January 14th, 2014
08:30 AM ET

U.S. isolationism isn't protectionism

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.

More from GPS: Americans see declining U.S. prestige

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.

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Topics: Economy • United States

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. JAL

    I prefer to look at it from the perspective of localism. Every country can understand the local aspect of economic growth.

    January 14, 2014 at 9:02 am |
  2. Allan Kinsman

    The American populace has little to do with the shape of the world today. If they did I believe the world would have less violence associated with our persona. Policies developed by aggressive stances have failed to get the results they have sought. Our demeanor in the world and reputation stands so low one cannot see it on a flat surface. Our idealogy has been over the last fifty years looked like we try and hold up the world at gunpoint. If we would strive again to provide any kind of leadership our best direction would be to turn our eye inward were we might discover our own plumment into the abyss of the smoke of invalid opinion leading us into chaos. We are selling our liberties under the guise of safety while we give our childrens future away.

    January 14, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • Jerry Falwell

      Well stated, Allan. U.S. Isolation is a splendid idea whose time has not only come but is long overdue! I once preached about our "saving the world" but I was dead wrong then and now I know better!

      January 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm |
      • Allan Kinsman

        We have spent our good will in the world by those which covet resourses in other countries. Turning our vision toward our own problems created by us needs our attention. The politic is long overdue for an overhall. Thoreau once stated to simplify is the best means to arrive at understanding. We need to address our failures. Washington has lost it's way and now common sense must again take it's place were it belongs.

        January 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
  3. Mike

    That's not wrong: "Americans say that the benefits from U.S. participation in the global economy 'may' outweigh the risks" – – but benefits will only come with US companies participating and exporting into global markets – – and not from unnecessary imports from non-alliance countries.

    January 15, 2014 at 7:02 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Many in the lower middle class see globalisation an explanation for their loss of jobs and income.

    January 15, 2014 at 9:35 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Their ability to move upward is hampered by personal reasons and social obstacles. They see themselves becoming working poor.
      What is amazing is that workers in the emerging economies had been able to work themselves up. They earned minimum wage, yet their ability to work hard and save transform them into a middle class force.

      January 15, 2014 at 9:36 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      That, the lower middle class has right, j. von hettlingen. Globalization has done more to hurt the poor and the middle class than anything else except for those stupid wars in the Middle East, of course. Look at how the Eurozone has affected the poor in Europe, especially in Greece and Spain!

      January 15, 2014 at 2:11 pm |
  5. chrissy

    Amen @ Joseph!!!!!

    January 15, 2014 at 6:50 pm |
  6. chrissy

    And Chi nese investment in the US only means they OWN more of the US. It does not mean more jobs!

    January 15, 2014 at 6:54 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      The one good thing about the Chinese investing in our economy chrissy, is that the right-wing politicians can continue their insane military spending without gutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. One the other hand, back in the 1930's when there was no globalization, J apan continued to prosper while the West was languishing in a severe depression!

      January 15, 2014 at 7:23 pm |
      • George

        No, you are wrong! Chinese are not investing in our economy, but destroying – means: lost jobs, lost international influence, no nice future for our future generations, lost lives, missing persons, ...! The right way: kick Chinese out, stop importing, no wars, but peace keeping.

        January 16, 2014 at 8:39 am |
  7. chrissy

    I hear ya @ Joseph. And some very disturbing things are surfacing about the actions of our military dont you think? With all that money you would think they could teach them some manners at least. There just not enough words to describe WHAT i felt just now reading about our Marines in Iraq!

    January 15, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
  8. chrissy

    Agree @ George...buy american made only!

    January 16, 2014 at 11:00 am |
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