By David Adesnik, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Securities Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
News anchors and correspondents casually refer to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul as the leader of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party. Sen. John McCain warned in August that the time had come for “a debate about the future of the [Republican] party,” a debate about “isolationism versus internationalism.” Isolationism was supposed to remain dead and buried beneath the waves at Pearl Harbor, but as noted by Bruce Stokes on GPS this week, a comprehensive new study by the Pew Research Center reports that “support for US global engagement, already near a historic low, has fallen further” while, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans want the US “to mind its own business internationally.”
However, a closer look at the data reveals a more complex picture, of an American public that is deeply dissatisfied but persistently searching for a president who can enhance American strength and exert effective global leadership.
Fully 84 percent of respondents said the United States ought to exercise either shared or singular global leadership, a question that has consistently been asked, and notably, answered the same way for decades. Since 1993, more than 80 percent of Americans have wanted their country to be a global leader. This data is consistent with the findings of similar surveys conducted in 2010 and 2012 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which also found that upwards of 80 percent of Americans favored strong leadership abroad. Additionally, by a margin of 56 to 32 percent, the Pew survey found that Americans favor policies designed to ensure we remain the world’s only superpower. Even more interestingly, about half of respondents oppose further cuts to the defense budget; while almost a quarter want to increase it – up ten percentage points from just two years ago.
Pew’s emphasis on American retreat has resulted in headlines such as Americans’ Isolationism on the Rise, Poll: U.S. Power has Declined, and Americans Believe U.S. Should ‘Mind Its Own Business’. Unquestionably, a top priority is to bring an end to five years of economic stagnation at home. By a margin of 82 to 8, they want the president to focus on domestic policy rather than foreign. But even in early 2002, shortly after 9/11, the margin was 54-32 in favor of focus on “nation building here at home.” In other words, Americans have always been focused on America, first. But not on America, only.
The Pew poll makes clear that part of the problem with foreign policy in general is less about American leadership than it is about Barack Obama’s leadership in international affairs. Overall, disapproval of Obama’s foreign policy has shot up from 17 to 56 percent since 2009. During that same period, the number that say Obama is “not tough enough” has increased from 38 to 51 percent. While only 30 percent of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has reduced the threat of terrorism, they say, by a margin of 50-27, that drone strikes have made them safer. When Americans perceive a clear threat, they prefer policies that are the exact opposite of minding one’s own business.
Similarly, when it comes to confronting risks overseas, large majorities continue to judge rogue states like Iran and North Korea, along with Islamic extremists, as “major threats.” Sixty percent do not believe Iran is serious about addressing concerns that its allegedly peaceful program is designed to build weapons (although the survey was completed before the recently signed deal).
Interpreting opinion polls will always be as much art as science. Yet focusing on the clearest and most direct questions asked by Pew’s recent survey, what emerges is the expectation that the United States will continue to exercise active global leadership in spite of troubles at home and disappointments abroad. For most Americans, that clearly remains the responsibility of an exceptional nation.