Skip to main content

Americans on the U.S. Role in the World: A Study of U.S. Public Attitudes

Back to All Publications

Read the full report |Read the study questionnaire


Contrary to recurring themes in the recent presidential campaign, this study found no evidence that the American public has tired of international engagement and is going through a phase of isolationism. There was no majority support for reducing US engagement in the world, or criticism of the level of engagement on the part of the Obama administration. However, there was support for greater emphasis on cooperative and multilateral forms of international engagement and significant dissatisfaction arising from the perception that the US plays a dominant and disproportionate role in world affairs.

As the Cold War has receded into history, there have been many concerns about whether the American public still has the stomach to sustain its military alliance commitments, especially to NATO, and will uphold the collective security system based in the United Nations. However, it appears that support for participation in NATO, including the commitment to protect allies from aggression, is still quite strong. There has been no recent softening of the unfavorable views of Russia and little readiness to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Support for participation in the UN‐based international collective security system is also strong.

Americans support having US military capacities commensurate with these commitments to help protect countries, but want the requirements for US capacities limited to what is needed to act multilaterally. Overwhelming majorities think other countries rely too much on US capacities and want allies to increase their contributions so that the US can reduce its capacities.

Another key question that emerged in the 2016 campaign was whether US foreign policy should be guided by global considerations or should be strictly guided by US national interests. Most Americans say that global considerations should play a major role and see the questions as a false choice, responding favorably to the idea that doing what’s best for the world will ultimately serve US interests. Overwhelming majorities agree that US foreign policy should take into account the views and interests of other nations, and that building cooperative relationships serves US interests, over the view that the US should simply focus on its interests.

Americans also go further and advocate having a globally altruistic dimension to US foreign policy. Very large majorities favor providing humanitarian aid and development assistance, and say that aid should not be limited to areas of the world where the US has security interests. Americans’ sphere of concern does not accord sharply with national boundaries, as concern for suffering abroad is only slightly lower than it is for suffering within the United States.

View All Publications