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The Anxiety Factor In Foreign Policy

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

There's no shortage of reasons to feel tense about foreign affairs this week, especially on the Korean peninsula, where South Korea accused North Korea today of torpedoing one of its warships. Even before then, however, there was a grim milestone in Afghanistan, a push for new sanctions on Iran, and the continuing European debt crisis.

But will this move foreign policy up the public's priority list? It's possible, but context is everything in public opinion, and it's worth remembering what else is on the public's mind right now.

Surveys have consistently found that the economy is the public's primary concern, and has been since the financial crisis broke in 2008. In recent days, domestic issues like the Gulf oil spill have been the most-followed news stories for the public. Even in our Confidence in Foreign Policy Index, conducted in March, when we asked about the most important problem facing the United States in its relations with the rest of the world, one in four either volunteered answers that had to do with the United States economy or domestic issues rather than international ones.

That can always change, of course. But foreign policy is simply less pressing to much of the public than it was three or four years ago. That's one reason why our Foreign Policy Anxiety Indicator stands at 122, the lowest it's been since we started tracking it in 2006. And overall, the public generally gives leaders a lot of leeway on handling foreign affairs unless the public feels things are seriously off track.


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