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Americans sense a decline and look inward

Those are among the findings of a new poll released by Time magazine and the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival.

Americans are feeling less and less like their country is the world’s sole remaining superpower.

And with their sense of threat from overseas waning, they want their leaders to focus more on challenges at home, including the economy — and less on entangling the United States in the world’s affairs.

Those are among the findings of a new poll released on the eve of this Independence Day weekend by Time magazine and the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival.

The poll — which finds that more than two-thirds of Americans consider the last 10 years to have been a decade of decline for America — is in sync with other surveys of American opinion in recent months. According to the poll, three-fourths of Americans say economic weakness poses a bigger danger to the US than do national security threats.

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In May, a Pew Research Center poll found that majorities in every partisan group of the population — including, for the first time in the decade of 9/11, conservative Republicans — agreed with the statement that the United States “should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.”

Other recent Pew polls have found Americans’ “mind-our-own-business” thinking at its highest level since the end of the Cold War.

Significantly, one Pew poll recently found that not just average Americans, but “opinion makers” as well, increasingly favor a less assertive global role for the United States — a finding that led Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut to dub the dawning era as one of significant transition from the nation’s post-9/11 mindset.

In some ways, Americans’ inward turn seems to reflect their leaders’ recent rhetoric. Last month President Obama declared, in announcing his plans for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, “America, it is time to focus on national-building here at home.”

The president’s decision to play a supportive role to other NATO powers in the Libya conflict — what some have called “leading from behind” — would have never occurred under President George W. Bush, some foreign-policy analysts insist. But it is also a stance that seems to reflect public sentiment that America need not be in the lead in all conflicts — as suggested by polls showing Americans favor Obama’s concept of a supportive role for the United States in Libya.

But some foreign-policy experts who are also critics of the president say that, while the biggest player in the country’s isolationist turn is no doubt the economy, it doesn’t help to have a president who they say is himself retreating from the world.

“America’s fiscal situation and the over-all economy are driving a lot of Americans to look more inwardly, no question,” says Robert Zarate, a policy adviser at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington and a former House Republican legislative assistant. “But it doesn’t help when we have a president who seems to want to back out of our engagement” in the world, he adds.

Zarate points to Obama’s recent Afghanistan address, which he says “turned out to be more of a domestic policy speech.”

Obama is focused on addressing the national security threats emanating from places like Yemen and Somalia, Zarate adds, but he says the president should do more to explain to the American people why a U.S. role in those places and elsewhere is necessary — a process he says might also act as an antidote to Americans’ isolationist tendencies.

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Others insist that while it may be the economic downturn that is feeding America’s turn inward, it will also be a better understanding of today’s global economy that will convince Americans of the necessity of remaining engaged in the world.

“Americans have often been reluctant to engage in world affairs, and yet they recognize the need to do so,” says Mark Green, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former Republican congressman from Wisconsin who is now senior director of the US Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). “When we talk about the tremendous opportunities for job growth and economic growth through building good relations around the world, people understand that.”

That may be, but it is still true that Congress, in another isolationist turn, has started to take a knife to the next fiscal year’s proposed international affairs budget.

In response, the USGLC last week sent a letter to Congress — signed by more than 50 of the country’s most prominent corporate leaders — encouraging members to consider the link between America’s strong engagement in the world and a robust economy.

Green notes that the total international affairs budget — primarily the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets — is only 1 percent of the total budget. But “that 1 percent is very efficient spending when you consider the role it plays in building our presence in the world,” he says.

But are Americans, who seem to be looking inward and worried most about domestic issues, making the connection between a better economy at home and the wider world?

Green says yes, and cites his former constituents back in Wisconsin, in what is an agricultural district.

“People knew that to grow markets and sell more of what they produced, it was going to take opening up global markets,” he says. “And that leads people to realize that it’s crucial to our future to build our presence in the world.”