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Moving Toward Isolationism or Back to Normal?

by Ruy Teixeira

Is the US public moving toward isolationism? Last week, I cited the John Mueller article on “The Iraq Syndrome” that suggested a trend among the public toward isolationism was likely in reaction to the Iraq debacle. Partial confirmation of this trend is provided by data from a new Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations study, “American’s Place in the World, 2005". I say partial confirmation for two reasons: (1) There are counter-trends that suggest the public mood cannot easily by typecast as simply isolationist; and (2) The move away from internationalism, such as it is, is mostly relative to the post-September 11, 2001 surge in internationalism. Therefore, the public is mostly returning to the status quo ante–the post Vietnam era of qualified internationalism--rather than true isolationism.

Here are illustrative findings from the study, based on an October survey of the general public and September-October surveys of opinion leaders in eight fields: news media; foreign affairs; security; state/local government; academic/think tank; religion; scientists/engineers; and military.

1. In perhaps the most disturbing finding of the general survey, 42 percent of the public agreed with the statement, “The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”. That’s up 8 points from an August, 2004 Pew survey, which, in turn, was up 4 points from December, 2002, when just 30 percent agreed with the statement. And that 42 percent in this year’s survey is way higher than the low of 18 percent when Gallup first asked this question in 1964.

Note, however, that this 42 percent figure is only modestly higher than figures recorded in the 1993-2001 (pre-September 11) period, when agreement with this statement averaged 38 percent, including a 41 percent reading in 1995. There was also a 41 percent reading in a 1976 Gallup survey.

As for the 18 percent Gallup figure from the 1964 survey, that particular year was just about at the peak of internationalist sentiment in the US, not matched before or since. In other words, not only was mid-60s internationalist sentiment substantially higher than in the post-Vietnam era, including today, it was also markedly higher than in the era that preceded it, the 1950s and late 1940s. So, a comparison between today and the mid-1960s certainly indicates that the US public is less internationalist than it was at its peak–but it is a stretch to use such a comparison as an indicator of isolationism.

2. Another finding moves somewhat in the opposite direction. There was a slight increase in the last year in the number agreeing with the multilateralist sentiment that “In deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies” (from 76 to 79 percent). That puts this particular figure right back where it was before September 11, 2001.

3. Another item, “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate
more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home”, shows an uptick from 69 to 71 percent in the last year and is now 6 points higher than in 2002. But 71 percent is about where this view was in the late 1990's and actually significantly lower than figures recorded in the early 1990's (78-79 percent).

4. The survey finds just 32 percent agreeing with the sentiment “Since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying too much about whether other countries agree with us or not”. This is 7 points higher than the level of agreement in 2002 but identical with sentiment right before September 11, 2001 and a bit lower than 1993-95 levels.

5. Data on the UN are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, favorability toward the UN has nosedived, so it is now 29 points lower than it was just prior to September 11, 2001. And sentiment that the “The United States should cooperate fully with the United Nations” is now at just 54 percent, down 13 points from just before 9/11 and 6 points since 2002 (though this is still substantially higher than the previous low of 46 percent in 1976). But views on whether “strengthening the UN” should be a top priority (40 percent) are just about the same as they were before 9/11 and quite a bit higher than they were in 1997 (30 percent).

6. And as for whether the US should be the “single world leader”, play a shared leadership role or not play any leadership role, 12 percent think we should be the single world leader, 74 percent think leadership should be shared and only 10 percent don’t think we should play any leadership role. That’s basically unchanged since before 9/11.

So: moving toward isolationism or returning to normal? I’ll take returning to normal, with a side of multilateralism.