December 6th, 2013
07:24 PM ET

Are U.S. voters really turning isolationist?

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 RisePoll: 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.

Topics: Uncategorized

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. banasy©

    If the question is "do we put our own country's problems before saving the rest of the world?", then my answer would be yes. I don't think that makes me isolationist, I think that makes me pragmatic.

    December 6, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      banasy, your line of thinking certainly has some validity. The gift that keeps on giving is one that helps others to help themselves. Otherwise you could end up wasting away to nothing.. But should that ever happen, don't try asking for any help in return. Most people wouldn't even have the common decency to hand back a prosthetic.

      December 6, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
      • banasy©

        I don't think cutting off the entire world is the answer, but there has to be balance.

        December 7, 2013 at 11:28 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The debate on “isolationism versus internationalism” is polemic. Whether the US opt for isolationism or internationalism, realpolitik should be forefront. Are national interests involved? What is the cost/benefit analysis?
        In the past, some cases of internationalism turned out to be interventionism. It requires a delicate balance of involvement in a crisis, to make a mission look less like an intervention.

        December 8, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      The true question here is, banasy; Is the American public finally wising up? Hopefully, the answer is yes. Isolationism is truly a very good idea whose time has not only come, but is long overdue! Only an ignoramus or a war profiteer thinks otherwise!

      December 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  2. Allan Kinsman

    If those who have responsibility would act responsibly this could help. Americans are a generous group however unknown to those who express their opinion think Americans cannot see what is happening to their country. If reason does not temper greed saving this modern era may be futile. The modern world more than ever before needs a desparate infusion of integrity.

    December 6, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  3. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    As for an "infusion of integrity," almost all Americans, if polled, would "strongly favor" that infusion.
    The number of USA residents who could define the word "integrity" decreases every day. I estimate that 47% could not spell "integrity" without the use of an instrument.
    Asking citizens of the USA whether or not their nation should be a world leader is like asking the C-students in a school their views on being president of the class.

    December 7, 2013 at 2:18 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      Don't get me wrong: the USA into which I was born was the greatest country in the world, even if the charm of its citizens was very Daisy Miller.
      Things change. In history, we remember periods by associated events. I remember the beginning of baroque music as the year when Bach and Handel were born, 1685–close to the beheading of the Duke of Monmouth.
      I associate the beginning of the USA's certain decline with the musical HAIR.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:52 am |
  4. ✠RZ✠

    Sorry Bubba, but it seems pretty clear if we want to "cure what's wrong with America" the only right thing left is to rebuild it with a whole new model from the ground up, the sooner the better. And to Barrack et al, the only means to achieve any "real change" is likely with real exchange. Just say "yes we can" to that.

    December 7, 2013 at 6:55 am |
    • banasy©

      With the intransigence that he faces with Congress? And the Party of No? As much as I'd like to see that, I don't think that's happening any time least in the next three years.

      December 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
      • ✠RZ✠

        Heck, I'd be happy if the notion were given any consideration at all in the next three years. Is it actually possible for things to turn around as is? Absolutely, but then the question would be for how long? As Fareed may have asked awhile ago, how often do we see the privilege of office in Washington being transferred with pride and honor to the next leadership? The business of politics cannot be nothing more than the buying and selling of decisions. The decisions of our leaders and government must always be protected from any undue influence and bias, and until that happens there is no real government. Just business as usual.

        December 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
      • banasy©

        Oh, I agree completely.
        Very well said.

        December 7, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  5. rightospeak

    Phony statistics mixed with media's propaganda runs through the fabric of this spin. Not even worth a comment.

    December 7, 2013 at 8:53 am |
  6. Allan Kinsman

    I would like for an instant if there were one person in any form in this representative government to express the failures of the present. A relevant statement would do to let us know the country and it's peoples were still a part of any agenda even if there were a casual sincerety. I think in my mind there are no longer any political group, party or leader who knows where to go and what needs to be done. Ralph Waldo Emerson said some time ago " the responsibilities of human beings are to hold a light up in the dark so that others can see". From my observations the official dogma represents the most dangerous kind of trivia.

    December 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  7. dan2

    Why has Iran 'news' been reduced to 90% blogs?

    December 9, 2013 at 1:07 am |
    • ✠RZ✠

      It's all on account uv that Pootinski 'n Chinamun fella sid they jes wuddin let us blowd it up real good. That Seeria place neether! 'N danggummit they all went n' 'greed upon gettin rid uv all their nukular plootonnium stuff to boot! So now I reckon we're jes gonna hafta blowd the whole lot uv em real good, but that's gonna take jes a lil' bit more convincin' everyone! 'Sides we can't be takin all our folks munny and sturrin up a big ol' ruckus right abouts now fer blowding stuff up. It's Chrissmus dawggonnit! So les break out the jugs and have ourselves a good ol' time holerday seezun. Give us lots of time fer figurin on out how to blowd 'em all up real good come spring!

      December 9, 2013 at 5:25 am |
      • Allan Kinsman

        Took me some figgerun, but good said.

        December 9, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  8. Paul

    US voters at the next election should vote: 1. against Democrats, because they failed in Detroit, in Washington DC and in global politics. 2. vote for internationalism, but not orientationless, but alliance politics (NATO, EU, NAFTA, ...). 3. give no vote to Hillary.

    December 9, 2013 at 10:20 am |
  9. Allan Kinsman

    In the next election U.S. voters should vote everyone out that is in and continue until the parties get the point that Americans want balance and budget responsibility. But as long as we are led by the Washington lobbies we will continue to have a chasm between what is reason and the illusion of government.

    December 9, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Yes Sir ! If "the dirt comes out in the wash", there's a ton of it in Washington. And there's no denying that the next election could prove quite interesting. It's just a matter of getting over all the potential challenges along the way that I'm not too sure of. Hope for the best, but get ready for the worst.

      December 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
  10. Allan Kinsman

    I saw today congress with a 90% disapprovel rating is finding some compromise. Much farther to go.

    December 12, 2013 at 1:50 am |

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