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Americans and the World in Difficult Times

June 2, 2010

By Steven Kull

This paper was first presented on May 14th, 2010 at the Center for International Security Studies Second Annual Symposium at Princeton University

As the stress of two wars combines with after-affects of a deep recession and a global financial crisis that keeps unfolding new chapters, many observers have expressed concern that the American public will be increasingly unwilling to shoulder the burden of America's unique world position of leadership.

These concerns were sharply evoked last December by a major study on attitudes toward foreign policy from the Pew Research Center. This poll included a number of long-standing trend line questions that are often seen as a measure of isolationism. These showed a sharp movement that has been widely interpreted as a surge of isolationism. However even the same poll also showed support for various forms of international engagement. So that the story is not as simple as was reported.

Stated briefly I think there are some signs that the public is feeling overextended and would like to lighten the burden of America's role in the world. This has actually been true for sometime, but it has been significantly exacerbated by the economic crisis and the effect of conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They feel the pressure of the budget deficit--something that concerns them.

However, I do not think that this should be interpreted as a simple move toward isolationism. In response to poll questions that pose only two response options--basically for the US to disengage or not--we see some signs of an increasing desire to disengage.

But when given more response options, we find more complex response. There is a clear preference for a reducing America's dominant role. But there is also clear support for the US to stay engaged in the world, though in a less hegemonic and more cooperative form even if this means relinquishing some control.

So what are the findings that suggest that Americans are increasingly looking to disengage?

Asked by Pew whether they agreed or disagreed that "The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own," for the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality of 49% agreed with this position.

Questions that ask people to prioritize problems at home over problems abroad have always found majorities putting a higher priority on problems at home. But this majority has become larger. A new high of 76% 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."

Seventy-three percent want the president to focus on domestic policy more than on foreign policy. Again, this is commonly a majority preference, but 73% is the largest such majority since 1997.

At this point there are no data showing a desire to cut US defense spending. However there are reasons to believe that as the problem of the deficit gains greater prominence over the next few years, that we will see greater pressure to reduce defense spending.

Based on a poll that we did in 2005 a few years ago it appears that as people get more information about the proportion of the budget devoted to defense spending, their desire to cut it will increase substantially. At that time, poll questions that simply asked whether people wanted to increase, decrease or maintain defense spending did not find a majority wanting to cut it.

In a poll we conducted in 2005 we included a budget exercise in which we presented respondents the discretionary budget broken down into 16 key areas and gave them the opportunity to redistribute it as they saw fit, including the opportunity to redirect funds toward deficit reduction. In this context, the average respondent cut defense spending 31%. Sixty-eight percent of respondents made cuts to defense.

It is likely that in the near future, as the struggle over the budget deficit gains prominence, that information about the distribution of the budget will become more visible. This will likely to generate some downward pressures on the defense budget.

It is also important to note that in this same poll, even without the information about the actual distribution, when respondents were presented the possibility of cutting defense in favor of education, healthcare, housing ad deficit reduction, six in ten favored it. Thus as trade-offs become salient pressures to cut defense are likely to increase.

Finally there is another more current factor that is likely to exert downward pressures. That is that there is a low level of confidence that recent US military efforts have been highly successful in increasing US security

Despite the large-scale efforts of the war on terrorism, two thirds think that "the ability of terrorists to launch another major attack on the US" is the same or greater than it was in 2001 (Pew, January 2010). The Iraq war has also been seen as increasing not decreasing the threat of terrorism (BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA, November 2005).

You may have heard reports that the American people have turned against the war in Afghanistan. This is not actually true in the sense that there is not a majority that actually wants to pull US troops out. A majority even supported Obama's surge. However, there are poll findings showing that people are quite unhappy about the war and have major questions about whether the benefits of the war have been proportional to the cost.

Americans would certainly be very wary of any possible military intervention in the future. If Americans were convinced that Iran was on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon and that there was a way to permanently eliminate it with a surgical air strike, they might be persuaded. However, polls show that right now they do not think this can be done and instead want to pursue non-military approaches including sanctions and diplomacy.

Some voices are saying that, short of a military strike the US should increase its military presence in the Gulf as part of an effort to contain Iran. While Americans may be persuaded that this is better than going to war, they would probably be reluctant for the US to flex its muscles in this way.

More broadly we may see some pressure toward changing the US approach to the Muslim world. The 9/11 attacks were an effort to push the US out of the Muslim world. The US responded by advancing into it further. This has provoked hostility in the Muslim world--large majorities say they want US military forces out. Americans continue to be determined to go after al Qaeda and continue to support Israel. But they are ambivalent about having a large military presence there. They are uncomfortable because they believe--correctly--that the people there do not want us there and that this may be making things worse for the US rather than better. Coupled with economic constraints we may see greater pressure for the US to lighten its military foot print in the Muslim world.

Now, all this said, I want to emphasize that Americans are not looking to simply have a vacation from international engagement.

Indeed there is even clear evidence of this in the same Pew poll that included the findings that stirred up fears of isolationism. When respondents were given a more complex set of response options their answers told quite a different story. .

Asked what kind of role the US should play in the world only 11% said it should not play any leadership role. If the public was really going through an isolationist phase more would surely have endorsed this view.

On the other hand only 14% said the US should be the single world leader. This shows how low the support is for the US playing a hegemonic role.

The option that got the clear majority--endorsed by 70%--was for the US to play "a shared leadership role." Furthermore, this group was asked a follow on question about whether the US be the most active world leader or if it should be "about as active as other leading nations." Most chose the latter option. This has not changed significantly since it was last asked in 2005.

These responses also mirror a question that PIPA and the Chicago Council have asked for some years now. Asked most recently in 2006 what role the US should play in the world only small minorities endorse the isolationist position that that US should "withdraw from most efforts to solve international problems" (12%) or the hegemonic position that the US should "continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems" (10%). A large majority (75%) instead sided with the multilateral position that the "US should do its share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries."

A recurring theme is that American public tends to look to multilateral institutions, especially the UN as a means for the US to offset its dominant role in the world.

Coming back to the Pew poll there was also strong support for having a strong UN. Eighty-one percent gave "strengthening the United Nations" "top" (37%) or "some" priority (44%) as a foreign policy goal of the US.

In 2008 the Chicago Council also found remarkable support for giving the UN expanded powers including the UN having its own standing peace-keeping force, regulating the international arms trade, and intervening in countries to prevent human rights abuses.

It is unlikely that US spending on the UN will come under pressure for reductions. In the 2005 poll, a majority did not cut spending, and, on average, spending was increased substantially.

There is likely to be some pressure to cut foreign aid spending. However this is heavily driven by the assumption that foreign aid is far greater than it is. In contrast to defense spending, when they are given information about how much is spent a majority does not want to cut it.

Increases in foreign aid spending--as the President has called for--may face some resistance. Based on polling we did in 2008 it appears that support for such increases are only likely to be supported if they are embedded in a multilateral effort, such as the Millennium Development Goals, where other countries are perceived as doing their part and also where the goal is clearly linked to a humanitarian objective such as alleviating hunger and poverty. In this context a large majority does support significant increases and this support is robust enough that it would likely survive the downward pressure of the budget process.

Bilateral aid and military aid, though, have been and are likely to continue to be quite unpopular. Anything that smacks of the US using aid to buy influence in support of its dominant role tends to be viewed negatively. Deficit pressures will likely intensify this negativity.

So in summary it seems that, despite the exhaustion from two wars and the debilitating effects of the economic crisis Americans do support continued US international engagement. At the same time Americans seem to be feeling more intensely their long-standing desire to reduce America's hegemonic role in the world. They may be looking for US Grand Strategy to be a bit less grand.

Despite the improvements in the economy it is likely that the deficit pressure will grow and it behooves those working in the field of international security to start making some adjustments for when the deficit issue arrives in full force.

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