12 May 2016
While not as isolationist or unilateralist as some campaign rhetoric might suggest, new polling shows the American public broadly supports less engagement with the rest of the world.
Bruce Stokes

Bruce Stokes

Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
Xenia Wickett

Xenia Wickett

Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


US military personnel take part in joint military exercises with the Philippines, Australia and Japan in Crow Valley on 14 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
US military personnel take part in joint military exercises with the Philippines, Australia and Japan in Crow Valley on 14 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.


While the American election cycle could be perceived as an occasionally amusing distraction, the rise of new factions and sentiments among the electorate will have an impact not just in America’s domestic politics but also with respect to its role in the world. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows clearly the desire among many Americans for a different international engagement for the US, one that could have significant implications for America’s allies.


To date, the campaign rhetoric of both the Republican and Democratic contenders for the White House has raised questions about America’s continuing global commitment.

But what does the public think? The Pew Research Center has recently released its periodic survey of how Americans view America’s place in the world. The results suggest that stereotypes of Americans’ isolationism or protectionism do not capture the nuance in public sentiment. Wariness of international engagement coexists with assertiveness on some issues and a belief that the US is a force for good in the world. And these views often divide along partisan lines and between generations.

A majority of Americans (57%) think the U.S. should deal with its own problems and let other countries deal with theirs as best they can, a sentiment that has increased from 46% in 2010. Moreover, roughly two-thirds say ‘we should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems’. In part this may be the case because a plurality of Americans thinks the United States does too much (41% too much, 27% too little) in helping solve world problems.

The fact that six-in-ten Americans believe that problems in the world would be even worse without US involvement will not reassure many non-Americans who care deeply about how and where the US is engaged, not just that it is.

American isolationism is a partisan affair. Republicans (62%) are far more likely than Democrats (47%) to voice the view that the US should deal with its own problems. Notably, about two-thirds of registered Republicans or Republican-leaning independents who favour Donald Trump (68%) express such isolationist sentiments, as do more than half of the Democratic backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders (54%). At the same time, over half of registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who favour Hillary Clinton (52%) believe the US should help other countries deal with their problems.

The US has often been seen by its allies as acting in a unilateralist fashion, but the polling is more nuanced than this. About half (51%) believe that the US should take into account the views of its major allies when deciding its foreign policies. However, of more concern for America’s allies (and potentially adversaries), roughly four-in-ten (42%) believe Washington should go it alone in international matters.

Despite Trump’s criticisms, 53% of the American public holds a positive view of NATO and 77% voice the view that US membership in the security alliance has been a good thing for the United States.

In addition to some wariness with regards to engaging internationally in security arenas, Americans are also generally wary of global economic engagement – protectionist sentiment is rising. Only 44% believe such US involvement is a good thing; more (49%) say such engagement is bad, lowering wages and costing jobs. These views also differ along partisan lines with more on the right than left thinking US involvement in the world economy has been a bad thing. Trump supporters are even more against economic globalization.

Rising scepticism

The results do not show an unambiguous move towards more American isolationism or unilateralism. But the trends broadly show that the American public is moving towards, as President Obama put it in 2012, a focus on ‘nation building at home’. It should come as no surprise – President Obama has presided over a period in which the US has increasingly limited its extraterritorial ambitions to those that more directly affect its vital national interests. It is therefore worth noting that this more limited engagement is one that is, broadly, supported by the public on both sides of the aisle.

There are, as have been noted, partisan differences. But the next president will govern over all Americans not just those from their own party. They will have to function in the context of an American public, the majority of whom wants the US to deal with its own problems, letting other countries manage as best they can. While who becomes president clearly matters – they have the capacity to lead their populations in certain directions - the rising scepticism among many Americans for investing in the globalized world will resonate regardless of who takes office.

The implications for America’s allies are significant. For those issues that are not directly of concern to the United States, longstanding partners are going to have to find ways to manage on their own or with less American support. And even on those issues that are of direct national interest, they might find the US less sensitive to their interests and concerns. This could hold true not just in the realm of security but on economic issues also – if America becomes more protectionist, others will surely follow.  

Many of America’s allies have perceived the United States to be an unreliable ally in recent years. Asian partners, such as Japan and South Korea, have started to take more responsibility for their own security and are working to build additional partnerships with neighbours. European allies have been, at times, disappointed by what they perceive to be a less engaged America, such as in Libya and Syria. If the next president follows the public majority, these allies will need to get used to this new role for the United States.

This article has been published jointly with Real Clear World.

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