WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agreed strongly in their third and final debate that the United States needed to vigorously expand its leadership role in the world, pressing its economic interests, using its military when necessary and spreading its values.
But most Americans apparently don’t agree.
Polls show that after a decade of two wars and a brutal recession, most Americans have grown deeply skeptical of the benefits of the global leadership role that the president and the Republican challenger, backed by the foreign policy establishment, insist is the nation’s wisest course and destiny.
Though few Americans want to turn their backs on global crises, they are increasingly doubtful that an America that’s always in the lead benefits them or the rest of the world, the polls show.
“There’s dramatically more isolationist sentiment than there’s been for some time,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which conducts extensive opinion polls.
Though Americans want the nation to lead the world, they’re more focused on challenges on the home front.
Political leaders “are not nearly as cautious as people would like them to be on foreign involvements,” said Christopher Preble, foreign policy director at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington that advocates a more limited U.S. role abroad. “The gap is considerable.”
It has been an article of faith of Republican and Democratic administrations for five decades that America should be deeply involved in the Middle East to help protect Israel, to safeguard sources and shipments of oil, and to maintain peace in a region beset by constant tumult.
But a Pew Research Center poll this month found that 2 out of 3 Americans believe the United States should be less involved with leadership changes in the Middle East. Fewer than 1 in 4 said it should be more involved. Some 57 percent said it was more important to have stable governments in the region, even if that meant less democracy.
The poll, which surveyed 1,511 adults, found growing disillusionment with the Arab Spring revolts that have rocked much of the Middle East since early 2011. The survey found that 57 percent of respondents didn’t believe the uprisings, which ousted autocratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and led to violence in Bahrain and a civil war in Syria, would produce lasting improvements for their populations.
Pew surveys show that the number of Americans who believe promoting democracy abroad is crucial — never high — has shrunk sharply. In 2001, 29 percent believed America should put a high priority on it; now it has dwindled to 13 percent.
Americans also have grown more jaded about U.S. foreign aid and nation-building efforts after billions of dollars were spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last decade. Pew found that 64 percent of Americans believe that countries that receive U.S. aid “end up resenting us.” Only 29 percent disagreed.