By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
Isolationism is not protectionism. And confusing the two can create a false impression of the trajectory of U.S. global engagement in the year ahead.
New polling data showing that the American public is turning inward, preoccupied with domestic affairs and less interested in international engagement, is not evidence of a rise in U.S. economic protectionism, with its grave consequences for global business. Indeed, even as their doubts grow over the future U.S. geopolitical role, Americans say that the benefits from U.S. participation in the global economy outweigh the risks. And even as they harbor doubts about the impact of trade agreements on wages and jobs, public support for closer trade and business ties with other nations stands at its highest point in more than a decade.
The Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, its “leading from behind” in Libya and its reluctance to become involved in the Syrian civil war all reflect a broad public reassessment of America’s future security role in the world. But the White House’s pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, two unprecedented trade deals, equally reflect Americans’ newfound acceptance of the importance – or at least inevitability – of U.S. economic integration with the rest of the world.
Still, 2014 could well prove to be a year when the United States is less globally engaged geopolitically, even while it is more engaged economically.
Americans say that the country does too much to solve world problems, and increasingly they want their leaders to pay more attention to problems at home. About half the public see the United States as overextended abroad, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. When asked to describe why they feel this way, nearly half cite problems at home, including the economy, which they say should get more attention instead.
And such skepticism about international engagement has increased. Currently, about half the public says the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Such public international ennui has waxed and waned at various times in recent history, most notably after the Vietnam War. But this is the most lopsided split in favor of the U.S. “minding its own business” in the nearly 50 years this question has been asked.
Yet the American public expresses no such reluctance about U.S. involvement in the global economy. About three-in-four Americans say that growing trade and business ties between the United States and other countries are good for the nation. And such support for increased trade and business connections has increased 24 percentage points since 2008.
Moreover, at a time of deep partisan divides on many issues, Americans are united in endorsing global economic engagement. Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents describe increased international trade and business ties as good for the U.S.
By more than two-to-one, Americans also see more benefits than risks from greater involvement in the global economy. This includes large majorities across education and income categories, as well as most Republicans, Democrats and independents.
To be sure, the public has worries about globalization. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of the public said free trade agreements lead to job losses. And a plurality said that free trade deals lower wages. Nevertheless, majorities wanted to increase trade with both Europe and Japan – the principal participants in the current transatlantic and transpacific trade negotiations.
And Americans are of two minds about foreign investment. Amid forecasts of massive new Chinese investment in the United States over the next decade, a majority says that more foreign companies setting up operations in the United States would mostly help the economy. But nearly three-quarters think that the economy would be hurt if more U.S. companies move their operations abroad.
So what does all this suggest? The prophecies of America’s retreat from the world are premature. Americans may want a less forward-leaning geopolitical posture in the world, but they still support greater U.S. global economic engagement with it.