In September 2001, 80% of Americans thought that protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks should be the nation’s top foreign policy priority — and that was before the 9/11 attacks.
The culture of fear that the Bush administration promoted and exploited, engaged tendencies that permeate this nation’s history and wasn’t simply the product of opportunistic manipulation of a traumatic event.
Al Qaeda had tapped deep into the American psyche dramatically confirming a sense that the United States and the world somehow stand apart. Paradoxically, the attacks both challenged and affirmed the idea of a homeland providing safety, divided from a world that always harbors danger.
Twelve years after 9/11, protecting the U.S. from terrorism remains for 83% of Americans the number one foreign policy goal for this nation. In contrast, a mere 37% think that tackling climate change should be the top priority, down from 44% in 2001 and 50% in 1997.
And even as President Obama’s overall job approval ratings continue to slide, his rating for handling the threat of terrorism is higher than on any other issue of foreign policy.
51% of Americans think this president is “not tough enough,” while 50% say that his use of drones makes them feel safer, in contrast to a mere 14% who say that the use of drones makes this country less safe.
Somehow the world appears to only exist beyond these shores and largely outside American awareness. And to the extent that it impinges on our awareness it is invariably presented as problematic.
Pew Research reports:
For the first time since 1964, more than half (52%) agree that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own;” 38% disagree. Two years ago, the public was nearly evenly divided (46% agreed and 50% disagreed in May 2011) and, as recently as 2006, more disagreed than agreed that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally (53% vs. 42%).
Similarly, 80% agree with the statement, “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home,” up slightly from 76% in 2011. The level of support for this statement, which has been tested since 1964, now rivals the previous high set in the early 1990s.
Views on global engagement do not vary much across party lines. Majorities or pluralities of Republicans (52%), Democrats (46%) and independents (55%) think the U.S. does too much to try to help solve world problems, and agree that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally (53%, 46% and 55%, respectively). And close to eight-in-ten among each group agree that the U.S. should concentrate more on our own national problems, rather than thinking so much in international terms (82% of Republicans, 76% of Democrats and 79% of independents).
No doubt American attitudes towards global engagement are shaped predominantly by two factors:
1. A realistic assessment that the results from a decade of war show that U.S. military engagement overseas has accomplished next to nothing positive.
2. A widespread yet baseless view that the United States government disperses foreign aid more generously than any other nation. According to OECD figures for 2012, development aid from the U.S. as a percentage of GDP places the U.S. behind eighteen other countries. In absolute terms, $30.46 billion aid from the U.S. (population 317 million) compares with $43.36 billion from the five largest European countries, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain (combined population 315 million).
But aside from these factors, there is an underlying mindset which pollsters cannot attempt to quantify and which many Americans would struggle to articulate or perhaps even recognize.
It is this spirit through which America sets itself apart. This is the shadow of American exceptionalism; a sense of insecurity that masks itself with an attitude of superiority. For within America’s many self-aggrandizing postures is a core of self-doubt.
How can America be so much greater than a world about which most Americans know so little?