Skip to main content

Against a new American isolationism

By John K. Glenn
December 14, 2013 -- Updated 1628 GMT (0028 HKT)
More Americans are wary of the U.S. getting involved in global conflicts such as Syria's civil war.
More Americans are wary of the U.S. getting involved in global conflicts such as Syria's civil war.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Glenn: Top Republicans are betting presidential aspirations that Americans want to stay out of global hotspots
  • New survey shows 88% of Americans agreed
  • Glenn: But Americans are looking for leadership, not conflict, in a more dangerous world
  • Poll also shows three-quarters of Americans say that U.S. has a responsibility to be a moral leader for the world

Editor's note: John K. Glenn is policy director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition and a member of the Agenda Working Group for the Halifax International Security Forum.

(CNN) -- At a moment when diplomacy is back in the international spotlight, are Americans becoming more isolationist, wanting the United States to pull back from the world?

You might think so listening to Washington.

Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are betting their presidential aspirations on it. Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik released a memo identifying "pull back from the rest of the world" as the No. 1 area of consensus across the political spectrum ahead of the 2014 elections.

And, at first, it looks like they may be on to something. But as you dig deeper, you might see they are missing the point.

John K. Glenn
John K. Glenn

Yes, poll after poll has shown that if you ask Americans to choose between focusing on problems at home or abroad, they overwhelmingly call for focusing at home.

A recent IPSOS/Halifax International Security Forum poll released last week found an overwhelming 88% of Americans agreed. Along with the Obama administration's inability to muster congressional support for limited military strikes against Syria (and the British failure to win approval in their parliament), this is often seen as the latest sign of war-weary populations that don't want anything to do with international entanglements.

Yet, a closer look at how Americans think about the world today provides a note of caution before joining the isolationist bandwagon.

Americans are clearly reluctant to support military intervention. They may agree with former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, that anyone "who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined.'"

But rather than pulling back, Americans are looking for leadership to tackle today's most difficult global challenges, even if they aren't always sure how to deal with them.

What in the World? Ukraine protests
Ukraine's tug-of-war
Syrian rebel leader denies he fled

The world seems a more dangerous place than just three years ago. Compared with 2010, the poll shows that 22% more Americans see a nuclear or chemical attack in the world as a real threat, and 13% more Americans see a terrorist attack in their country as a real threat.

Over this time, support for global engagement through civilian means of diplomacy and development has stayed surprisingly stable.

Three-quarters of Americans agree that their country has a responsibility to be a moral leader for the world, a figure largely unchanged since 2010. They support economic sanctions against countries that behave badly and helping to respond to natural disasters or famines. Even after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, majorities agree their country should help the growth of democracy and assist countries with less developed economies.

The problem is that Americans aren't sure what will work in today's challenging world. Take Syria. It's amazing to see that 66% of Americans supported the deal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control, while only 36% of them believed it will succeed.

Americans know that today's global threats rarely have military solutions and no longer resemble the Cold War conflicts between strong states. An overwhelming majority say that, in today's world, economic power is more important than military power -- as do most people around the world.

But if you ask Americans whether under some conditions war is necessary to obtain justice, three-quarters of Americans still agree, unlike most Europeans and Canadians. It is sobering to note that only in China is there stronger support for war at 80%.

Part of the challenge is that Americans know the United States cannot solve today's global problems alone, but we are hardly unique in wanting to focus on economic problems at home. Among the 20 countries surveyed in the IPSOS/Halifax poll, every country but Sweden felt it should focus more on problems at home. Even 75% of Canadians agree, and Canada is the country the rest of the world regularly sees as having the most positive influence on the world.

While the economy has slowly been showing signs of recovery, perhaps the desire to focus on problems at home is the continued hangover from the financial crisis. It turns out that there is only a modest difference in support for global engagement among Americans who see the economy negatively, with about 10% fewer (but still majorities) agreeing.

The drop-off among those who see the economy negatively is greater (about 30%) on support for assisting countries with less developed economies. This suggests that policymakers and global development advocates need to do a better job making the economic argument that today's fastest-growing economies are in the developing world, not in our traditional trading partners in Europe and Japan, and that the emerging middle classes in Brazil, India, China and across Africa are the new markets for goods and services. All signs are that business understands this, but the public may not yet.

We're seeing a remarkable resurgence of diplomacy, whether in the first steps toward a deal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or in the Middle East peace process. But the passionate reactions against the Iran agreement suggest that some have come to see diplomacy as weakness.

This is unfortunate, as Americans are looking for leadership, not conflict, in a world that they feel is growing ever more dangerous. Let's hope that cooler heads will prevail in the months ahead and see this as an opportunity for the United States to work with our allies to lower the temperature and work to build a safer world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John K. Glenn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 12, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT