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Americans seek lighter foreign policy footprint

 InDepth News 11 October 2019

A visiting Asian Prime Minister told a New York audience in 1956 that in his view "historical circumstances had cast global responsibilities on the U.S. for which Americans were not fully prepared." Now, over half a century later, a whopping majority percent of Americans -- actually, 90 percent -- want those responsibilities to be carried out in a subdued manner. (1568 Words) - By Ernest Corea


An approach favouring calculation and caution is compatible with what was said at a party convention selecting a candidate for president some years ago; that the U.S. cannot be expected to serve as the world's 911 - the emergency number which the global population can phone (without charge) whenever some part of the world is facing a crisis.

The candidate who was selected at that convention to represent his party, and was then elected president, sent American troops out to wage war in Iraq on grounds that could not be justified, thus reinforcing nascent trends favouring less involvement by the U.S. in other countries' affairs.


It's not that the U.S. is crawling into an isolationist shell, like a salted snail. "Americans want to play an active part in world affairs but their internationalism is increasingly constrained by economic troubles at home and diminished influence overseas.

"In light of these constraints, Americans are reassessing their foreign policy priorities, scaling back their ambitions, and becoming more selective in how they want to engage with the world -- by lightening America's footprint overseas and directing scarce resources to tackling critical threats, such as international terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

This is a major conclusion reached by 'Global Views 2010,' a biennial survey of public attitudes to foreign policy, sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It is not exactly the mood that would normally be associated with the population of a superpower but much has happened in the past decade to cause unease.

The Chicago Council is a "prominent, independent and nonpartisan organization committed to influencing the discourse on global issues through contributions to opinion and policy formation, leadership dialogue, and public learning." It has been conducting nationwide public opinion surveys covering American views on foreign policy since 1974.

The 2010 survey asked a sample of 2,500 Americans over one hundred questions on various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, China's place in the world, the Afghanistan War, and U.S. attitudes toward other countries.


Chicago Council president Marshall M. Bouton said of the 2010 findings: "After nine years of difficult wars and the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, Americans want to focus on the home front and be more selective in the application of U.S. influence and resources abroad."

Some of the details of the survey's findings announced by the council bear this out. For instance:

-- Home Front First: Ninety percent today think it is more important for the future of the U.S. that the country should fix pressing domestic problems rather than address challenges from abroad.

-- Leadership Role: Only one-quarter of Americans think the U.S. plays a more important and powerful role as a world leader today compared with 10 years ago.

-- Breaking Loose: Over two-thirds of Americans think that as rising countries like Turkey and Brazil become more independent in the conduct of their foreign policy, it is mostly good because they will be less reliant on the U.S.

-- Military Bases: There is a decline in support for U.S. military bases in Japan, Germany Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan, compared with levels of support in 2008.


On some key bilateral issues, the Council reported as follows: China's importance in the world is known, and aspects of bilateral relations are understood.

When respondents in the sample of 2006 were asked about U.S.-China financial relations only 24 percent knew that China lends more to the U.S. than loans flow in the opposite direction. In what the Council rightly considers a dramatic reversal from 2006, 67 percent of Americans are now aware of the facts, and 51 percent consider this debt to be a critical national security threat.

When asked whether U.S. relations with the EU and several countries are improving, worsening, or neutral, Americans perceived relations to be on the neutral to good side. The only country with which a substantial proportion of Americans consider relations to be "worsening" is Mexico (47 percent).


Americans see few promising policy choices if Iran continues with a nuclear weapons program. A narrow plurality (49 percent to 45 percent) believes that the U.S. cannot contain a nuclear Iran in the way it was able to contain the Soviet Union. Some 18 percent say the U.S. should carry out a military strike against Iran's nuclear energy facilities under present conditions. Overwhelming majorities believe that a military strike would result in terrorist attacks here, and retaliatory strikes against U.S. targets in the Middle East.

A majority of Americans think that if Israel were to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, and Iran retaliated against Israel, resulting eventually in those two countries waging war against each other, the U.S. should not intervene militarily in support of Israel. This attitude flies in the face of the perceived strength and influence of the "Israel lobby" in the U.S.

A narrow majority of 51 percent are persuaded that the much-hyped "clash of civilizations" is not inevitable, because most Muslims are like people everywhere, and there is plenty of identifiable common ground. By contrast, however, 45 percent say that because Muslim religious, social, and political traditions are incompatible with Western ways, violent conflict between the two civilizations is inevitable. This response is 18 percentage points higher than it was in 2002, suggesting that Islamaphobia has established itself and is growing.


Taking the temperature of public opinion periodically is necessary in a democracy, where voters actually matter, because the effectiveness of foreign policy and its execution through diplomacy and other means requires public support.

Overall, the principle of "engagement" i.e. working with other nations, even if they are not necessarily friends of the U.S., is in keeping with the public view mentioned earlier that foreign policy should be carried out with a lighter touch than in the past.

There are some issues, such as the indefensible embargo against Cuba, on which the Obama Administration's timid approach has been a disappointment but in most areas it has acted rationally, and with due deliberation. It has not resorted to cock-a-hoop abrasiveness, a quality that lowered global respect for the U.S. in the recent past.

The withdrawal of "combat troops" from Iraq has considerably mollified Americans who deplored their country's continuing militarism there and, at the same time, has lessened though not fully eliminated the anger caused by U.S. interventionism.

The Obama Administration's determination to "stay the course" in Afghanistan, however, raises both strategic and political controversy. A retired Soviet intelligence officer is said to have told his European friends: "In the first six months that American forces were in Afghanistan, they repeated all our mistakes. Since then, they have created new ones that we could not even imagine." Meanwhile, developments across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have bedevilled relations with Pakistan which could grow worse if that country's political stability is threatened.

Whether recent and current U.S. diplomacy in relation to Palestine and Israel can be effective is a question that is still very much up in the air.


At the UN's recently concluded MDGs Summit (Millennium Development Goals) President Barack Obama indicated that his Administration's foreign policy would be revamped when he announced a new U.S. "Global Development Policy -- the first of its kind by an American administration." The new policy, he added, is "rooted in America's enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being." It is also based on partnerships, and will assess effectiveness on the basis of results, not of amounts disbursed.

Obama emphasized to his international audience that his national security strategy recognizes development not only as a moral imperative, but as a strategic and economic imperative. He outlined a number of measures which would ensure that "the U.S. will be a global leader in international development in the 21st century."

Sounds great, but the extent to which domestic opinion, distraught over continuing tough economic times, will support revived interest in international development as an integral aspect of foreign policy has yet to be measured. Obama himself clearly realises that support for development programs at this time is not automatic.

He said: "I suspect that some in wealthier countries may ask, with our economies struggling, so many people out of work, and so many families barely getting by, why a summit on development? And the answer is simple. In our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans. . . . So let's put to rest the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interests."


So now, consider this. Development policy has been explained and support for development programs has been sought as a matter of mutuality, before. The argument is sound, and experience has shown that it works in practical terms. But will it evoke enthusiasm and induce support at a time of unease about excessive foreign involvement and continued domestic problems?


Originally published by InDepth News. ©


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