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?
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But even Americans who have decided they no longer want the US to be the world's policeman aren't necessarily saying they want America to disengage from the world. The University of Maryland's Kull, coauthor of "Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism," says one reason America's mood is labeled "isolationism" is that opinion polls generally offer the options of isolationism or interventionism, when in fact he says Americans want something else – a third way.Skip to next paragraph
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"There's a tendency to think about public opinion as moving along a linear scale, between yes or no, positive or negative, or in this case, isolationism or interventionism," Kull says. "But if you turn that line into a triangle, you get a different result."
Offer a trio of options – unilateral engagement, disengagement, and cooperative engagement with the world – and the allure of turning inward appears to be less strong.
A 2011 Gallup poll even offered Americans four options for what role America should play in the world – no role, a modest one, a major but not leading role, and a leading role – and half chose the "major but not leading role" option. Only 16 percent chose a leading role, while a scant 7 percent preferred no American role in world affairs.
"We're seeing people moving away from the dominant form of foreign engagement that they've experienced over the past decade or so because they see it as too unilateral," Kull says. "But they overwhelmingly choose a more cooperative form of engagement if given that option."
It may be a while before a president is able to summon a majority of Americans to support a military intervention in the Middle East, especially absent a strike at America's heart like the 9/11 attacks. But if the president can make the case that the world stands with him (or her) and that the action will be a cooperative international effort, then an intervention-shy America that's turned to tending its own garden may indeed rally to the cause.
More broadly, the public debate Obama said he wanted America to have on intervening in Syria may have told us something bigger about the direction of America's role in the world.
A turning inward so vividly revealed by the Syrian chemical weapons crisis and a president's call for intervention may yet prove to be a relatively short lived reaction to a decade of Middle East wars.
But if the American public's clear preference for "minding our own business" turns out to be part of a larger and more firmly rooted trend – like the crouch the country went into after the Vietnam War – it could have deep implications not just for foreign policy and America's projection of power, but also for domestic issues as varied as federal spending and immigration reform.
Over the course of the past month's debate, numerous members of Congress who trumpeted their opposition to intervention in Syria also made a point of cautioning other "rogue states" that they should not interpret congressional opposition as an American retreat. Iran and North Korea were put on notice. Still, the widespread recoiling from intervention suggests that projects to change regimes, spread democracy, stop genocide – even "modest" steps (as Obama said) to punish grave global wrongs – may be off America's agenda.
It was John Quincy Adams who said just shy of two centuries ago that, while America "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" in the world, "she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy."
With the "American century" that followed America's lead role in destroying Europe's Nazi "monster," Adams's thinking might seem passé – even more so with the advent of globalization. It may be, however, that Americans are signaling a desire for a more modest role in the world.
• Contributing to this report were correspondents Carmen K. Sisson in Mobile, Ala., and Noelle Swan in Boston.