September 14th, 2011
04:03 PM ET

The U.S. public wants disengagement

Editor's Note: Bruce Stokes is the senior transatlantic fellow for economics at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. YaleGlobal Online, where this piece originally appeared, is the flagship publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

By Bruce StokesYaleGlobal

Those who criticized American unilateral interventionism under President George W. Bush may soon have an opportunity to see how they like American isolationism, especially if a Republican recaptures the White House in 2012. Throughout its history the United States has periodically turned its back on the world, even its long-time allies. There is now new evidence that Washington is about to do so again, if the American people have their way.

A newly inward-looking America would have profound implications for Asia, Europe, NATO, the war in Afghanistan and the future reliability of the United States as a leader on a range of global issues. The world has periodically suffered the consequences of a self-pre-occupied America. This may happen again.

Isolationism is hardly a new phenomenon when it comes to the U.S. approach to the world. In 1801, in his first inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson’s warned against “entangling alliances.” And this warning has repeatedly echoed down through US history. Isolationist sentiment slowed America’s participation in both World Wars I and II. And it led to Congress’ rejection of US membership in the League of Nations in 1919. In more recent times, world weariness peaked again in the mid-1970s, a product of America’s frustrating and deadly experience in Vietnam and its inglorious exit in 1975. The isolationist sentiment  has now returned with a vengeance in the hearts of many Americans.

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A majority, 58 percent, of Americans now believe that the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas, according to a May 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center. That isolationist sentiment is up 9 percentage points from 2004. This same opinion poll found that 65 percent favored reducing overseas military commitments and 72 percent of Americans wanted to cut foreign aid. This despite the fact that over the recent decade US foreign aid has been cut, constituting 0.2 percent of gross national income in 2009, as compared with Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway, which gave more than 1 percent.

Nowhere is this change more evident than in the reversal of American views about the Afghan war, a conflict started by President George W. Bush and intensified by President Barack Obama. Two in three Americans, 65 percent, now want to reduce or withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, up dramatically from 39 percent in 2009, according to the new German Marshall Fund 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey.

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Americans have clearly soured on international adventurism. Non-American critics of the Afghan intervention may find this encouraging. But the growing partisan nature of attitudes toward foreign-policy issues in general in the United States should give foreigners pause.

Whether in reaction to the ill-fated Iraq and Afghan wars of the Republican president Bush or to distinguish themselves from the perceived internationalism of Democratic president Obama, Republicans in particular are turning their backs on the world.

Republican candidates for president and their voters are distinctly more isolationist than their Democratic counterparts on a range of issues, not simply the Afghan war. And, with President Obama now trailing many of his Republican  contenders in early head-to-head matchups, it may well be Republican sensibilities that shape future U.S. foreign policy.

A solid majority, 58 percent of Republicans, now want to see U.S. forces in Afghanistan reduced or withdrawn. Such sentiment is up a dramatic 36 percentage points since 2009, according to the GMF survey.

Disengagement is even more strongly supported by Democrats (70 percent) and Independents (66 percent), but their swing to that position is less pronounced. Backing for reduction or withdrawal is up 23 points among Independents and 24 points among Democrats since 2009.

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It is little wonder then that in the mid-August Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Ames, Iowa, one of the loudest applause lines was for isolationist Rep. Ron Paul’s demand to “bring our troops home.”

Republican voters are also distancing themselves from NATO. Only a bare majority, 51 percent, of Republicans thinks NATO is still essential to America’s security. That support is down 11 percentage points since 2009.

Democrats’ backing for NATO, 69 percent, is actually up 5 points, Independents’ support, 56 percent, has slumped just 2 points.

Lest one think this critique of NATO is mere GOP pique at a perceived lack of European support in Afghanistan, a majority, or 57 percent, of Republicans now believe that in transatlantic security and diplomatic affairs the United States should take a more independent approach. Only 35 percent of GOP supporters held such isolationist views in 2009. In contrast, a plurality of Democrats, 42 percent, still supports closer ties with Europe, while Independents are divided on the issue.

As many Americans turn away from Europe and turn inward, they do recognize the growing importance of Asia. A majority, 51 percent, now sees China, Japan and South Korea as more important than the nations of Europe for US national interests, according to the GMF survey. This is hardly surprising at a time when Europe is floundering economically and Asia is booming. But to many Americans, especially Republicans, emerging Asia, at least China, is a threatening development, posing a profound danger to the United States, not an opportunity.

Two-thirds, 66 percent, of Republicans surveyed by GMF had an unfavorable view of China. In contrast, 58 percent of Democrats held a positive opinion of the Middle Kingdom. A strong majority, 72 percent, of GOP voters said they see China as an economic threat to the United States, compared with only 54 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 50 percent of Republicans said China was a military threat. Only 44 percent of Democrats agreed.

The Pew Research Center survey confirms that the GMF findings of a partisan split on U.S. engagement with the world have actually been building for some time. In 2002, only 22 percent of Republicans told Pew that the US should mind its own business internationally; now 45 percent of Republicans hold such sentiments. And while isolationism by this measure has declined somewhat in recent years among Democrats, it continues to grow among members of the GOP.

In the months ahead apologists for the fickle American electorate will be quick to dismiss isolationist rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign, especially from Republican presidential candidates, as mere populist campaign posturing that signifies no long-term policy intentions for White House aspirants. But downplaying U.S. presidential candidates’ isolationist pronouncements will belie the underlying sea change taking place among American voters, who are turning their backs on the Afghanistan war, on NATO and on engagement with Europe, while gearing up for a confrontation with China.

The long-term foreign-policy implications of these developments, especially if a Republican sits in the White House in 2013, cannot be underestimated.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Stokes. Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Politics • United States

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Jesse

    Sure like throwing that isolationist word around, huh? I prefer non-interventionist. Free trade is fine, but foreign wars that serve no purpose towards my defense, and in fact make my country more hated around the globe, should be off the table.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Mamojama

      Well put, Jesse!

      September 15, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • LV

      Yes, we need to stop dithering and take on China, because China is engaging in mass theft of American know-how and money. Free trade is not fair trade, and for far too long we have played the fools on that stage. It is time for American policy to be 100% about Americans. Our mistake was ever thinking we can, or should, save others from themselves.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:54 am |
      • common dense

        so wait, making products and selling them is considered "theft"? I guess the US been doing it for a long time now. So is china stealing what the US stole previously?

        September 16, 2011 at 3:27 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    The Americans "are turning their backs on the Afghanistan war, on NATO and on engagement with Europe, while gearing up for a confrontation with China".
    Cold War revisited? It seems like history repeats itself. The former Soviet Union is gone, this time it's China the thorn in the side.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Mike Houston

      The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Stokes. Those views do NOT represent the views of a
      majority of Americans. The reason for Americans going into Afghanistan was to nail Osama bin Laden. That's been
      done and now its time to out of there. That in no way means that the U.S. wants to be "isolationist", or seeks either a
      cold or hot war with China. And it doesn't mean that the U.S. is "turning its back" on European OR Asian friends.
      China needs to stop being so damn "up tight" about American intentions.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:21 am |
  3. KRM1007

    Wars are a consequence of inept leaders and administration who can neither prevent nor cure.

    September 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  4. rogbahia

    If a period of fixing a broken and divided country, then so be it. An example to follow, the USA certainly is not right now and it is the greatest shame (for the world) the a welcome change to an intelligent, level headed, articulate and visionary President—who could certainly have given the US a new respect and credibility on the world stage—was emasculated by an inheritance of mismanagement, greed and blatant abuse of military power.
    No President can fix all that ails in two terms, let alone one. When the majority of your government is blindly bent of seeing their President fail—to the detriment of a disfranchised public—what chance does Obama have. Whoever succeeds Obama, one year or five, will wish he hadn't, because the dysfunction and childish houses will not evolve that quickly, if ever.

    September 14, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  5. "He's Dead Jim."

    The greatest cost in the world stems from the abuse of power of governments abroad. The abuse of power exerted upon the people they dictate to. Paying for this cost assures an easing of suffering and the promise of more payments in the future. Savings can be realized when the peoples of our world realize that when a government has gone astray from effective governing to dictatorship it is time for that government to have it's Waterloo.

    September 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  6. Richard Haydn

    What caused the Arab Spring? Maybe it was the rest of the Arab world seeing Saddam deposed? That and the internet/satelite world wide communication. Just asking, as I haven't read much about what got this train going. Would be interesting to read the history books a hundred years from now. If that is the case and thinks work out well for the world than our intervention will have been a good thing.

    I don't want us to ignore the world and it is ridiculous to think we could. The USA can't be isolated, even if it wanted to be. But like Dirty Harry said, "A country's got to know its limitations." Afganistan is a 16th century tribal culture set in some of the most rugged geography in the world. Their top cash crop is used to make heroin. Maybe we could help them with better irrigation systems? They have had 10 years to build there own army. Ten years for cryin' out loud. The US doesn't have to, and of course won't, disengage from the world. But where are the other countries when it comes to being the international cops. Take Lybia, supposedly handed off to Europe. But what, Europe had like 10 jets, 2 old jeeps and a few weeks worth of armament and none of the high tech stuff to get the job done.

    Look at the percentage of GDP the rest of the free world spends on their military. We simply cannot afford to burn through our treasure and blood to "save the world".

    September 15, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  7. bigwilliestyles

    Isolationism? Pul-leeze. If a republican is elected, it is only a matter of time before he either escalates a current conflict, or starts a new one in support of the mil/ind complex. The only question is on what scale. Fascists believe that they are supposed to rule over someone, anyone. What they refuse to accept is that those days are over, never to return.

    September 15, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • John

      Quite true bigwilliestyles, quite true but unfortunately enough, you're right, to the chagrin of America!

      September 15, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  8. Onesmallvoice

    Like I said before, American Isolationism is an excellent idea whose time has not only come but is long overdue! We need to forget about what is politically correct and begin to concentrate on our problems here at home and stop sending in troops where they have no business in the first place!!! Only an ignorant fool would disagree with what I just stated here but unfortunately, there are far too many of them!

    September 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Mike Houston

      American isolationism is the moronic concept of absolute fools whose time should never come.
      "Only an ignorant fool would disagree with what I just stated..." What arrogance!
      There are far too many "fools" among us, alright. And you and Ron Paul are smack dab in the
      middle of that crowd of fools.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  9. Trip Richert

    I disagree with the article's assement that the Republican candidate for president will be an isolationist. There are faily view non-interventionalists running for president, and definately no isolationists. From what I've seen from the debates, candidates Congressman Sanctorum, Governor Perry, and Represenative Bachmann would increase military interventionism. I think Governor Romney would maintain about current levels, perhaps slightly more interventionism. Huntsman seems to advocate decreasing military presence and increasing diplomatic presence. Ron Paul wants to stop intervening militarily, diplomatically, and economically; withdraw all troops; and establish free trade (free trade is not isolationism). I'm not sure about Cain or Gingrich. From this, I am reasonably confident that the Republican candidate for president will intervene in foriegn affairs even more than the current one does.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Trip Richert

      slight correction: Governor Huntsman, Congressman Paul, and Represenative Gingrich. I wasn't trying to disrespect any of our former Congressmen, current Congressmen, current Governors, or former Governors.

      September 15, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  10. Michelle G

    I agree whole-heartily with What John Quincy Adams said about America's role in the world:

    "Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She knows that by once enlisting under the other banners than her own, were they even banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all ways of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dicta tress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit..."

    September 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Tim

    If your story is true that Americans want out of the wars, Ron Paul will win because he is the only one who will do it.

    September 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Onesmallvoice

      Sadly enough Tim, I have to dsagree because there are far too many ignorant people out there who will vote for the other candidates who favor all these useless and unnecessary wars. Ignorance rules at the polls, unfortunately!

      September 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
      • Mike Houston

        Ignorance may or may not rule at the polls, but it most certainly rules between the ears of Ron Paul and his
        dim followers.

        September 16, 2011 at 3:35 am |
  12. Sam Temple

    The United States has used its veto scores of times in the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel from any criticism. Most recently this was done to protect Israel from criticism of settlements policy, which is both inhumane and illegal under international law. In spite of the fact that the resolution in question was carefully drafted using language that Washington had previously approved, the US nevertheless vetoed it even though America’s Ambassador to the UN made clear that it was against US interests to do so. Protecting Israel makes Washington a hypocrite and a liar before the eyes of the entire world and it endangers all Americans when they travel overseas. Isn’t it time for Israel to begin accepting the consequences for its own policies and stop using its powerful lobby to make Washington act against the interests of the American people?

    September 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  13. cleancool

    Looking at the words used by the american presidential candidates, I would not be surprised China will have a tough time dealing with the next president of u.s. China must be prepared for a confrontation with the u.s., be it a trade war or a military one. Given the american military superiority and their allies ( u.k. and maybe france ), China and maybe Russia will need all they have to take on the west. May GOD have mercy on China and be gracious to her.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • common dense

      china has nukes that can reach the US. SO the US superiority will be wiped off the map with nuclear weapons. Good job spending all that money for nothing

      September 16, 2011 at 3:29 am |
  14. Andrew

    only ONE candidate will bring the troops home IMMEDIATLY that is Dr Ron Paul!

    September 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  15. rightospeak

    How did globalism work for you ? Out of a job ? Our border secure ? How did the CHANGE work for you ? You still have your 401 K ? Unfortunately , I wish it weren't so, Rick is MORE OF THE SAME with a different twist. Ron Paul is the ONLY hope .

    September 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  16. zortilo nrel

    Great website. Plenty of helpful information here. I am sending it to several buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your sweat!

    December 15, 2020 at 3:39 am |

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