We are an island: Increasingly insular American public opinion wants the US to mind its own business
WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama is pursuing an internationalist agenda. He has escalated America’s military commitment in Afghanistan. He supports a global climate change treaty. He has promised to revamp US immigration policy. And he backs continued American integration with the world economy.
On each of these issues, the White House is at odds with the views of many Americans, as shown by opinion polls. And, in some cases, such policy is even at cross purposes with the views of members of the president’s own Democratic Party.
This dissonance between American attitudes and US government policy raises questions about the sustainability of the Obama administration’s international initiatives and threatens to undermine the reservoir of good will for the United States that was generated by Obama’s election just one year ago.
Candidate Obama rejected Bush era unilateralism and promised a new American engagement with the world. As president, he reached out to the Europeans, seeking to work with them on Afghanistan and Iran. He chose a non-confrontational approach with China, North Korea and Russia. He pleased Southeast Asian nations by changing course on Burma, long shunned by Washington. And he embraced the creation of the G22 as the new global economic steering committee, replacing the G8 that long only represented only the interests of the world’s richest nations.
But opinion polls show the American people are moving in another direction. Reeling from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and convinced that the world is an increasingly dangerous place, Americans despair about their country’s future leadership role in the world. They have turned inward and once again become defiantly self-assertive.
Americans are now more isolationist and more unilateralist than at any time in recent history. For the first time in more than four decades of polling, a plurality of Americans now says that the US should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along the best they can on their own, according to the recent America’s Place in the World survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. This isolationist sentiment surpasses that at the end of the Vietnam War. Complicating matters further for a Democratic administration, a majority of the president’s own party now holds isolationist attitudes.
In addition, more than four-in-five of those surveyed think the US should go its own way on the international stage, not worrying too much about whether other countries agree or not. That is by far the greatest degree of unilateralist sentiment since the question was first asked in 1964.
This unprecedented isolationism and support for unilateralism runs at cross purposes to Obama’s avowed goal of international engagement. The president talks the talk of internationalism, but he has yet to convince the American public to walk that walk. In fact, some would argue that he sought to please the labor unions by imposing tariffs on some Chinese imports while pledging to uphold free trade. Nowhere is this friction between US foreign policy objectives and American attitudes more evident than with regard to Afghanistan. Only one-in-three Americans backed president Obama’s troop surge, before his announcement, including just one-in-five Democrats.
If American casualties mount in the months ahead, as they undoubtedly will, if there is new evidence of the Afghan government’s corruption or ineffectiveness and if the US is drawn even deeper into Pakistan to fight the Taliban, the Obama administration has no reservoir of public good will to draw upon to ride out the storms that are bound to rise. Maintaining the military initiative could then prove difficult, especially as public dissatisfaction makes Congress restive in the run up to the 2010 election.
Isolationism and unilateralism may also complicate future US defense relations with Japan. The new government in Tokyo has called into question American military bases on Okinawa and has expressed a desire for closer ties with other Asian nations, effectively beginning to distance itself somewhat from Washington. Such actions could spark resentment among Americans who are already turning their backs on the world. And, with the Obama administration focusing most of its Asian energies on China, the US-Japan alliance, the bulwark of Asian security for the last two generations, could erode out of neglect and disinterest on both sides.
Americans’ unilateralist impulses similarly threaten to derail Obama’s delicate handling of Iran. The White House is slowly ratcheting up international pressure on Tehran in an effort to get it to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But six-in-ten Americans support a military strike against Iran if it is certain Tehran has a produced a nuclear weapon. Resisting that public pressure may become ever more difficult if the Iranian government continues to flaunt the United Nations on this issue.
Despite president Obama’s promise to reverse Bush administration foot dragging on climate change, curbing carbon emissions lacks public support in the US. Less than half the American public sees climate change as a major threat, raising doubts about whether Congress will ever approve pending legislation to curb carbon emissions.
American obstructionism on climate change in the early part of this decade fueled a world-wide rise in anti-Americanism even before the Iraq war. If the US is again seen as the roadblock to an international agreement, Obama’s good intentions may not be enough to stem a revival of anti-American sentiment.
Similarly, president Obama garnered global kudos for his denunciation of the Bush administration’s treatment of suspected Islamic terrorists and his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. But half of the American public disapproves of the president’s decision to close Guantanamo. And over half believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is justified. With the Guantanamo closing now delayed and the American public’s willingness to abuse human rights in terrorist cases, America’s stature could again suffer.
Immigration poses yet another issue where Americans’ attitudes clash with Obama intentions. The US prides itself on its immigrant heritage. And president Obama has promised immigration reform next year that will create a path to citizenship for people now in the country illegally. But only a minority of the American population supports legalization for illegal immigrants, according to a survey by the German Marshall Fund. And stronger border controls continue to be Americans’ preferred option for reducing illegal immigration. Such attitudes are certainly not new and are widely shared in other countries, but they further tarnish America’s reputation.
Finally, Obama trade policy and Americans’ attitudes on trade are a paradox. The economic downturn coupled with rising isolationism would seem to be a recipe for growing US protectionism. And, in fact, other nations charge that through Buy America procurement actions and its failure to finalize multiple trade agreements, Washington has turned protectionist. But surveys by Pew, the German Marshall Fund and others demonstrate that the American people – especially Democrats – are less protectionist today than in the recent past. Yet the Obama administration has failed to articulate a coherent trade liberalization strategy, forgoing an opportunity to pursue at least one internationalist policy that might resonate with the American public.
President Obama is an articulate proponent of US engagement with the world. But he has failed to convince the American public. This dissonance between policy and public opinion threatens to thwart White House objectives and undermine America’s stature abroad.