Peder with a D

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Misinterpreting “Isolationist” Sentiment

Posted by Peder on 26 January 2010

A poll of Americans claims most of us want less and less to do with international issues and the affairs of other nations.  That is according to a recent article published in my local paper and written by the McClatchy news service.  It cites a Pew Center report in which about half the respondents agreed with the phrases that America should “mind its own business internationally,” and that as Americans “we should go our own way.”  In 1964, less than 20% of respondents shared this sentiment.  The analysis then went on to describe a new surge in American isolationism, akin to that experienced in the 1920s, spurred by sentiments of the under-30 crowd.  It’s the younger generation, you see, who wants to take its ball and go home.

Eh, hang on a minute there.

I went back and read the actual poll report.  Its focus was on Americans’ perception of their country’s place in the world, and was conducted in preparation for President Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.  In essence, many Americans feel the USA plays a less important role internationally than it did 10 years ago.  In contrast, China’s importance is growing.  Unfortunately, the article’s author, Rick Montgomery, “buried the lead” by emphasizing American isolationism.  At best, isolationist sentiment is of tertiary importance, superseded by US global influence and the need for increased troops in Afghanistan.

To quote the survey:

The general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations are apprehensive and uncertain about America’s place in the world. Growing numbers in both groups see the United States playing a less important role globally, while acknowledging the increasing stature of China. And the general public, which is in a decidedly inward-looking frame of mind when it comes to global affairs, is less supportive of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan than are CFR members.

But Mr. Montgomery begins his article with this:

Is it the economy? The blood spilled in Afghanistan and Iraq? A fear of China, or imported diseases?

It must be a mix of all that bothers us, experts suggest, because never in the history of polling have so many Americans said the nation should take care of its own and stay out of other countries’ affairs.

Just when you thought technology and trade had made the globe as small as it could get, talk of a “new isolationism” is spreading.

Now, I’ll acknowledge his analysis is not completely without merit.  The 44% of Americans who responded that the country should “go our own way” and not worry about whether other countries agree can be interpreted as an increasing desire to address issues in a unilateral fashion.  But the report specifically lists that result next to the result of whether the US should “mind its own business” and let others get along on their own.  It seems more Americans are showing an appreciation for a Live and Let Live approach to internationalism:

Live and Let Live

Isolationist?  I’m not convinced.

Consider the responses from the under-30 crowd.  As Mr. Montgomery writes:

Young adults recall no other world than the one in which the U.S. was the sole superpower. But there is a wrinkle in their worldview: While 59 percent of those younger than 30 told Pew that the country should “mind its own business,” only 39 percent said “we should go our own way.”

That's a Bingo!

Young Americans are not isolationists.  They want to be a part of the world.  In fact, the number of passports issued in recent years still surpasses pre-9/11 numbers; it seems more and more Americans are interested in traveling abroad.  But around 60% of those polled want our government to let others do their own thing.  Being international does not mean being intrusive.  A cosmopolitan is not coercive.

Instead of being concerned that America is involved in international affairs, these numbers represent a growing concern over how the United States is involved in international affairs.  It’s not that Americans don’t want to be involved in the world, it’s that fewer and fewer want to be so heavy-handed about it. We’re not eschewing in a new era of isolationism, we’re just tired of being a bully (or being seen as a bully).  Our increasing military involvement overseas – or threat thereof – at the sake of international diplomacy and multinational solutions to international problems makes us the global equivalent to the bully at recess.

The article acknowledges this idea, but gives it only a scant few of its 4,823 words:

“I think people in general think we should be involved in the world, but not in a domineering way,” said [Steven] Kull, author of [the 1999 book] “Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism.”

Tsk, tsk.  If I may speak as a member (for about another week) of the under-30 crowd, I think the younger generations cited in this poll are tired of seeing the world through the military lens and would rather engage in the world in a more even, respectful manner.  Even when the task is to share our more honorable values, such as representative democracy and equal rights, using the military muddles the message.


2 Responses to “Misinterpreting “Isolationist” Sentiment”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peder with a D, Peder with a D. Peder with a D said: Blogging: Misinterpreting “Isolationist” Sentiment […]

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