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Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism?

by Ruy Teixeira

Given the unilateralist actions of the current administration, one might ask whether these actions are, at least in part, driven by changes in public opinion. Has the public turned away from internationalism, as the global system has become more difficult for America to manage--and more dangerous, as shown by the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

The answer to that question appears to: no. One question that has been asked since 1947 taps whether Americans are basically internationalist or isolationist: ďDo you think it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?Ē. In the late 1940's, this question was asked three times by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) with an average of 69 percent saying the country should play an active part in world affairs. In the 2002 and 2004, this question was asked by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) and the average proportion saying the US should play an active role in the world was......69 percent.

So, no change whatsoever between these endpoints. Of course, there has been some fluctuation in these sentiments in between the endpoints. The internationalist view appears to have been somewhat stronger in the period from the mid-1950's to the mid-1960's. And there was a weakening of this view after the end of the Vietnam war, bottoming out in the early 1980's and then strengthening later in that decade and into the 1990's. And now, with the post-9/11 measurements, we are back to where we started.

Thatís just a general internationalist view, however. What of commitment to international institutions like the UN? This is a bit more difficult to assess, given the complete lack of relevant questions that have been asked throughout the post-World War II era. However, data from a range of survey questions across different time periods suggest that general support for the UN, and belief in its importance, has remained stable, even if perception of the UNís efficacy has probably declined.

The extent to which the public continues to be invested in the UN and its potential role can be illustrated by a couple of questions from the 2004 CCFR survey. By 66-29, the public agreed that the US should be willing to make decisions within the UN, even if that means that the US may sometimes not be able to follow its first choice of course of action. And, by 74-20, the public favored having a standing UN peacekeeping force selected, trained and commanded by the UN.

Other questions from that CCFR survey show support for a wide range of international treaties and institutions beyond the UN: 87 percent for the nuclear test ban treaty; 80 percent for the land mine use treaty; 76 percent for the International Criminal Court; and 71 percent for the Kyoto global warming accord.

What about support for multilateral action, more generally? In a 2003 Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, 76 percent thought the US should try to solve international problems together with other countries, rather than go it alone or ignore them. And in the 2004 CCFR poll, 73 percent thought the most important lesson of the September 11th attacks was that the US needed to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism, not that the US needed to act on its own more to fight terrorism.

These results suggest little change in public support for internationalism. Thus, the turn away from internationalism in US foreign policy cannot be blamed on shifting attitudes of the public. On the contrary, it would appear, as in some many other policy areas, that the publicís preferences are simply being ignored.