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Americans’ Foreign-Policy Contradictions

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

The pollsters read two questions to those surveyed and asked them which one more closely reflected their view of the world. “Statement A: We need a president who will present an image that America has a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike. Statement B: We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” It turns out that Statement B–reflecting a desire to show strength–won 55 percent support, whereas Statement A–calling for a more “open approach,” whatever that means–won the support of only 39 percent. The number opting for strength actually increased by five points since the question was asked in 2008 at the conclusion of the Bush presidency. 

Further buttressing the impression that Americans respond to strength, respondents disapproved of Obama’s weak handling of the Ukraine crisis by a margin of 45 percent to 37 percent. 

My takeaway? Americans may have mixed impulses in foreign policy but they are not dedicated isolationists. In fact they are ready to be led toward a stronger and more active foreign policy–a project that is likely to await Obama’s successor, whoever he or she may be.


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