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Has the Public Turned Away from Internationalism? (Part Two)

by Ruy Teixeira

Last week, I examined public opinion on America's role in the world to see whether the move toward unilateralism in American foreign policy could be traced to shifts in public opinion. The verdict was: no, not really.

But perhaps that examination was looking in the wrong place for the relevant change. Maybe the real shift has been in the realm of the economic, as the public has shifted from a pro-free trade to anti-free trade stance. There is little evidence of this either. We lack a consistent time series, but in 1953, Gallup found a 54-33 majority favoring a policy of free trade. Almost half a century later, in 2000, the Pew Research Center found a 64-27 majority in favor of the idea that free trade with other countries is good for the United States.

If anything, support for free trade, at least in principle, may be increasing, not decreasing. When posed as a question of whether tariffs across countries should be eliminated to bring the costs of goods down for everybody or are necessary to protect manufacturing jobs, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (CCFR) surveys recorded a steady drop from 1978, when 57 percent thought tariffs could be justified in that way, to 49 percent in 1998.

Finally, in the 2004 CCFR survey, 64 percent described the process of globalization as mostly good for the US, compared to just 31 percent who said it was mostly bad. And in the same poll, the public said, by a 73-22 margin, that international trade is good for "consumers like you", by a 65-29 margin that it was good for "your own standard of living, by a 59-37 margin that it was good for American companies and by a 57-39 margin that it was good for the US economy.

Nor do Americans wish to stop or even slow down the process of globalization. Surveys invariably find large majorities favoring the continuation of the globalization process and little support for opting out of that process.

Again, it is hard to know for sure, but these data do not suggest there has been a substantial decline in public support for the principle of free trade in recent decades-certainly not enough to be a significant factor in the decline of internationalism. And it is possible that there has been no decline at all in pro-free trade sentiment and that change has actually been in the opposite direction.

On to other factors, then. What about salience? It is possible that support for internationalism has remained about the same, but the salience of internationalism to the average American has declined, perhaps drastically. This is the argument of James Lindsay in his 2000 Foreign Affairs article, "The New Apathy: How an Uninterested American Public Is Reshaping Foreign Policy". While Americans' views continue to support multilateralism, international institutions like the UN, etc., these views matter much less to them than they once did, so politicians feel free to ignore these views when they form policy. They know they won't be punished by an American public in the grip of an "apathetic internationalism".

This is a more promising line of analysis. It is true, for example, that Americans' tendency to describe some foreign policy problem as the nation's most important problem has declined over time. Political scientist Mark Smith has found that, from 1950-1972, an economic problem was the dominant problem mentioned by the public just 5 percent of the time, while from 1973 onward, an economic problem was the dominant problem 65 percent of the time. Consistent with this shift, the number naming a foreign policy issue as the most important problem declined from 10-20 percent or even more of the public to 2-3 percent in the late 1990's.

But there has been a resurgence, naturally, of the tendency to name a foreign policy problem since 9/11, so this point seems less sharp than it once was. On the other hand, since internationalism's problems accumulated over decades, perhaps a long-term decline -even if now partly reversed--in the apparent salience of foreign policy to the public did play a role in eroding internationalism.

Lindsay also argues that Americans follow foreign affairs less closely than they once did, contributing to the decline in foreign policy salience. This seems a more difficult case to make. The first CCFR survey in 1974 found 50 percent saying they were "very interested" in following news about the relations of the US with other countries and the last one, in 2004, found 53 percent expressing that level of interest (after a spike to 62 percent in 2002, the first survey after 9/11).

But if attentiveness to foreign affairs has not declined, perhaps the aspects of foreign affairs that most engage the public have changed. A clue is provided by Smith's data on the extraordinary post-1973 surge in importance of economic issues to the public. And it does appear that these concerns have spilled over into foreign affairs. Since 1974, concern about jobs has been very high in the CCFR survey and, in the 2004 survey, 78 percent thought "protecting the jobs of American workers was a "very important" goal of US foreign policy. This was higher than for any other goal, including combating international terrorism. This apparent rise in the importance of economic foreign policy goals in the eyes of the public may have contributed to the erosion of internationalism, at least in its classic post-World War II form.

This discussion suggests some ways in which shifts in the composition and intensity of public sentiment about foreign affairs may have contributed to the decline of internationalism. But it is worth asking the question at this point: how much does the public really influence foreign policy anyway? If there is little connection there, then, logically, even if there have been significant shifts in the structure of public opinion on foreign affairs, these shifts could not have played much of a role in the demise of internationalism.

Some evidence for a lack of connection between the public and foreign policy is provided in a 2005 American Political Science Review article by Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page. Jacobs and Page examine data from CCFR surveys of the public and of policymakers, labor leaders, business leaders and foreign policy experts between 1974 and 2002 and find that it is primarily business leaders and, secondarily, experts that exert influence over the preferences of policymakers, not the public.

The Jacobs and Page work is hardly definitive. It covers a limited period and leaves open the possibility that public sentiment may set the overall agenda for foreign policy within which business and experts exert the most direct influence. But it should add to our doubts that changes in the structure of public opinion on foreign affairs have had much to do with the fading of post-World War II internationalism and the rise of Bush-era unilateralism.

For the latter trend, we probably need look no further than the current occupant of the White House and his allies in the Congress. The public, however, can justifiably plead innocent.