A new report from the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of respondents believed the U.S. should mind its own business internationally.
During the 2012 presidential election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced — as part of his platform — a major agenda for expanding America’s global interests, with an expansion of naval and military defense systems, diplomatic repair with the United States’ key allies, and a call for the country to aggressively take the lead on international issues. “This century must be an American century,” Romney said. “In an American century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
Responding to this, President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union address, said: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” The president declared his intention to keep the nation as “the one indispensable nation in world affairs” — as a front against tyranny and in order to safeguard American interests.
It may be, however, that Americans disagree with this posture. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Center for the People & the Press, 53 percent of Americans feel that the United States has a less important and prestigious role in global politics than it did ten years ago. With 52 percent of respondents saying “the United States should mind its own business internationally, a 22-point increase from a decade ago and the highest affirmative response rate to the question in 50 years. And a record 80 percent of respondents believe the U.S. should address domestic problems over international issues. These results mirror the war fatigue seen at the end of the Vietnam War.
But this move toward political reticence may be more than it appears. The report — “America’s Place in the World” — a quadrennial surveying of foreign policy attitudes in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations — shows that most respondents believe that the benefits of America’s presence in the global economy exceeds the risks, and that closer trade and business ties abroad is a good thing.
In light of news that the U.S. will not be fully disengaging from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. And in the wake of the costly and emotionally painful Second Iraq War; a near-miss for military intervention in Syria; active drone strikes in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Congo and multiple other sites throughout the Middle East and Africa, and sense of frustration with the nation’s “crusades,” such as the “War on .Terror” and the “War on Drugs” — such mixed opinions are understandable. This is seen in consideration of the 2009 and 2005 “America’s Place in the World” reports, in which 49 and 42 percent of respondents believed that America should “mind its own business,” respectively. According to the current survey, 56 percent of respondents disapprove of the president’s foreign policy, while 51 percent approve of the president’s handling of terrorism.
Per the survey, 80 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Independents and 56 percent of Democrats believe that the U.S. is respected less than other nations in the past; while. 55 percent of Independents, 53 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats feel that the U.S. should mind its own business in international politics.
This will have significant ramifications for the political conversation in years to come. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. grew extremely polarized. President Lyndon Johnson, who during his first years in office claimed overwhelming public support for the largest suite of progressive reforms since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was dogged and demonized for the nation’s action in Vietnam. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” The “War on Communism,” as the conflict in Vietnam was presented to challenge, was to be the first step in preventing the “domino effect,” the notion if that one country fell to Communism, its neighbors would too.
With the media focusing on the military tactics and actions of the troops on the ground without discussing the political philosophy behind the actions or the political situation in Southeast Asia, the public grew to see the fighting as an unnecessary shedding of American blood. This failure to “sell the war” led to an anti-war movement that abutted with the other major movements at the time — the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement — and commingled with them, becoming a larger movement against the status quo and the opposition of the disenfranchised. Millions of college students and young adults joined this movement, which changed the political discourse for years following.
From influencing music and culture to the election of Richard Nixon as president — who campaigned on ending the war — to a suite of Hippie and Hippie-adjacent politicians elected to office, some of whom still serve today, the pushback against Vietnam significantly changed the U.S.. It can be argued that the same pushback is occurring today.
Similar to the Vietnam Era, America’s global and domestic positions are prone for protest. The U.S. — the only superpower remaining in the world — is standing on the crest of corporate economic expansion that has seen all of the major markets break previous records on a regular basis. At the same time, the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater, civil rights are under attack and the military — which in the last 10 years has been at its highest funding levels in the history of the nation — is growingly being perceived to be bloated and out-of-control.
This may explain the popularity of anti-government or anti-intervention factions, such as the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party. However, blame for the current public sentiment may belong to the president solely. In polling of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, which includes more than 4,700 government officials, scholars, business executives, journalists, lawyers and nonprofit professionals, 44 percent feel that the president’s handling of foreign policy is worst than expected, compared to 16 percent who felt it was better than expected, and 40 percent that thought it was about as expected.
In particular, CFR members felt that the president’s handling of Syria, his alleged indecision/inaction, his lack of clear foreign policy goals, his handling of the Arab Spring and its aftermath and his weakened credibility, are the worst factors about the president’s foreign policy. The survey was conducted shortly after the administration’s deal with the Russians requiring Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. CFR members, 72 percent of them, said that the reputation of America was damaged by the administration’s handling of the situation, while 74 percent said that Russia’s reputation was strengthened by the way it dealt with the Syrian situation.
“One of the problem with American power is one of the problems with power in general — is that nations possessed with an outsized confidence in themselves, with an overweening sense of their own power, are very susceptible to the attraction of simple solutions,” said Chris Dietrich, assistant professor of history at Fordham University. “The flaw is, more and more, that the ends do not justifies the means.”
The majority of the CFR members also felt that the nation has gone too far in restricting civil liberties and relies too much on military strength. The majority also believes that military spending should be decreased.
First among equals
Despite this, there are reasons to believe that this public reticence to America’s global intervention is a natural part of the American dialogue. “It is natural for Americans to display geopolitical reticence in times like these,” said Dietrich to MintPress. “They did so in Vietnam and at other points in history, and there is a long tradition of Americans, going back to the founding fathers, of encouraging distance from other regions’ problems.”
But Americans, according to the survey, are not ready to cede the nation’s number one spot militarily or economically, though the world may be moving beyond the age of superpowers. Published immediately before President Obama took office, the Directorate of National Intelligence’s 2008 “Global Trends 2025: A World Transformed,” indicated a situation where Western democratic capitalism may no longer be the global aspiration, and that a multipolar world, where the U.S. no longer call the shots alone, is forming. In this new world, the U.S. will no longer “lead the free world,” but will be “first among equals.”
“No single outcome seems preordained: the Western model of economic liberalism, democracy and secularism, for example, which many assumed to be inevitable, may lose its luster – at least in the medium term,” the report stated.