The Pew Research Center has come out with an incisive analysis on the revival of isolationism among the American people that should be grasped by US political leaders, Democrat and Republican, in the White House and in the US Congress, because of its long-term implications.
It should also be studied by the leaders of US allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, by friends such as Singapore and India, and by potential adversaries such as North Korea and China, because isolationism could affect their relations with the US.
The Pew report, written by Andrew Kohut, the pollster who directs the center’s Project on Global Attitudes, said the US public today “feels little responsibility and inclination to deal with international problems that are not seen as direct threats to the national interest.”
“The depth and duration of the public’s disengagement these days goes well beyond periodic spikes in isolationist sentiment,” it added.
Those spikes erupted in 1974 after the unpopular war in Vietnam, in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in 2006 when the protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan caused public disillusion.
In particular, a survey showed that 83 percent of Americans think the US president should focus on domestic policy and just 6 percent on foreign affairs. Only six years ago, a similar number of Americans thought the president should focus on domestic matters as those on foreign policy.
Another survey found an upward trend among Americans who said: “We should not think so much in international terms, but concentrate more on our own national problems.”
The Pew report said the causes of this trend are “the gravity of domestic concerns,” notably jobs and the economy and “a sense of war-weariness.”
It said the disinterest of Americans in foreign affairs was underscored by the incident in Benghazi, Libya, when four Americans, including the US ambassador, were killed.
“The political furor in Washington was not matched by interest among the general public,” the report said, with only 25 percent following the incident.
Despite the appeal of isolationism, the goals of the US public include protection against terrorism, preserving jobs and stopping the spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Improving living standards in poor countries and promoting democracy abroad drew little support.
Specifically, more than half of Americans saw North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs and Islamic extremists as threats. They saw lesser threats in the rise of China’s power and influence and in political instability in Pakistan.
The implications of the resurgence in isolationism, which has a long history in the US, are several.
It is likely to be a debated element in the congressional election campaigns of 2014 and in the congressional and presidential races in 2016. In between, it will most likely affect decisions in foreign and security policy.
For allies and friends, the consequences of US isolation are that they must take more responsibility for their foreign policy and security, relying more on their own resources in people and money and less on the US.
The polls show that almost two-thirds of Americans say the US should be less involved in the Middle East.
Yet the renewal of isolationism may increase the danger of miscalculation by potential adversaries who might believe that Americans would be reluctant to respond to threats or attacks.
A classic example of this miscalculation was by Japanese militarists in 1941, who assumed the US would not respond fully to their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
On military power, about two-thirds of the US public said the US military was “already overcommitted” and they did not want the US engaged in Syria.
“Nevertheless, most want the US to remain the preeminent military power; 57 percent held that view and only 29 percent said it would be acceptable if China or another country became as powerful,” the Pew report said.
“Indeed, most Americans believe that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength,” it added. Even so, there is a “huge partisan gap on this question. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans say the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, compared with 52 percent of independents and just 44 percent of Democrats.”
Along with the rebirth of isolationism has come a subtle change in the vision of Americans about their role as world leaders. Instead of taking charge, the Pew study concludes that: “Americans consistently favor a shared leadership for the US in the world.”
How that is to be achieved was left unsaid.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.