The report focuses on current trends in public opinion on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. It combines surveys of Council on Foreign Relations members and the general public on emerging U.S. foreign policy goals and concerns. It was just released today, and I think you should have executive summaries available.
And for our guests to discuss this report, we've gone straight to the top, Alan Murray, president of the Pew Research Center, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. They both have distinguished professional backgrounds, which you can read about in your program notes.
MURRAY: You're not going into them?
GJELTEN: Yeah, I'm not, because people can read about them. I don't want to take their valuable time. But let me add just one personal note. As a journalist, I have long been impressed by these two gentlemen's talent as explainers. It's a rare foreign policy professional who understands the world so well and thinks so clearly as to be able to condense complex and confusing developments into clear terms that everyone can follow. And both Alan and Richard are superb on that score.
I used to sit alongside Alan on the set on "Washington Week" and marvel at how smoothly and eloquently he could summarize what was going on in the economy, for the viewers at home. And Richard has long been unequaled in laying out policy arguments in concise and crystal-clear language, which is one reason why he's been a real go-to person for us at NPR in terms of explaining the world. So I can guarantee you, this will be an enlightening discussion tonight.
For the first half-hour, I get to ask all the questions, and then, don't worry, I will turn it over to you.
So, Alan, I want to begin with you. And two big findings right at the front of the report, two highlighted in these graphs on the first two pages. The first one, of course, is this graph that shows that the public sees U.S. power declining in the world, 53 percent think the United States is less important and powerful now than it was 10 years ago, only 17 percent think it's more important and powerful than it was 10 years ago, and that's a sharp reversal of the finding of just a decade ago. But then the second big finding, the majority says U.S. should mind its own business internationally.
So this kind of strikes me as a little bit contradictory. It almost seems as if the United States sees itself—the Americans see the United States as being less important in the world, but maybe they're OK with that.
MURRAY: Well, I think that's a good point. Look, a couple important points to know about both of those questions. The first one, the 53 percent think the U.S. is less important and powerful than it was a decade ago, that's a question that's been asked for four decades, never gone over 50 percent before in those four decades.
The second one, 52 percent think the U.S. should mind its own business and let other people get along on their own, that's one that's been asked for five decades, never gotten over 50 percent before. So something very unusual is going on here.
But I'm not sure they're inconsistent. I mean, sure, the U.S. is less important, less powerful, and for the moment, they're fine with pulling back.
GJELTEN: The current state of affairs.
MURRAY: Yes. But let me add one more trend here that I think is surprising and may be in some ways the most significant finding of this, which is that, when you turn to the economic issues and you ask people about economic engagement in the world, support remains very strong. You had 77 percent who said that business and trade relations with the rest of the world was overall a good thing, 66 percent who said global engagement—the benefits of global engagement—economic engagement exceed the risks.
So this is not sort of a blanket isolationism going on here. There is a definite pulling back in terms of foreign policy, but a willingness to continue to engage on the economic front.
GJELTEN: Now, just to underscore that point for a minute about how much of a change there's been, I was struck by how many of the findings in this survey have actually been consistent with previous years. So views—as sort of a baseline, views on a lot of issues, in terms of threat and security and so forth, have actually been fairly consistent over the years, with the exception of these two, which shows that something really has happened.
MURRAY: Something profound is going on. I just want to take a second and highlight one other very significant finding of our research, and that is that the Council—members of the Council on Foreign Relations are very good poll-takers.
I think it was, what, 1,838 of your members answered the poll, and they did it with great thoroughness, and particularly open-ended questions got lots of good answers, so we like this—39 percent response rate, we like this group. This is—if you answered the poll, by the way, raise your hand, so we can...
MURRAY: What a great—you know, if only the whole country were like this.
HAASS: It's like Lake Wobegon. We're above average.
GJELTEN: So, Richard, your book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home," I don't know if—are we streaming video here?
HAASS: We hope so.
Any time you hold up the book, we hope so, yes.
GJELTEN: Right. So you didn't have the advantage, you didn't have the benefit of these data when you wrote this book, and yet there's some remarkable consistencies in your own view of things that you lay out.
HAASS: Sure. Let's get there through the first questions you asked Alan.
HAASS: So a lot of Americans are saying that our ability to influence the world is less than it was, and that's not a statement of preference. It's their take on things.
HAASS: It's their assessment. And I would say, that's probably so. You have a world of widely distributed power, and we just had the powerful examples of things like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States made enormous investments over a decade or longer, and doesn't have, shall we say, results that are commensurate with the investment.
So that take on the world—and if you look at trends with GDP and the rest, there's a natural shift. It doesn't mean the United States is in decline. That's not what you asked, because we're not in decline, and the U.S. continues to grow. We're obviously first among equals or unequals, if you prefer.
But the fact that others are rising, sometimes growing at faster rates economically, so this shows to me what you might call considerable situational awareness. So I actually take that as an informed, fairly accurate statement.
The fact that people then go on to say they want to spend more time, quote, unquote, "minding our own business," in part reflects the same thing, some disillusionment with what you get from exertion abroad, again, Iraq, Afghanistan. What I think is called intervention fatigue or war fatigue in the study is obviously real.
And also Americans are reacting—again, I would think quite realistically—to what they perceive when they look out their windows and they look at the challenges politically here at home are dysfunctional at times in our political system, infrastructure, schools, you name it. The fact that we're not growing economically at anything like our historic rates, the fact that we still haven't returns to level of employment that we had five years ago. So for good reason they are saying that the real challenges facing this country are domestic.
So I actually take a lot of this poll as reassuring, that Americans seem to have a very good grasp on the national security realities facing this country at this time.
MURRAY: I mean, this would be a better panel if you could get the two of us to fight with each other, but, I mean, on this point, I think Richard has interpreted it exactly right. You know, another question we asked was, do you think the U.S. is doing too much in the world, too little, or about the right amount? About half of Americans say too much. And then when we followed up and say, well, why do you say that? Most of them cited some problem at home. So they have either read Richard's book or they're feeling...
HAASS: I think more people responded to your polls than bought the book, so...
MURRAY: But the other interesting point I would make is that while the American public seems to be responding well to Richard's book, members of the Council on Foreign Relations had the exact mirror image response. Roughly half of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations who answered that question said the U.S. is doing too little in the world. So it's a very...
HAASS: It just proves that this organization takes no institutional positions.
GJELTEN: Now, Richard, you used the word "overreach" a lot in critiquing American foreign policy, but I also recall in a New York Times op-ed that you said the Obama administration has basically embraced the principle of avoiding overreach and turning its attention back home. But if that is true and if these Pew findings are correct, the policy of pulling back to the extent the Obama administration has done that has not restored power and influence for the United States. So how do you explain that?
HAASS: Well, first, I'd say the Obama administration has largely embraced what I would call an avoidance of overreach, with one exception, which is Afghanistan, where there was essentially a tripling of U.S. force levels and the adoption of a much more ambitious mission beyond counterterrorism. Now the administration, though, has essentially walked that back.
There's a difference, though, between not overreaching abroad and performing well at home. And it actually makes a larger point. Our domestic troubles are not born of what we're doing overseas. That sets up a false dichotomy between guns and butter. U.S. spending on national security, if you add up what we spend on defense, foreign aid, intelligence, homeland security, diplomacy, what have you, you add all of that up, and as large as the numbers are, as a percentage of GDP, it's not particularly large by post-World War II standards.
We could spend less abroad, 10 percent, 20 percent less, even more than the sequester, and while it would have real impact on our national security, again, it wouldn't fix what's wrong here at home.
I'd actually make a broader point. Far more important than how much you spend is how you spend it. And the problem domestically, by and large, is not how much we spend. We spend a hell of a lot on health care. We spend, what, twice the average of the OECD countries? We don't live twice as long or twice as healthy, as last I checked.
We spend a lot on per capita education, K-12. We don't have outcomes in any way representative of what we're spending. So the argument that what we're doing abroad, if we were only doing less of it, would—and we are now doing less of it, because of mainly the winding down of Iraq and Afghanistan, that it automatically leads to better performance at home, no, it doesn't. Better performance at home will come from smarter policy at home. It won't simply come from doing less abroad.
Indeed, I just finished the forward to the paperback edition of the book, and pardon me for a second for referring to it, but the argument I make is, whereas in I was worried most about overreach and underperformance domestically, I know am worried about underreach. I am worried about this poll that there is—and it crosses political lines.
For those of you, by the way, who think that we don't have enough bipartisanship, in some cases, we have too much, and we have elements of bipartisan agreement here about doing less abroad. And I think it is a misreading of how we got to where we are. Simply by doing less abroad, we will not help ourselves at home. We've got to be smart about what we do in both places.
GJELTEN: Alan, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think one of the findings in the report was that the—a lot of Americans think that Obama, President Obama has not been tough enough abroad.
MURRAY: That's right, it was about half think he hasn't been tough enough. And his overall ratings on foreign policy have gone down pretty dramatically. In fact, if you think back to the beginning of the administration, he would consistently get higher approval ratings on foreign policy than on domestic policy. That's now reversed the other way.
You have to think a little bit about the timing of this survey. This happened right after—right after Syria. And both the public assessment and the Council on Foreign Relations' assessment of his handling of Syria was very, very negative, you know, think that it showed—that it weakened the United States and strengthened Russia, large majorities believe that.
GJELTEN: So but there should be, apparently, then a sizable portion of the public that thinks that the American president needs to be strong abroad and project strength abroad, and yet not get into other people's business.
MURRAY: Well, that's right. In fact, you know, Richard was talking about defense spending. The support for defense spending that you see in this poll is actually pretty strong. You have a—I'm going to use a lifeline at some point and call on my folks here to get the exact numbers, but it's, you know, I think over 60 percent either felt that it was OK or not enough. And so strong support for defense spending.
The other thing that showed up in this poll is that a majority of Americans think that the U.S. should strive to remain the world's only military superpower. So it's kind of interesting. Again, that's not really an isolationist sentiment.
HAASS: This is not an isolationist poll. Actually, George Kennan would like this poll. This is a realist poll. You have surprising numbers against the United States trying to remake other countries; they're skeptical of it. Support for foreign policy dominated by democracy promotion and human rights promotion is modest, extremely modest.
So I think what you're mainly seeing is something of a reaction to what was seen, again, as trying to do too much of the wrong things in parts of the world, but it's not an across-the-board pullback. It is not an indiscriminate reaction against international involvement. It's much more nuanced than that.
GJELTEN: Pick up on the economy aspect of that that you mentioned at the beginning.
MURRAY: Well, that's right. They favor economic engagement. Another striking finding—and we've seen this in previous polls—is that more Americans think that China's the world leading economic power than think the U.S. is the world's leading economic power, by pretty substantial percentages. Now, in that case, I'm not sure what data you base that judgment on, but it tells you something about the sense that Americans have about what's going on in their economy.
HAASS: You're right. Alan, though, mentioned the economics at the beginning, which I found the single most surprising part of the poll, because normally you would have said, in an era of prolonged economic growth, persistent high unemployment, low levels of employment—we still haven't bounced back to where we were five years ago—that there would be a tremendous surge in protectionism, and we're not seeing that in the numbers.
And in a funny sort of way, the American people—or in a good sort of way, I would argue—are far more open economically to global involvement or engagement than are the elites who purportedly represent them. So one of the most interesting numbers was the openness to foreign investment in the United States, extraordinarily high. I take that as a great sign, because one of the things I believe in is a national infrastructure bank. I live in New York, and we just saw the terrible accident in one of the—yes, it was obviously—or not obviously—purportedly some human error, but you're dealing—anyone who's driven—been on those trains knows how old the rail bed is, the trains are, and so forth, or anyone who goes back and forth between Washington and New York knows that even the so-called fast train is a slow train.
We don't have anything like a modern infrastructure. An infrastructure bank would largely be funded by—not by public money, by private money, and a lot of that money would come from abroad. So I read that, and I go, wow, there's much more openness to foreign investment in the United States than I would have thought.
And then politically you would think, by watching what goes on inside the Beltway, people are understandably uncomfortable or opposed to the building by American companies of plants abroad. They see that...
MURRAY: They don't—they don't like taking jobs overseas.
HAASS: Right, that's offshoring. They see—so I read that, and I say, wow, there might be potential support for changing the corporate tax rate, things that would encourage American firms to bring the profits back home and potentially build here. So, again, I read this, and I go, there is much more openness economically than, again, probably most of us would have thought in a time of sustained economic difficulty.
MURRAY: That is very striking, yeah.
GJELTEN: Well, if Americans think that China is the dominant economic power in the world, maybe they think they already own America.
HAASS: Well, they're not paying their tolls in yuan, so I doubt it, when they go across—no, but you hear about China's economic growth having been double-digits for decades, and people are, again, painfully aware of their own economic travails. So the idea that a lot of individuals would come to that conclusion is, to me, not that surprising.
MURRAY: You know, I want to go back to another issue that Richard mentioned in passing, but I think is really pretty profound, and this showed up both in the public survey and in the Council survey, and that is that support for these soft power efforts, if I can call it that, democracy building, promoting human rights, raising people in developed countries out of poverty, it's just not there, almost to a surprising degree.
When we asked people to list their priorities for foreign policy, you know, fighting terrorism is at the top of the list. Jobs was number two on the list. But all those soft power measures were at the bottom of the list.
HAASS: Yeah, the two things that mattered most were things that happened abroad that would directly affect us at home, so issues of terrorism, immigration, drugs, things that had a direct connection, almost literally across borders, those were the foreign policy issues that had the most salience, where traditional foreign policy, again, realists would find real comfort in this poll. But the idea of remaking other societies, essentially Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy, was not widely supported here.
GJELTEN: Now, there's been a lot of continuity, correct, in the way that Americans perceived threats to the—you know, the importance of terrorism, the importance of, you know, the danger that Iran represents and so forth. It appears that there's actually been quite a bit of continuity in recent years in the way they assess these threats.
MURRAY: Well, that's right. In fact, people think that the terrorist threat is as great today as it was in 9/11, and you see continuity in a lot of these numbers. We don't have good trends on these soft power measures, but the degree to which those have gone down in the wake of the Arab Spring and the frustrating experience that people have had watching that story play out has to have caused some change there. So, I mean, on some of these, you're seeing dramatic movement. On others, you're seeing a fair amount of consensus.
GJELTEN: I want to spend just a minute on the—sort of the politics here. There is interesting findings that you found that Democrats and Republicans alike see the U.S. as being less respected, which I think goes to your point, Richard, that that's just a—that's just an objective, you know, analysis of the world. But on the issue of whether the United States is less important or whether it's less important that the United States...
MURRAY: Less important and powerful, yeah, you...
GJELTEN: ... then there's—then there's a big split.
MURRAY: It is kind of striking. So on the mind your own business question, Republicans and Democrats are pretty much in the same place on that. They both agree, mind your own business, let countries deal with their own. But on the, is the U.S. less important and powerful than it was 10 years ago, you see a big partisan swing over the last decade. Republicans—now more than 70 percent of Republicans say, yes, the U.S. is less important and powerful than it was a decade ago. When they were asked the same question in 2004, it was only 8 percent. So some of these questions are very susceptible to changes in administration and swings in their partisan identification.
GJELTEN: Approval or disapproval of the president.
MURRAY: But even if you take all that out, what you're seeing is an unprecedented desire to disengage from the world.
HAASS: It's a little bit farther than I'd go. I think what there is, is a wariness and a weariness—both—I think it's too soon to say this has morphed into what you might call active isolationism. I don't see that. And I still think that presidents have—not only do they have their innate discretion that comes with our constitutional system to do lots, but I think Americans can be brought along to support reasonable foreign policy goals or goals at least where the costs seem in line with the goals. I think we've gotten into trouble in—over the past decade...
GJELTEN: So what would an example of that be? You know, what would be the kind of thing that would in this environment rally support? Not economic, obviously, which...
HAASS: Well, we may have a test out in Asia. If what's going on, say, between Japan, China, whatever, as all too quickly might, you have some kind of an incident and where the United States is called upon to meet certain commitments and obligations, I think that sort of thing the American people would understand. It would be—it would fit into a more traditional foreign policy or national security template.
MURRAY: You know, I think Richard is right. There is a real—what you are seeing here is a real skepticism about the efficacy of foreign policy. I mean, the Afghanistan point that, you know, only 31 percent of Americans think that after 12 years and how many lives lost in Afghanistan that we have made ourselves safer in the process. And even on NSA snooping, spying, only 39 percent think we have made ourselves safer by doing that.
The one thing that they feel confident about is drones. For some reason, drones, a majority think that's made us safer.
HAASS: Before they watched "60 Minutes" the other night. We'll see if that lasts.
GJELTEN: I want to pick up—you mentioned the spying issue. And I'm curious, I guess, Richard, you know, how much of this sort of perception that the U.S. is less respected in the world is the result of, let's say—is the American people's views of foreign policy sort of blunders and how much of it may have to do with NSA revelations or with the perceptions of, you know, dysfunction in Washington? I mean, there are other factors that can contribute to this.
HAASS: I mean, the honest answer, which is not the one you want, is I literally don't know, because when you ask questions like that in a poll, you're not quite sure whether you're getting a direct answer to your question or you're getting indirect approval type take. So if you disagreed with what the president did in Syria or you disagreed with what we tried to do in Iraq or Afghanistan, or some of the Snowden things, that what you get is not so much a reflection of international disapproval, but people's own disapproval, because the numbers correlate not that dissimilarly with people's own assessment of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
So it's hard for me to read exactly what those questions tell you. But, again, it's true or accurate in the sense that respect for the U.S. abroad has gone down. It's a combination of our foreign policy decisions and our—if you will, how we're perceived, and also I think actually even more our political dysfunction and what people see—whether it was the sequester, nearly going over the debt limit, the government shutdown. When those things happen here, they don't stay here, and the rest of the world not only views it, but they're affected by it.
And I think that's also one of the outgrowths of the financial crisis, that, you know, the rest of the world is tied, like it or not, closely to how we perform here at home. And when we do badly, it obviously has enormous consequences for everyone else, even though they don't have much to say in what it is—what it is we do, so you get a lack of respect for us and also at times antipathy towards us grows when they feel that we have done things that are bad for them and we didn't take them into account.
GJELTEN: Alan, can you sort of give a view of what the American people would like to see as far as the U.S. role in the world? What kind of foreign policy would really have support in the American people? You know, how do Americans want the United States to be in the world?
MURRAY: Well, I can only tell you what they say they—how they say they want the United States to be, because that's what our data shows. I mean, they are happy to have the U.S. share power with others. While they do have this sense that we should try to remain the world's leading military superpower, in general, they're comfortable with power-sharing arrangements. As Richard says, they want to focus on the—we got some problems at home. I mean, that comes through loud and clear in these polling numbers. They want to see a focus on problems at home first.
When we ask people to give their foreign policy priorities, you know, number one was terrorism, because that, in a sense, is a problem at home, and number two was jobs.
HAASS: Know what this sounds like to me? This sounds like an Eisenhower foreign policy. This sounds like a foreign policy of considerable strength, very cautious in terms of actually employing that strength overseas, and a domestic focus, very aware, if you will, of the economic bases of your country's strength. It sounds very much like an Eisenhower foreign policy to me.
GJELTEN: The question that the poll can't answer is the question that Richard raised, is—you know, if something happens, you know, is there a trigger point in Iran? Is there a trigger point over the Senkaku Islands that would change—change that opinion and willingness to engage?
MURRAY: Well, you did find—Americans do feel that Iran, for example...
GJELTEN: They're worried.
MURRAY: They're worried about Iran.
GJELTEN: They're worried, yeah.
HAASS: And you've seen that in more recent polls, also, where there's support for the interim agreement, but there's also tremendous skepticism about whether it will really work. And those are—they seem to be inconsistent, but they may not be inconsistent. And what you just raised, also, about the Senkakus, it's not—it's interesting that this poll sets up what could very well be the two big foreign policy decisions of 2014, which is, what are we going to do about a potential crisis in the Asia Pacific? And what are we going to do if the negotiations with Iran don't succeed?
So this in many ways sets up those two rather classic, much more than Iraq and Afghanistan, which I would argue were not classic, these are really classic national security or foreign policy challenges. Quite possibly, we'll have—you know, by the time the next poll comes out, we'll have some guidance on these.
GJELTEN: Now, before we came in here, I was saying that I thought there was evidence in here that the American people can be somewhat fickle in their view of...
GJELTEN: ... what the respect of the United States abroad, and both of you challenged me on that. Do you—so it should be possible for an American president to elaborate a foreign and domestic policy that actually resonates with the American people.
HAASS: Not only should it be possible, it had better be possible. I mean, national security is a two-sided coin. It's what you do in your foreign policy abroad and it's what you do domestically here at home to—with the bases of your power economically and socially. We've got to get it right. If either one gets out of whack, if we do too much or too little abroad in the foreign policy or we don't get it right here at home, our national security plummets.
And that's the challenge we've got now, and that's—the alternative to getting it right is not just bad for us, but it's disastrous for the world, because if we don't get it right, there's no one else out there who's able and willing to step into the role we've been fulfilling for decades.
So we have got to get it right, because the alternative—I actually believe this strongly—the alternative now to a U.S.-led world is a nobody-led world. And that's a world of growing disorder. This is not a world that's self-regulating or self-managing. So we either get it right or we enter into I believe what could be a prolonged, dark era of international disorder.
GJELTEN: Alan, is there—after having read this report, is there a question or a couple of questions that you wish you had asked that you didn't ask or that you'd like to ask the next time?
MURRAY: I would not confess to that if there were.
I think we asked exactly the right questions, right? Team, right? Am I—yeah? OK.
HAASS: You need a lifeline for that?
GJELTEN: Well, on that point, let's turn it over to the audience. Maybe you have some questions that you think Alan and the team at Pew should have asked. So if you could—I have a little instruction here—you should identify yourself and wait for a microphone. Do we have microphones? OK, Mitzi here in front. Here's a microphone.
QUESTION: I'm Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School. I found this a very interesting conversation. Do you think the people who voted for our present Congress wanted this kind of chaos? I mean, you keep talking about the American people; they're surely a part of it.
HAASS: Well, I think it's important to point out that when people vote—that people don't vote in this country for Congress. They vote for their individual representatives, be it their congressman or their senator, and often they have very—by definition, those who win the elections, a majority of those voting support this or that candidate for Senate or the House.
So there's often a tremendous disconnect between public attitudes towards Congress as a whole as an institution, which is usually about 10 percent or lower these days in the public estimate, and there's support for their individual member, who they often feel good about enough to re-elect them.
MURRAY: But there is clear—it is clear that there is this—now this very sizable minority, a big chunk of the Republican Party, that thinks gumming up the works in Washington is probably the best way to go. I mean, one of the things that our polls have shown this year is that you have about a quarter of the public who actually said that they would like public officials to undermine the health care law, to make sure that it isn't effective.
I don't know—I mean, I would ask the folks at Pew if we've ever seen anything like that before, but when you have that—a sizable percentage of the public not just opposing it, but saying now that it's been passed, we want you to undermine it. So what you call chaos may be a desired outcome by—not by a majority, but by a sizable minority in the public.
GJELTEN: You mentioned before the split between Democrats and Republicans, but you didn't get real fine-tuned in terms of sort of the Tea Party wing of the Republicans and kind of...
MURRAY: Well, we do that. And you see some of that in this poll. The Tea Party feels very strongly about Israel, for instance, and very positive about Israel, very negative about China, and is distinguished from other Republicans in that regard, so you do see some—you know, we—I think we all know it's not—it's a truism that the fault lines in the Republican Party these days are deep and profound. You know, maybe not as profound as the fault lines between Democrats and Republicans, but certainly something worth watching.
HAASS: But I would actually make a slightly different point, which we didn't ask about it directly in the poll, but the fault lines of the American foreign policy debate do not—do not correlate closely or align closely with party lines. If you look at, for example, who favored at various times, say, intervention in Syria, you have groups of Democrats and groups of Republicans who oppose certain crises or certain foreign policy actions, groups of Democrats, groups of Republicans.
And I think that's an important point, which is you've got in each party various tendencies now. It's very hard to say what's a Republican foreign policy or what's a Democratic foreign policy. I think within each, I can find at least three schools of thought fairly clear within each of the parties. And, again, it's one of the reasons, I believe, that explains at times the lack of coherence and the lack of consistency.
MURRAY: But while that's certainly true, it would be wrong to say that that means that politics ends at the water's edge. It does not. I mean, you look at that huge swing on the important and powerful question...
HAASS: I was not suggesting that.
GJELTEN: Yes, sir?
MURRAY: OK. Good. Just making sure I didn't misread the book.
QUESTION: My name is Jim Keith. I'm a retired diplomat and a business consultant with McLarty Associates. This realist interpretation and the notion of support for power-sharing would seem to be at odds with the notion of American exceptionalism and asking, again, this question of whether a foreign policy could resonate at home.
Certainly, one doesn't see politicians running on the basis of opposition to American exceptionalism. Can you draw conclusions from the poll about potential popular support for...
MURRAY: I am going to pull a lifeline now. Carroll or Juliana, do we have any questions in there that really get at American—the idea of American exceptionalism?
DOHERTY: Not specifically, but I think we do see that...
GJELTEN: Wait for the microphone just for a second.
MURRAY: This is Carroll Doherty.
GJELTEN: It's behind you there.
DOHERTY: Yes, I'm Carroll Doherty with Pew Research Center. I mean, you do see this support for America remaining the military superpower, for instance. I mean, there is that sense of global leadership even as the public wants to pull back a little bit. You do see that. And I think, you know, other polling has shown that Americans think of themselves as something of a special nation.
GJELTEN: In the back there?
QUESTION: Hi, I'm David Adesnick. I'm a CFR international affairs fellow, spending my fellowship year at AEI. And I wanted to pick up on Dr. Haass's comment that this is not an isolationist poll and it seems that there's even an explicit disavowal that there's an—isolationism is evident in the data here. Yet that strikes me as quite noteworthy, because four years ago, the headline of the Pew "America's Place in the World" report was isolationist sentiment surges to four-decade high. And in 2005, one of the big lines was isolationist revival.
And yet the indicators used to identify isolationism, especially this does—should America mind its own business, those have only continued in the direction that was previously identified as the isolationist direction. So I guess I wanted to ask, Mr. Murray, is, why has Pew changed sort of the conceptual framework? Why did data that previously suggested America was going through a resurgence of isolationism now yield to a report which explicitly says this is not evidence of isolationism?
MURRAY: I joined the Pew Research Center in January.
I don't think I have to defend the previous reports. I'll defend this one. I think it's a fair point. Look, I mean, we make—we make re-evaluations. I don't know if one of you guys want to step into this thicket on my behalf.
We make re-evaluations. But I—again, I think if you look at this poll, you want to—you're going to brave this, Carroll? Go ahead.
DOHERTY: You know, it's a loaded term, for one thing. I mean, it is. And we all know that. I think, you know, we could go through the history of this question, "mind your own business." It actually has some basis in 1930s isolationism and was sort of modeled on that.
On the other hand, you see a more nuanced view this time. I mean, as Alan pointed out, the economic engagement numbers are very strong. And so I think to call this isolationism, it would be a little...
MURRAY: Yeah, if you look at—if you look at the economic numbers in the last poll, they were, what, 20 points below what they are now, so much less support for economic engagement. So there was more consistency across the economic and foreign policy questions that could justify more of an isolationist interpretation.
HAASS: Let me give—let me give two other reactions to that, though I will not defend Alan's...
MURRAY: They're not mine. I wasn't there.
HAASS: ... which is the idea that you'd want to do more at home or, quote, unquote, "mind your own business," to use the wording of the poll. I'd say two things about that are not isolationist.
One of it could be seen as a reaction to, again, trying to do what I would call the wrong things overseas, which is remaking other countries. So to say that the reaction is mind your own business—if I were asked that, I'd say, well, that means not trying to restructure intricate aspects or intimate aspects of other societies, I'd say, yeah, that's probably about right. I think there's limits to what foreign policy can and should normally aspire to do.
And if minding our own business meant restoring the bases of American power, if that was the interpretation, I'd say, yeah, that's something we should do, not as an isolationist, but, again, as a basic component of national security. Unless we are strong at home, we're not going to be strong abroad.
Now, where minding your own business does become the isolationist is when you're not even able to see that your interests are—your vital interests are engaged overseas and you need to act on their behalf.
GJELTEN: Your own—that second half of that phrase is "your own business."
HAASS: Right. So—and that's where the phrase is—to me, it doesn't—it's open to certain interpretation. So it's interesting as a historical tool, because it shows broad trends. My hunch is, there's probably a danger in parsing it, because different people may answer the question, interpreting the phrase somewhat differently.
MURRAY: It's a metaphorical question. And, you know, I don't think anybody sitting around today would phrase the question that way, but it's one that's been around for five decades, so it gives us the historical perspective—by using the same question, it gives us some historical perspective that's useful.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Sonia Short (ph), and I am with (inaudible) people like Assange or Snowden or Bradley Manning, they opened kind of a Pandora's box. And I was wondering if you have some comment on what happened to the image of the U.S., not just only locally, but internationally. Thank you.
MURRAY: Yeah, I don't know that we have any data on that internationally yet. I can tell you what this poll shows in the U.S., is that in spite of these other trends we've been talking about, 55 percent of the people who responded said that what Snowden did harmed our national interests. You know, the public was negative on it and him.
GJELTEN: Right here, sir, you've had your hand up for a while.
HAASS: Alton, you got a microphone just behind you.
QUESTION: Alton Frye, the Council. I wonder if this contour of opinion doesn't suggest some priority for changing the vocabulary of our foreign policy discussion. I hope and believe we're all past the point of the unipolar moment, so that vocabulary has decayed. If a significant fraction—maybe a majority of Americans—think the Chinese have the greater economy, we're already past even persuading Americans that we are the sole superpower. And even if we want to retain the status as the military superpower, which seems to me objectively a fair description, if we want a president and a Congress to find common ground based on opinion in the American community, don't we need some new vocabulary to help Americans find that common ground and for a president, particularly, to lead in that direction? I'm recommending new vocabulary and invite suggestions as to what it might be.
GJELTEN: Do you have a term?
QUESTION: No, I'm thinking about it in reaction to this discussion this evening. Give me a week.
HAASS: Well, you—look, we've struggled now for—it's interesting, next year marks the 25th anniversary, the quarter-century anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall and what might be the symbolic end to the Cold War, and yet American foreign policy has been going about its business for now nearly a quarter of a century without a vocabulary in some ways, without a new construct. I mean, containment could survive everything except its success. And so here we are now in the aftermath of that, and there's many ideas that have been put forward about what should be the guiding principle and what's the tagline for American policy, so there's that debate.
And then there's separate from that the analytical debate. How do you describe this world? And you're right. It's not unipolar. In some ways, it probably—it never was. That was a simplification. It's certainly not bipolar, like the Cold War. It's not even multipolar, I would argue. Multipolarity suggests a handful of countries that dominate the world, like they did a century ago. I actually believe power is far more distributed now than it ever was.
I use the phrase nonpolar. There are so many poles that it's silly to talk about polarity. And you've got poles that are states. You've got poles that aren't states. You've got, you know, the major international companies, be in the extraction business, the IT business, whatever. They're now major international players. NGOs can be major international players. The Gates Foundation is a major international player. News organizations are.
So I actually believe, thanks to globalization, thanks to technology, we live in a world that's structurally, fundamentally different than we—than something we have ever seen. So to speak of it in terms of classic polarity, which always suggests domination by a few, I would argue is an outmoded and no longer accurate vocabulary.
GJELTEN: Why is nonpolar not anarchy?
HAASS: Well, anarchy—nonpolarity simply means there's distributed power. It's a challenge to organization, to statecraft. And one way to think about the challenge facing American foreign policy, how do you make sure that a world of distributed power or a nonpolar world does not become disorderly to the point of becoming anarchic? And I would say, that's a pretty good intellectual framework.
And the challenge is right now is that we lack many of the arrangements globally to deal with challenges. Take cyber. We don't have anything like the rules or institutions in place to deal with this technology. Take drones, ditto. Same thing. We have more in the way of mechanisms that deal, say, with proliferation or trading issues, but still even there there's a gap or there's a lag.
So one way to think of the challenge facing foreign policy is, how do you narrow this gap between global challenges and global rules and arrangements? You know, the phrase I would use is integration. What we want to do is integrate the world, so there are rules and there are arrangements in place to deal with these challenges, but that's—I would simply say the gap is large, and that's one shorthand for thinking about—climate, by the way, is another area. It's one of the ways to think about the challenge facing this—this president or his successors.
GJELTEN: Alan, remind us how Americans view the United Nations and other international institutions.
MURRAY: Yeah, I mean, interestingly, the support for the United Nations also was fairly low in this report . I don't remember the exact number. Michael or Carroll or Juliana, you may have it. But not—it has clearly gone down over the course of the last couple of decades. And, by the way, among council members, as well, there was not a whole lot of interest in the United Nations...
HAASS: But support for multilateralism is high.
HAASS: What's interesting...
MURRAY: It's just—it's efficacy. It's what you've said, efficacy.
HAASS: Right, and that's a good sign, because that means the U.N. doesn't have the franchise or monopoly on multilateral efficacy or legitimacy, as it shouldn't. So you end up going forum shopping, and you find multilateralism that works, whether it's standing or you bring it into existence as you have to. That to me is—that's a pretty grown-up approach to dealing with international challenges.
GJELTEN: Mr. Wendt, yeah.
QUESTION: Allan Wendt, formerly with the Department of State. You haven't talked much about the Congress. And it seems to me that Congress is a big part of the problem, increasingly dysfunctional. They meet three days a week. Apparently they don't even travel that much anymore, because they're back home dealing with their constituencies and voters. And yet Congress has, by statute, a major role in foreign policy. What can be done to change the situation? What are the prospects for improving it?
HAASS: Well, I'd challenge one thing you said, which is—I'll behave here—the role of Congress in foreign policy is less than the role of Congress in domestic policy. The president has far more latitude through tradition and the Constitution. If tomorrow the president decides he wants to use force in any number of contingencies, he can do it. He chose to go to Congress over Syria. He didn't need to. As he himself admitted, he had all the authority he needed. So presidents have far more discretion when it comes to foreign policy.
I think where Congress largely affects national security policy is not through the, quote, unquote, "foreign policy" side of the coin. It's much more through the domestic. And that's where the political dysfunction really has enormous consequences, and that's a whole other conversation about what can be done to affect the way we do business inside the Beltway.
MURRAY: But an important conversation—I mean, you yourself said it's had a big effect on people's—people outside of the United States and their perception of the U.S. Obviously, we're seeing unprecedented levels of polarization within Congress and a degree of dysfunction that's shocking.
And I think you ask one of the most critical questions of our times. In fact, we're planning starting in January to do a major effort to try and understand the degree to which what's happening in Congress right now reflects the opinions of the public and the degree to which it doesn't. And is there a—is there a center whose voice is somehow not being heard or reflected in what's happening today?
GJELTEN: There's been other poll data that suggests that Americans want Congress to be more functional and want there to be more compromising and want people to work together.
MURRAY: Well, yes, but there's also—I mean, our data shows that the extremes are bigger, fatter than they used to be, you know? So both things are going on. And understanding how and why and where and also understanding where the information comes from that feeds those divergent opinions I think is an important task, because it is—I think you would agree that's the biggest problem. It doesn't do much good to talk about what the right policy is if you have a dysfunctional government that can't implement policy.
HAASS: And that's also—coming back to one thing Al said—is it's where what we think of as domestic has real foreign policy and national security consequences. American predictability and reliability, I would argue, is high up on the list of things that matter for us. And if countries start discounting our predictability and reliability, it reinforces this trend towards disorder or even anarchy.
And I think that's part of the—part of the results of what happened here over the last few months, is a lot of countries took their measure of us and said, wow, if they can shut down the government, if they can nearly go over debt ceilings, if—the sequester raises questions of resource ability, what this has done is raise questions of American ability and will to be a consistent actor in the world. And I think the repercussions of that are potentially large and costly.
GJELTEN: Let's go to the back of the room. Ma'am?
QUESTION: Natalie Liu with Voice of America. On Syria, I see that a majority of the Council members—74 percent, to be precise—consider Russia as coming out of the crisis as stronger. And about equal measure of members, 72 percent, consider that the United States has come out of this as weaker. I'm wondering whether the panelists think Russia's gain and America's concurrent loss or retreat on this will endure, in terms of each country's credibility, prestige, and, of course, influence?
HAASS: You want to take that?
MURRAY: Yeah, the only thing I would say—I mean, Richard's in a better position to answer that—the only thing I would point out is that the poll went into the field right after the events. So it loomed very large in the minds of the people who were answering—answering the poll, and that won't persist. I mean, other things—you know, stuff happens. Things will take the place of Syria in forming people's perceptions about the U.S. role in the world.
HAASS: I don't think Russia's in a position, if you will, for any number of reasons, largely because of its domestic flaws and shortcomings, to be a major international actor across the board. You've got a population that has dwindled significantly over the years. You've got a very—what you might call a cash crop economy, without much in the way of economic development or modernization beyond oil and gas. You've got a top-heavy political system that is connected to a top-heavy oligopoly economically. I actually think Russia is potentially in a quite vulnerable position going forward.
So there's many things I worry about in the world when I get up in the morning. Russian power is not particularly...
MURRAY: One of the...
HAASS: ... is not—is not one of them.
MURRAY: One of the striking stories of the last—of the last decade will be how little Russia did with its oil wealth, economically.
GJELTEN: You know, there's one point here I'd like to call attention to, which is that even this dramatic finding about the views of U.S. global power falling to a 40-year low, this is a relative statement. It says that the United States is less important and powerful than it was 10 years ago. It's not an absolute statement.
And, you know, I'm wondering if it's—if there's a danger in paying too much attention to relative changes in perception and, like, ignoring or not paying enough attention to the absolute perception. Is the U.S. important or not?
MURRAY: I think, on that question, you're absolutely right, and that's reinforced by the fact that the partisan swing was such an important part of that question. But when you look at the questions of the whole, the "mind your own business" question is not a relative question.
So when you look at the—you—and the question—the 50 percent of the public who says or 51 percent of the public who says that the U.S. is doing too much in global affairs, those are not relative statements. So I think when you pile them all up, you see something going on here that we haven't seen in decades.
GJELTEN: Yes, ma'am? Right behind you, uh-huh.
QUESTION: My name's Wendy Freeman (ph). I have a methodological question...
QUESTION: ... for those of us who sit on the other side and read these numbers and genuinely don't understand. Without revealing all the proprietary secrets and the—and the trade secrets and everything else, since the last time you did this poll, what has changed in the way you've asked the questions, elicited responses, given social media, and just the whole technological revolution in terms of crowd-sourcing and everything that goes on with polling? I'm just curious how that changed.
MURRAY: In terms of the way we do it, not much. Michael Dimock was involved in both and is our political researcher...
DOHERTY: And it's an excellent question. I mean, gauging public views on things is getting difficult. I mean, the first polls that were done in this series, many of them were face-to-face. Some of the old trends that you saw, people knocking on doors and sitting down in your living room and asking you how you felt about these things. We switched to telephones back in the '70s, and now we're switching to cellphones. Half of these interviews are done over cellphones, to be sure we're reaching people who don't have landlines at home.
At this point, we're not incorporating social media and other techniques, but it is harder to reach people and get their views on all of these things.
MURRAY: But every time they make one of those switches from face-to-face, to landlines, to cellphones, they do the research to show how it's affected, is it affecting—to make sure it isn't affecting, basically, the trend. So I think we're pretty comfortable that these 50-year trends that we're looking at are, indeed, 50-year trends.
DOHERTY: Right. And even though fewer people are volunteering to participate in the polls, we're finding very little alignment between a willingness to participate in polls and political views, and that's a comforting thing from the perspective of doing political polls. To put it simply, Republicans and Democrats are sort of equally grumpy when we try to reach them.
And that seems to span...
HAASS: What a relief.
DOHERTY: ... a lot of different attitudes about politics. So while there's probably ways in which it can be tricky to poll people, so far, it doesn't seem to introduce a lot of bias into these kinds of questions.
GJELTEN: Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Alan Raul from Sidley Austin. With all this talk of problems and lack of efficacy and political dysfunction to solve the problems leading to fatalism, even the economic engagement figure would seem to suggest that we need to engage economically with the rest of the world perhaps because we're not as economically powerful as we used to be.
Is there anything in the polling data or otherwise that you've seen which indicates that there's something that the American public admires or respects about our current system or nostalgia for the way we used to be or wanderlust for the way some other country is? That is to say, what do we aspire to? Who would we like to be? Like ourselves in the past? Like some other country today? Or is it just that everything is terrible and there's, you know, no silver lining anywhere, anyone doing it right that we'd like to get closer toward?
MURRAY: Well, I think you might be overstating what the poll is saying about current public opinion. I don't think it's an "everything is terrible"—I don't read it as an "everything is terrible" poll. So I guess that would be the first point I'd make.
Whether there's—I mean, there's no other country that people are looking to as a model. As we discussed earlier, I don't think there's a lot of evidence of American exceptionalism.
There was one really interesting result that had to do with young people. We asked people what nation they thought was the greatest—open-ended question, what nation do you think is the greatest threat to the U.S.? And the first two answers were Iran and China. So like each of them got around 16 percent, Iran and China. Number three was the U.S.
Now, maybe that's an example of what you're talking about, about a terrible self-image. Maybe it's an example of what Richard is talking about, which is a focus on—in order to get foreign policy in order, we need to focus on our problems at home first, but it was a striking response. And the other thing that was interesting about it was, it was much higher among young people. Young people were much more likely to name the U.S. in the open-ended question.
GJELTEN: So I think those are the people who bought Richard's book.
MURRAY: Well, there it is. I mean, they must be—you know, that's it, because young people share, and so they don't all have to buy copies.
HAASS: That explains it.
MURRAY: They can pass it around.
HAASS: That explains the numbers.
GJELTEN: In the back of the room there is somebody that raised their hand. Yes, ma'am?
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Genie Nguyen with Voice of Vietnamese Americans. My question has two levels. Back to our domestic—and you talk about a dysfunctioning of the Congress. Would you have anything to say about the redistricting process? Is there something that we need to do about it? And at the global level, Dr. Haass has said that if something happened, say, in between China and Japan in the East China Sea, there is potential more tension also in the South China Sea, with China recently announcing its ADIZ and possible overflowing into the South China Sea, as well.
In that case, according to this poll, what do you think the best action for the White House to be? And at this time, I see that Vice President Biden is taking the trip. Is that adequate?
HAASS: On the first...
MURRAY: You do the China? No, I want to do the first. You do the second.
HAASS: OK. You can do the first, I'll do the second.
HAASS: Yeah, look, there's nothing in this poll that is that explicit in terms of policy guidance. But I also see nothing in this poll that raises concerns. There's nothing in this poll about the United States running away from its treaty commitments. It seems quite sober about the need for American military strength. The idea that the vice president is undertaking a sense of strategic consultations both with allies, like Japan and the Republic of Korea, he's also going to China, seems to me exactly right.
We've—indeed, more broadly—and again, it wasn't really a subject of this poll—but I believe that the big strategic idea in this president's foreign policy, at least as articulated—we'll see how well it's implemented—is the idea of a rebalancing towards Asia. And I continue to think that that's where the real strategic challenges are, both in their importance and in the kinds of challenges that by their very nature are most susceptible to being influenced by the kinds of assets the United States can bring to bear.
All of that distinguishes Asia from the Middle East, where I would argue that the kinds of challenges we face do not often lend themselves to the kinds of strategic assets the United States can bring to bear. So I'm very comfortable with the idea of the vice president doing what he is now doing. I think—and more generally, I think what we've done over the last couple of days in reaction to the unilateral Chinese proclamation of the air defense identification zone, including the B-52 test and so forth, sent an important message both to the Chinese, but also of reassurance to our friends and allies in the region.
MURRAY: Yeah, and quickly on redistricting, we don't have any data that shows that redistricting is the—and I don't think we've seen any data that shows that redistricting is the problem or reforming redistricting would solve the problem of polarization in government...
HAASS: Certainly won't help you in the Senate.
MURRAY: ... and government dysfunction. Having said that, just as an individual—this is not—just having watched this over the last three decades, the way we draw districts in many states is, obviously, crazy. We've abandoned all standards, any sense of geographical boundaries, of, you know, coherent communities. It doesn't make any—it doesn't make any sense. But the data's really mixed on whether fixing that policy problem would have a big effect on the political dysfunction in Washington.
GJELTEN: OK, we're pretty much out of time. I don't know if—does anybody have a question that can be answered yes or no? Because that's about how much time we've got left.
MURRAY: No, yeah.
GJELTEN: All right.
HAASS: They'd be out of the Council if they had...
GJELTEN: ... there's a reception outdoors. Thanks very much. A reminder, this was on-the-record, in case you wondered, and no objection to that, I'm sure. Thanks very much.
HAASS: Thank you, sir.