Are We All Isolationists Now?

The Pew Research Center has just published a new survey, entitled “America’s Place in the World,” with a banner headline: “Isolationist Sentiment Surges to Four-Year High.” Looking at the underlying question, however, one has to wonder if the “high” does not refer to the author of the headline, and not the American public, to wit: “The U.S. should ‘mind its own business’ and let others get along on their own.” Most of the polled citizens (2,000 of them were surveyed during October and November) undoubtedly keyed in on the admirable “mind its own business,” and not on the much more ambiguous—in making a case for isolationism—“get along on their own” phrase. In the end a plurality (49 percent) answered in the affirmative. Slavishly following Pew’s suggested headline, most of the press accounts consisted of hand-wringing on the public’s distaste for global engagement. Yet answers to other questions reveal a highly pragmatic public response to evolving foreign policy and security challenges, and not a retreat to 1930s “hide under the pillow” reactions. Thus, 56 percent of those polled think that the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was correct, and an almost identical majority (57 percent) believe that the United States should maintain its status as the world’s only military superpower.

Possibly the most surprising result—not headlined by Pew or the press—was continued, even increased, support for George Bush’s much maligned “unilateralism.” Fully 44 percent of the public in the poll agreed with the statement that the United States should “go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other nations agree with us or not.” Given the drumfire of criticism over the past several years, and President Obama’s campaign specifically on this issue, it is amazing that the public still holds this view. And just to top it all off in the “so there!” category: an increased majority (54 percent, up from 44 percent in February) say torture is at least sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists.

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