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Public Most Unilateralist in 40 Years, Poll Finds

A recent poll suggests that the U.S. public has become more inward-looking and unilateralist than at any time since the early stages of the Vietnam War.

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Inter Press Service

Despite President Barack Obama’s emphasis on diplomatic engagement, the U.S. public has become more inward-looking and unilateralist than at any time since the early stages of the Vietnam War, according to the latest in a series of quadrennial surveys on foreign policy attitudes released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

For the first time since 1964, a plurality (49 percent) of respondents said the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” – a sharp increase from the 28 percent who took that position just four years ago.

Similarly, 44 percent of the 2,000 respondents in the latest survey agreed with the proposition that “we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying too much about whether other countries agree with us or not”.

While that percentage fell short of a majority – 51 percent disagreed – it was the highest in the past 45 years and a big jump from the 28 percent who endorsed that position in 2005.

“We see an extraordinary spike in isolationist, unilateralist sentiment,” said Pew director Andrew Kohout, who noted that such views have been typically held by only about 25 percent of the population since the mid-1960s.

He attributed the spike to the country’s slow economic recovery and the public’s weariness with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to a growing concern that the U.S. remains vulnerable to terrorism.

The survey, co-sponsored by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), also found a sharp drop in the public’s view of Washington’s importance as a global leader, especially compared to five years ago, after the 2003 Iraq invasion.

In a 2004 survey, 45 percent of respondents – an all-time high dating back to when the question was first asked in 1974 – said the U.S. was “more important” as a global leader than it had been 10 years before, while only 20 percent said it “less important”.

In late October and early November, when the latest poll was conducted, the numbers were virtually reversed. Forty-one percent of the 2,000 respondents said Washington’s importance had declined compared to a decade before, while only 25 percent said it had increased.

The latest survey also found a number of serious differences between the foreign policy views of the general public and elite foreign policy establishment (“influentials”), as represented by the nearly CFR 650 members who were also interviewed.

A substantially greater proportion of influentials favoured a more assertive leadership role on the part of the U.S. in world affairs than was favoured by the public respondents.

The influentials were also significantly more inclined to support a troop increase in Afghanistan; to view instability in Pakistan as a major threat to the U.S.; and to see China’s rise as a world power in a positive light. At the same time, they were less supportive of military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

On more general priorities, however, the survey found yawning gaps between the general public and the influentials; 85 percent of the public rated “protecting U.S. jobs” as a “top priority” of government policy, as opposed to only 21 percent of the elite respondents. Public respondents also gave much higher priorities to reducing illegal immigration and combating drug trafficking than the influentials.

“Part of what we’re seeing is the divergent response to globalisation,” said Charles Kupchan, a CFR foreign policy expert who teaches at Georgetown University.

“Foreign policy elites look out at an interdependent world and say the only way for U.S. to prosper in this world is to engage with others to tackle global problems,” he said. “But, for many Americans, globalisation is prompting the opposite response, which is that interdependence is causing unemployment because jobs are going overseas, and we’re mired in difficult conflicts with no light at the end of the tunnel, So why don’t we start tending our own garden.”

Indeed, asked whether they agreed that “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,” 76 percent of public respondents replied affirmatively.

That was higher than the 73 percent who took that position at the end of the Vietnam War and close to the 45-year high of 79 percent set in the early 1990s as the Cold War wound down.

“The public is not very excited about engagement overseas,” said James Lindsay, CFR’s director of studies, who warned that the sentiments expressed in the poll could pose serious obstacles to Obama’s internationalist agenda.

“Tough economic times turn the public’s attention inward,” he said.

“The president is sailing into a stiff wind, both in terms of the specific issue of Afghanistan, but also in general foreign policy more broadly,” he added, noting that both elite and public respondents in the survey were sceptical about the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan at the time the survey was conducted.

Indeed, Obama, himself noted this week that his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to the strife-torn country represents a major political risk “precisely because the American people are rightly focused on how do we rebuild America”.

While both the elite and the public respondents tend to see U.S. global power as diminished compared to 10 years ago, a majority of the public (57 percent) and a plurality of influentials (49 percent) believe Washington should try to maintain its position as the world’s sole military superpower.

About half of those who take that position in each group, however, say Washington should not try to do so if it risks alienating key allies.

In another indication of the public’s unilateralist mood, only 51 percent of respondents agreed that Washington should “cooperate fully with the United Nations” – the lowest level since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and down from 67 percent in 2002 following the ouster by U.S.-backed forces of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Public and elite respondents differed significantly on China’s emergence as a global power. Only 21 percent of influentials felt that Beijing’s rise posed a “major threat” to the U.S. – down from 38 percent in 2001. Fifty-three percent of the general public, by contrast, took that position, up slightly from 51 percent eight years ago.

Among influentials, the perception that China will become more important as a future ally has also grown steadily, from 31 percent who held that view in 2005 to 58 percent today.

Fifty-five percent – up from 43 percent in 2005 – of influentials saw India in a similar role, while 37 percent named Brazil as a future key ally, up from 17 percent. Their gains were made largely at the expense of Japan and Britain, which were seen as fading in importance as U.S. allies.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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