Public sees new global role for US

Among Americans, one lesson of terror attack is that US needs to look outward.


For half a century, a small but growing minority of Americans have viewed the world warily and thought - if not said - "Can we maybe just stay home?"

In recent years, signs seemed to mount of America's isolationist tendencies. But in the wake of Sept. 11, Americans' support for engagement in the world is surging. Favorable views of US involvement in the world are hitting levels not seen since World War II.

This doesn't mean Americans are eager to send troops to every country with an internal conflict or a terrorist in a cave. Reticence from the Vietnam era remains.

But it does mean that many now believe the world's only superpower should help to resolve problems like the Mideast conflict, and should use its power to do things like promote democracy and reduce poverty worldwide - not just as military might.

The attitude shift could lead to a change in how much the US spends abroad, and put pressure on the Bush administration - which shows signs of heeding the call - to be more interventionist beyond the war on terrorism.

Certainly, much of America's new interest in looking outward can be attributed to support for the war on terrorism. Similar (though less impressive) blips in support for engagement occurred after the Gulf War, as well as after the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980.

But the percentages of Americans who support US involvement in the world and efforts to forge a better view of the US are also at new highs - in some cases even higher than President Bush's ratings. People want a safer world - and they see making it a better place to live as one way to accomplish that.

"We've had this more or less sizable minority that has been attracted to the idea of shutting the world out, but this [Sept. 11] experience has told them, 'No, you can't go home any more,' " says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. "Now the feeling is that, if you aren't in the world, the world can still come and get you. So running away from it isn't an answer," he says. "That leaves people more supportive of internationalist action."

In a recent poll, PIPA found 81 percent of Americans prefer a US that takes an "active part" in world affairs, as opposed to 14 percent favoring "staying out." A comparison of results when similar questions have been asked in surveys since World War II shows the 81 percent marks a new high.

The image of an average American as either unconcerned about the rest of the world or as satisfied with an Uncle Sam who carries a big stick is strong even within the US, but Mr. Kull says neither image is accurate. What Americans want, he says, is a US that doesn't act on its own but works within multilateral contexts.

Public doesn't want a lone ranger

That view is also reflected in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which found that most Americans agree the US should "take into account the views of allies" instead of acting unilaterally. In a commentary on the poll, CFR's Kenneth Pollack said the results suggest "considerable freedom of action" for the Bush administration in its diplomatic activities. But he also sees a public "ready to accept that the US may have to make compromises on other policy issues to attain the support we need in the war on terrorism."

Some analysts conclude that the rise in support for international engagement reflects primarily the public's desire for security and faith in the US military's ability to deliver a safer world.

Kull concurs that national security has jumped to the forefront of concerns after Sept. 11, but he says the public still shows interest in such goals as reducing poverty and promoting democracy around the world - but now more than ever as a way of enhancing long-term global security. "It's not that Americans' values have changed," he says. "It's more that the focus is different."

For example, the PIPA poll found even higher support for building "good will" toward America through food and medical aid (86 percent) than the record high support for US engagement in general.

Sensing this support for international involvement, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling on Mr. Bush to boost US spending on international affairs in his next budget. The leaders note that US spending for international affairs has fallen by about one-third since the mid-1980s. .

"The idea is that in addition to defense and national security, we need to enhance the other ways America engages the world," says Joe Sheffo, spokesman for Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, who coauthored a letter to Bush in favor of higher international spending. In Oregon, he says, "There's a concentration of religious and human rights organizations - plus a private sector, especially a lot of high-tech companies - that all have a strong interest in international engagement."

Skepticism about waste

Proponents of more spending on international affairs acknowledge they face skepticism from a public that considers too much is spent inefficiently or lost to corrupt foreign officials. Liz Schrayer of US Global Leadership, a consortium of private firms and charities supporting a higher international-affairs budget, says the public has a misconception about what the government already spends.

"They typically think the US spends about 15 percent of the budget on foreign aid and other international issues, and they say 5 percent would be about right," she says. "The reality is that it's about 1 percent."

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