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In the 11 years since terror attacks put counterterrorism at the forefront of US foreign policy, American priorities have changed.
With two major wars and economic crisis taking a toll at home, American attitudes about terrorism and foreign policy priorities have changed in the past 10 years, according to recent studies of public opinion.
Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, counterterrorism has been a dominant goal of US foreign policy for the last decade. But a study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, released Monday, found that most respondents don't believe that US action in South Asia and the Middle East during those years — "particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" — have decreased threats against the US.
While the CCGA study found that most Americans "still support actions to combat terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation," the belief that international terrorism is a major threat against the United States has "steadily declined" since 2002, when the CCGA conducted a similar survey. That's especially true among voters under 30, who are far less concerned about terrorism than their older counterparts, according to the CCGA.
The long-term change in threat perception has been demonstrated in other studies. Results of a 2011 Gallup poll showed that concerns about US security from terror attacks have diminished from highs in 2001, especially in the past five years.
Bruce Stokes, the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, wrote in a Sept. 7 article for CNN that Americans "are turning inward, preoccupied with domestic affairs to an extent unprecedented in recent times." However, Pew did find in a 2012 survey that three quarters of Americans continue to support US efforts around the world to combat terrorism. Most respondents were also concerned about nuclear proliferation in Iran, with 63 percent in favor of US military force being used in Iran "if necessary" to deny that country weapons.
Still, domestic concerns are taking on higher priority for many voters — reflected in the conspicuous absence of much foreign policy discussion from current US election campaigning. "Foreign policy is the forgotten stepchild of the 2012 US presidential election," Stokes wrote.
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The Associated Press reported the same, when it comes to discussion of terrorism and wars waged in the name of fighting it, writing on Monday, "For the first time in a decade, the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars that resulted are not the focus of the presidential campaign."
Instead, according to the Chicago Council, Americans have shifted their foreign policy focus toward Asia, where they believe maintaining US alliances with Japan and South Korea is key. "They see the region’s dynamism as a positive development even as they harbor concerns about the potential longer-term dangers of a China whose economy eventually becomes as large as or larger than the US economy," the CCGA report said.
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Perhaps signaling a new trend for the country that often calls itself the greatest in the world, Americans want a “lower profile” in the world, according to the CCGA. Those surveyed “clearly reject the role of the US as a hegemon and want to take a more cooperative stance” in foreign engagements, the study said.
“Although they see the United States as the greatest country in the world, they are comfortable allowing other countries to assert leadership,” said the report.
And — perhaps coming as a surprise in an election year — while the CCGA found strong partisan differences about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they saw overwhelming consensus on most foreign policy issues across party lines.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the foreign policy opinions of Americans in 'red' and 'blue' districts are remarkably similar.... Their sharpest differences are on immigration issues and Middle East policy,” the report said.
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