The US Turns its Back on the World

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 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 US 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.

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 US troops from Afghanistan, up dramatically from 39 percent in 2009, according to the new German Marshall Fund 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey.

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 US foreign policy.

A solid majority, 58 percent of Republicans, now want to see US 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.

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 think 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.

(Bruce Stokes is the senior transatlantic fellow for economics at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Thisis reprinted with permission form the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.)