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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT