Action or Isolation: Americans Ponder U.S. Role

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

The continuous escalation of tension between the United States and Iraq, the concern over America's foreign policy toward North Korea, and the increasingly negative sentiment toward the United States among some members of the United Nations are illustrative of a broader question facing American policy-makers: What role should the United States play in the world? As one of the world's few superpowers, should America take a leading role in trying to solve international problems? Or should it practice restraint, taking a more isolationist stance and acting only when absolutely necessary to protect U.S. interests?

A Feb. 3-6 Gallup Poll* indicates the American public favors an active international role for the United States. A majority of Americans -- 79% -- say the United States should take either "the leading role" (26%) or "a major role, but not the leading role" (53%) in solving international problems. On the other side, 19% say the United States should take a "minor role" or "take no role at all." Just 3% of Americans hold the truly isolationist stance that the United States should take no role at all in solving international problems.

These findings are nearly identical to results from a year ago. However, the percentage advocating "the leading role" had increased by 10 percentage points between February 2001 and February 2002, a change largely attributable to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism.

Does Awareness Incite Action?

Responses to this question vary significantly according to how closely one follows foreign affairs. Specifically, 30% of those who say they follow foreign affairs "very closely" advocate that the United States take the leading role in solving international problems. Conversely, 19% of those who say they follow foreign affairs "not too closely" or "not at all" say the United States should take the leading role.

The Political Angle

More than a third of Republicans (36%) say the United States should take the leading role in world affairs, compared to 23% of Democrats and 20% of independents.

Further, those who say they have a conservative political ideology are significantly more likely than moderates and twice as likely as liberals to say the United States should take a leading role in solving international problems. Similarly, nearly 4 in 10 (39%) of those who approve of George W. Bush's handling of foreign affairs believe the United States should take the leading role, compared to just 15% those who disapprove of Bush's handling of foreign affairs.

These differences reflect a shift of opinion compared with 2001. At that time, there was essentially no difference according to partisanship or ideology, with about one in six of all partisan and all ideological groups in favor of a leading U.S. role in world affairs. Much of the recent increase in the public's willingness to see the United States take the lead results from changes in Republicans' and conservatives' changing views on the matter.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 3-6, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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