Tuesday, March 07, 2006

U.S. Public Opinion on International Relations

"America's Place in the World 2005: An Investigation of the Attitudes of American Opinion Leaders and the American Public About International Affairs"

This is a study produced by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in association with the Council on Foreign Relations. It is the latest of a series. It is perceived by many to indicate a shift toward isolationism on the part of the American Public.

Peter Beinhart wrote last month, for example:
Public isolationism has jumped sharply since 2002. Even more striking is the change in elite opinion. According to a recent Pew study, the percentage of security experts who say the United States should be highly assertive around the world has dropped from 75 percent in 1993 to 53 percent today. Among leading scientists and engineers, it has dropped from 55 percent to 32 percent. Among top religious leaders, it has fallen from 57 percent to 36 percent.

Larry Seaquist, a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO, provided a column by David Brooks of the New York Times, in which he takes an alternative view:
A polling analyst, Ruy Teixeira, has taken the closest look at the data over at his Web site, Donkey Rising. Teixeira argues that instead of seeing a turn to isolationism, what we are seeing in poll after poll is public opinion returning to normal post-World War II levels, after the unusual 9/11 blip.

Much of the isolationist talk started when a Pew survey found that 42 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally, a 12-point rise over three years. But Teixeira points out that the 42 percent number puts Americans back where they were throughout the Clinton years, when Americans supported more foreign interventions than ever before.

Ruy Teixeira, on his website "Donkey Rising", in fact wrote:
Is the US public moving toward isolationism? Last week, I cited the John Mueller article on “The Iraq Syndrome” that suggested a trend among the public toward isolationism was likely in reaction to the Iraq debacle. Partial confirmation of this trend is provided by data from a new Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations study, “American’s Place in the World, 2005". I say partial confirmation for two reasons: (1) There are counter-trends that suggest the public mood cannot easily by typecast as simply isolationist; and (2) The move away from internationalism, such as it is, is mostly relative to the post-September 11, 2001 surge in internationalism. Therefore, the public is mostly returning to the status quo ante–the post Vietnam era of qualified internationalism--rather than true isolationism.

Brooks seems clearly to have wrongly interpreted Teixeira, who thinks that the level of isolationism is returning to post Desert Storm levels, not post WWII levels. The key finding from the Pew study is shown in the graph below:

The report itself states:
Fully 42% of Americans say the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” This is on par with the percentage expressing that view during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the 1990s after the Cold War ended.
Thus, on the basis of this one indicator, public opinion appears more isolationist not only than after WWII, when the failure of isolationism was fresh in the minds of the public, but than at any time other than right after Viet Nam and right after Desert Storm.

Teixeira also writes:
Data on the UN are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, favorability toward the UN has nosedived, so it is now 29 points lower than it was just prior to September 11, 2001. And sentiment that the “The United States should cooperate fully with the United Nations” is now at just 54 percent, down 13 points from just before 9/11 and 6 points since 2002 (though this is still substantially higher than the previous low of 46 percent in 1976). But views on whether “strengthening the UN” should be a top priority (40 percent) are just about the same as they were before 9/11 and quite a bit higher than they were in 1997 (30 percent).

However, consider the results from "Americans on Addressing World Poverty of June 2005":
A large majority of Americans favors the US committing to the goal of devoting seven-tenths of one-percent of GDP to reducing world poverty, provided that other developed countries do so as well. An equally large majority favors the US committing up to $50 a year per taxpaying household to meet the Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015—once again, provided that other developed countries do so as well.

I suggest that public opinion polls show a reduction in support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related policies in the Middle East and West Asia. The changing views of the United Nations, especially if ascertained in the context of the wars, are probably also related to the conflict. Few opinion leaders and few in the public would distinguish the United Nations and its peace keeping functions, from the IAEA and its non-proliferation functions, from the decesntralized agencies such as UNESCO.

In fact I suppose there is great public support for some U.N. agencies. Thus the concern for a possible avian flu pandemic has required leadership on a global level from the World Health Organization, and I would guess that there is practically no isolationism expressed in terms of waiting for the pandemic to hit the United States, rather than working through multilateral channels to stop the disease where it breaks out in the human population.

I would suggest that UNESCO represents a special case. Opinion leaders and the public should be very supportive of its efforts toward Education for All. They should see international cooperation in science to be a public good, promoted effectively by UNESCO. But due to the long period that the United States was out of UNESCO, Americans know even less about it than about other U.N agencies. At a time when Americans for UNESCO is seeking to promote more linkages between UNESCO and its natural consitituencies in the United States, and to promote better understanding of UNESCO, those efforts might well be endangered by fall-out criticism of other international policies or of the United Nations.

I was especially concerned that opinion leaders from the scientific and engineering community were among the least positive in these Pew study toward international involvement of the United States. These communities should be important constituencies for and collaborators with UNESCO. It would be especially unfortunate if these communities were to form negative opinions of UNESCO. On the other hand, the survey suggests that these communities "in the know" about the environmental threats that face the international community, should also be the first to recognize the importance of UNESCO's water and oceanographic programs.

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