America's new isolationism (+video)
Weary of war, Americans increasingly balk at military intervention. Does this reflect a new strain of isolationism or just doubts about the effectiveness of using force in the Middle East?
As President Obama pressed earlier this month for congressional authorization to use force against Syria over a gruesome chemical weapons attack, one reader's comment on a Politico story assessing the president's prospects captured the mood of a fatigued and inward-looking America.Skip to next paragraph
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"Losing the vote is the best thing that could happen," the reader said. "Then we can sail away from the Middle East and mind our own business."
After a decade of wars in the Middle East and Muslim world, and after a "great recession" that sapped the United States economically and psychologically, Americans appear ready to board a sloop and forget about the rest of the world.
In one survey after another, the percentage of Americans preferring the US to "stay out" of world affairs climbs to record levels – in one it's at a seven-decade high. Polls taken during Mr. Obama's 10-day campaign in September for public backing of his plan for punitive military strikes against Syria's Bashar al-Assad revealed deeper resistance to action in Syria than to other unpopular presidential initiatives for intervention in recent decades.
Moreover, surveys find that Millennials in particular eschew global engagement – suggesting the trend could have an effect on America's role in the world for some time to come. Yet while some experts and pundits trumpet the advent of a new isolationism, others say not so fast. Libertarians and progressive internationalists alike say that, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost the US tremendous blood and treasure even as they cost those countries even more, Americans have turned resolutely noninterventionist.
But that doesn't necessarily mean Americans want to disengage from the world. What they do want is for America to work with other countries, not to go it alone. It's America as Mr. Fix-it – especially when the solution involves military intervention – that Americans have soured on.
"Americans are very gun-shy these days. They want to tend their own gardens," says Andrew Kohut, a national pollster whose Pew Research Center found in July that nearly half of Americans – 46 percent – prefer to see the US "mind its own business" while letting other countries "get along as best they can on their own."
Those disagreeing with the temptation to stay out of the world's affairs still come out on top – barely – at 50 percent. But that marks a 15-point drop from a post-9/11 surge in support for international engagement that Pew and other polls registered.
What happened after the rise in interventionist sentiment in the early 2000s was a decade of war – the Afghanistan conflict becoming the longest in American history – that left people disillusioned and doubtful that military ventures are a solution to the world's problems.
One reason this prevailing American mood is associated with isolationism is that today's context in many ways parallels the post-World War I era, when isolationism was at its zenith. In the 1920s and '30s, Americans' revulsion at the violence of the Great War and their bewilderment over the unsettled power struggles of Europe fed a desire to stay home and avoid conflicts on the Continent.
Substitute the Middle East today for the Europe of about a century ago, some historians say: It plays the same role of catalyst for a turning inward that Europe played for Americans after World War I.
"Americans in the 1920s and '30s were experiencing a deep war weariness, and the murky, hard-to-understand and seemingly intractable problems of Europe reinforced the feeling that there was no good reason to get involved there again," says Christopher Nichols, an expert on US foreign interventions and isolationism at Oregon State University in Corvallis.