Americans and the World

In stereotype, average Americans have political interests defined by the family pocketbook. Rarely do such interests extend beyond local and state borders, not to mention national boundaries.

It's an article of faith that political races are not fought, much less won, on foreign or international issues. The exception, of course, is major war.

But this perception of Yankee parochialism is challenged by recent polls that indicate Americans' attitudes about the world are not quite so narrow as generaly thought. Surveys conducted last fall by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes found, for instance, broad support for the United Nations.

That finding collides with prevailing currents in Congress, where isolationist-inclined politicians withhold dues from the UN and take delight in skewering the organization.

The Pew poll affirmed that Americans generally don't see their lives greatly affected by what goes on overseas. But it also found, intriguingly, that 50 percent of respondents favored a less assertive, more cooperative US stance in the world. That contrasted with a survey of opinion leaders and experts who leaned toward a greater exercise of American leadership and power.

The University of Maryland poll found 74 percent of its respondents favoring power-sharing with other nations - versus 13 percent wanting a dominant US role.

The Maryland survey also identified a range of areas where Americans recognize the importance of foreign affairs - immigration, trade, global environmental concerns, and narcotics trafficking, to name some.

Of course, such findings leave many questions open. Does the public appreciate the complexity of many foreign affairs-related issues? Does the often alarming view of the world presented by the evening news make people less, not more, inclined toward involvement overseas?

At the least, however, such polls hint at a public that could be open to arguments for greater international cooperation in key arenas like peacekeeping and trade. They also suggest a public that senses an increasingly interrelated world - a world they may be ready to learn more about. May their political leaders, and their news sources, not shy from that task.

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