America’s Place In The World: Opinion Leaders Turn Cautious, Public Looks Homeward

November 17, 2005 10:18 am (EST)

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A quadrennial poll on foreign policy issues finds both the public and U.S. opinion leaders taking a decidedly cautious view of America’s place in the world, reflecting concerns about the war abroad and growing problems at home.

The survey, a collaborative effort between the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations, finds a striking revival of isolationist sentiment among the general public. Fully 42% of Americans say the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” That represents a sharp increase since 2002 (30%), and is on par with the percentage expressing that view during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the 1990s after the Cold War ended.

The interviews conducted among eight groups of influential Americans reveals that they have become less supportive of the United States playing a “first among equals” role among the world’s leading nations. The goal of promoting democracy in other nations also has lost ground, and while most opinion leaders view President Bush’s calls for expanded democracy in the Middle East as a good idea, far fewer think it will actually succeed.

These are among the principal findings of America’s Place in the World, a quadrennial survey of opinion leaders from religion, government, the news media, academia, the military and several other professions, along with the public, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations. The survey, conducted Sept. 5-Oct. 31, reflects the major changes in the world that have occurred since the previous poll, conducted in the summer of 2001 just prior to the 9/11 attacks:

  • Public views of the United Nations have become much more negative over the past four years. Only about half of Americans (48%) now express a positive opinion of the U.N., down from 77% four years ago.
  • Four years ago, there was broad concurrence, if not a consensus, that China represented the greatest danger to the United States. Today, opinion leaders mention China, North Korea and Iran each about as frequently. More generally, China’s emerging global power is not triggering increased concern among opinion leaders or the general public.
  • Opinion leaders are divided over whether the U.S. should pursue policies to ensure that America remains the world’s only superpower. Religious leaders and scientists and engineers—groups that generally support a more limited leadership role for America—believe it would be acceptable if a rival military power emerged. But most state and local government officials, military leaders, and foreign affairs experts say U.S. policies should be aimed at retaining America’s status as the sole military superpower.
  • Underscoring the rising importance of Asia, India and China are mentioned most often by opinion leaders as more important U.S. allies in the future. The influentials are more unified in their opinions of which U.S. allies will decline in importance—France is named far more frequently than any other country.
  • The survey finds a continuation of long-standing differences between the public and influentials over issues such as trade and the importance of protecting American jobs. However for both opinion leaders and the public, partisanship is the decisive factor in views of President Bush and his principal policies—especially those related to the Iraq war. In effect, the partisan differences are greater than the elite-public divide when it comes to Bush and his policies.
  • Public views of the United Nations have become much more negative over the past four years. Only about half of Americans (48%) now express a positive opinion of the U.N., down from 77% four years ago.

For more information, please contact Andrew Kohut, Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, at +1-202-419-4350 or visit

The full report can be found here.


Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that individual and corporate members, as well as policymakers, journalists, students, and interested citizens in the United States and other countries, can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is an independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. We are best known for regular national surveys that measure public attentiveness to major news stories, and for our polling that charts trends in values and fundamental political and social attitudes. Formerly, the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press (1990-1995), we are now sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts and are one of six projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

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