American Public Found to Hold `Internationalist' Policy Views

New data refute assumption that US is nation of isolationists

PRESIDENT Clinton has asked his foreign-policy team to reassess the American response to events in Bosnia, with an eye to taking a more energetic role in resolving that crisis. At the same time, he faces a widening role in Somalia, with United States forces now launching larger-scale operations against the warlords' militias.

These crises may be laying the groundwork for a new era in US foreign policy, when humanitarian concerns as much as strategic interests will impel involvement abroad.

But while a stronger US commitment to bring peace and justice to turbulent regions may be applauded in many parts of the world, one quarter counts the most: the American public. Will the people, whose taxes and whose sons and daughters in uniform ultimately underpin foreign policy, go along with the new activism?

An isolationist streak often is assumed to run deep among Americans, especially in tough economic times. Research compiled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, however, tends to refute that assumption.

From the pre-World War II years right through the Gulf war and the Somalia crisis, Americans have shown a strong awareness of events abroad and a readiness to get involved, says Everett C. Ladd, director of the Roper Center.

He suggests that the country's average citizens share with its policymaking elite a sense that the US has a large role to play in the world - that, in some sense, "it's our show." That, along with humanitarian concern, helps explain solid public support for intervention in Somalia, he says.

There have been exceptions, of course. Former President Reagan was never able to mobilize public support behind his inclination to intervene in Central America, and Vietnam eventually exhausted the public's patience.

The success of future interventions could rest first on the president's ability to spell out a rationale the public can grasp and support, and, second, on international burden-sharing.

"You can't use military power without strong public backing," observes Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Even during the cold war, when the US security situation was more urgent and perilous, most interventions were fiercely debated."

Mr. Hamilton says "a vigorous public discussion" is needed to sort out the rationale for the types of interventions arising today.

One clear boundary of intervention has to do with burden-sharing. The prime tool for this is the United Nations, an institution that has sometimes lagged in the esteem of Americans - a fact perhaps reflected in the US' dereliction in paying its dues for UN peacekeeping and other functions. But support for the UN is growing among Americans, according to polls conducted by the United Nations Association of the United States.

Edward Luck, the association's president, recalls that "10 years ago, if the UN said OK, it was no good." Now, the organization's imprimatur is sought for nearly every US action, he says.

But he adds that the US' dominant position on the Security Council guarantees Washington considerable control even under a collaborative system.

That does not mean, however, that the relationship between the US and the UN is clear to Americans generally. Mr. Ladd cautions that "there are elements in American thinking that are quickly frustrated if an internationalist approach means any watering down of the national interest." Burden-sharing, on the other hand, is positive, he adds. Most Americans are happier when the US doesn't go it alone.

Is the sharing likely to go all the way to international command over US forces?

"In the near term, it's hard to envision a situation where large numbers of US forces would be under UN command," Hamilton says. He does, however, think it is possible that smaller US units could be embraced within a UN-controlled operation, such as a "follow-on force" that would remain in Somalia after the main American presence had withdrawn.

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