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U.S. Public Feeling More Multilateral Than Isolationist

A new poll shows considerable U.S. support for cooperative international engagement, but not for unilateral military adventures.

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Inter Press Service

Amidst a roiling and mostly partisan debate over Washington’s global role, a recent survey suggests that President Barack Obama’s preference for relative restraint and multilateral – over unilateral – action very much reflects the mood of the voting public.

The survey, which was conducted by prominent pollsters for both major political parties, confirmed a decade-long trend in favour of reducing active U.S. involvement in global affairs and focusing more on domestic issues.

At the same time, however, it found strong support for working cooperatively with other countries to address international issues, including and especially through the United Nations about which, remarkably, twice as many respondents (59 percent) said they felt favourably than they felt about the U.S. Congress (29 percent).

Indeed, a whopping 86 percent of the 800 voters contacted randomly by the poll said that it was either “very” (61 percent) or “somewhat” (25 percent) important “for the United States to maintain an active role within the United Nations.”

“This not about apathy to foreign policy or assistance – to the contrary, the poll shows voters feel a strong, vested interest in global affairs,” said Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, which commissioned the survey.

The survey, which was conducted in mid-April as the crisis over Crimea and Ukraine dominated the news, comes amidst strong criticism of Obama by neo-conservatives and other hawks over what they allege is his passivity in reacting to Russian aggression, as well as China’s assertion of territorial claims in the East and South China seas and advances by government forces against western- and Gulf Arab-backed rebels in Syria, among other presumed setbacks.

In their view, Obama’s restraint, or what they increasingly call “retreat”, has fed “isolationist” tendencies that have grown steadily stronger as a result of the continuing effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the failure to achieve “victories” – attributed largely to Obama’s lack of political will – in Bush-initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the administration has angrily rejected these charges, noting, for example, that it has upheld all of Washington’s treaty commitments; that it is deeply engaged in rallying regional and international opposition to moves by Russia and China; and that it is Republican hawks who, for example, have slashed foreign aid, attacked the U.N. and other multilateral forums, and promoted unilateral military measures that proved ineffective, if not counter-productive, especially during the Bush years.

The hawks have tried to conflate “military restraint with isolationism, but that’s really a ploy to tar people who have a more critical stance because of the experience of the past 13 years,” Carl Conetta, director the Project for Defense Alternatives (PDA), told IPS.

Indeed, recent polls have shown a clear public desire to reduce Washington’s international commitments. Most famously perhaps, a major Pew survey published last December found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

It was the first time in the nearly 50-year history of the question that a majority agreed with its proposition.

But, according to Conetta and other analysts, that result has much more to do with Washington’s unilateral military adventures – and the disappointments that resulted from those in Iraq and Afghanistan – than other forms of international engagement support for which has been remarkably steady for many years.

“All the polls show that there’s reduced enthusiasm for international engagement, but they also show that that doesn’t apply to all forms of engagement,” Conetta said. “We see that people are quite supportive of cooperative engagement.”

Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), agreed. “Overall, this poll and others show that during a period of economic downturn, there’s a strengthening of a feeling that we need to deal with problems at home. But that doesn’t mean that people want to disengage from the world, but rather that there’s a stronger interest in collaborative approaches where the United States isn’t out front so much.

“As we can see from this (Better World) poll, support for multilateral forms of engagement are just as strong as ever,” he told IPS.

Indeed, asked to choose up to two out of ten different international policy approaches the U.S. should pursue, the single most popular choice (40 percent) was “America working with global partners around the world and letting our partners take more of the lead.”

And while the second-most popular choice (34 percent) was “letting other countries solve their own problems without American involvement,” it was virtually tied with “international cooperation” (33 percent).

Significantly, the least popular choices were “America going it alone in resolving international issues” (2 percent) and “Isolationism” (4 percent), and “America taking the lead in preventing and resolving deadly conflict around the world” (12 percent).

“All of these answers show a cooperative orientation on the part of the public,” noted Kull. “It’s not that ‘leadership’ is seen as a negative term, but what people object to is putting the U.S. out front while others are hanging back.”

As to the U.N. itself, while respondents were split on the actual effectiveness of the world body, 85 percent said it should be made “more effective”; only 13 percent disagreed.

More than 70 percent agreed with the statements that “working through [the U.N.] improves America’s image around the world” and that the “U.S. needs the U.N. now more than ever because we cannot bear all the burden and cannot afford to pay to go it alone around the world.”

Two-thirds of respondents – including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents – said Washington should pay its peacekeeping dues to the U.N. on time and in full, while 31 percent opposed payment.

Due to Congressional cuts to requests by the administration, Washington currently owes the U.N. peacekeeping account for 2014 more than 350 million dollars.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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