Commentary Magazine

Are Americans Becoming Isolationist?

Not long after Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993, his Under Secretary of State, Peter Tarnoff, articulated a new direction for American foreign policy. In the wake of the cold war, Tarnoff argued in an off-the-record briefing with reporters, the United States found itself constrained by large budget deficits and by a public becoming steadily more indifferent to world affairs. No longer, he said, do we have “the leverage, . . . the influence, . . . [or] the inclination to use military force” around the globe; and “we certainly don’t have the money.” To secure its interests, the U.S. would henceforth have to rely less on its own resources and much more on cooperation with friendly states and on multilateral institutions like the UN.

Tarnoff’s presentation ignited a minor furor, with the Washington Post noting that the administration’s posture might “undercut the perception of U.S. power and authority” and “invite adventures by aggressors around the world.” In short order, both Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the White House publicly repudiated his remarks. Nevertheless, the view that Tarnoff was impolitic enough to utter aloud had already become firmly entrenched not only within the Clinton administration but in the liberal foreign-policy establishment at large. According to this new consensus, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that America could at last afford to “come home,” reducing its overseas profile and devoting its energies to domestic reforms. Public support for an activist global stance was assumed to be diminishing, making a pullback not only desirable but imperative. And—in a shift that was considered commendable on its own terms—the end of the cold war would permit the United States to cede much of the responsibility for global leadership to international organizations.

Six years have elapsed since Tarnoff enunciated his doctrine, and a decade has passed since America’s Communist adversaries began to crumble. Some of the greatest challenges ever to confront the United States have, in fact, disappeared; but new and frightening dangers have arisen. Despite its own early intentions, the Clinton administration has found itself threatening to apply force abroad and has even brought force to bear, if fitfully and with extreme hesitancy.

And what, in the meantime, of American public opinion? The Tarnoff doctrine presupposed that Americans are eager to turn their backs on the world. Is that true, or are they inclined to a more activist role? The answer, it turns out, is anything but simple.



There are, to begin with, some clear indications that—contrary to the Clinton team’s initial diagnosis—the American people are indeed still committed to a policy of global engagement. When asked about the role they would like the U.S. to play in the world, solid majorities of roughly two thirds reply that it would be “best for the future of the country if we take an active part” in international affairs. After dipping slightly at the end of the cold war, these numbers are now back to where they were in the mid-1980’s.1

A large proportion of Americans also continues to believe in the virtues of a strong defense. In one recent poll, almost three-quarters of those questioned agreed that “because the U.S. has global interests, it is important for the U.S. to maintain a large military with the capacity to project its forces around the world.” The same percentage concurred that “it is better to err in the direction of having too much rather than too little defense.” In another survey, 39 percent said it was somewhat important for the U.S. to maintain “superior military power worldwide,” and another 50 percent said it was very important to do so.

Not only does the public want the U.S. to remain strong and engaged, it tends to be more wary of threats to national security, and more resolute about facing them, than are the country’s sometimes giddy elites. In the immediate aftermath of the cold war, for example, large numbers of those whom pollsters label “leaders” or “influentials” wanted to make deep cuts in the defense budget; only about a third of the general public favored such cutbacks, while about half wanted to keep the budget where it was. More recently, elite and mass opinion have begun to converge on this point—at, roughly, the position preferred from the start by the public. Thus, in 1997, nearly half of most elite groups—including academics, scientists, business leaders, congressional staffers, and members of the media—wished to hold military spending constant, as did a majority of the general public.

A similar pattern emerges on a range of other critical issues. In 1991, for example, 40 percent of the public already believed that China might some day come to pose a “critical threat” to the vital interests of the United States, but only 16 percent of “leaders” agreed; by 1995, 57 percent of the public and 46 percent of its leaders foresaw this possibility. Again, although both mass and elite support for sustaining NATO dropped off in the euphoria that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the drop among the elites was much more drastic; by the mid-1990’s, majorities in both camps favored maintaining a steady course.

On one key issue in particular the public has tended to be ahead of most of its leaders. Over a third of the general public believes (according to a survey published last year) that the probability of an attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction is now greater than it was ten years ago, and another third thinks it is about the same. Meanwhile, majorities or large pluralities of most groups of “influentials” judge the threat lower than it once was. But one important subset of influentials—experts directly concerned with security affairs—forms a large exception, with nearly two-thirds perceiving a rising danger. What with the events of the past year—nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, recent revelations about Iraq’s ongoing biological- and chemical-weapons program, fresh evidence of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the steady proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles—one can expect that the anxieties of the nation’s governing classes will soon mirror more closely those of the public.



On the big questions of national strategy, then, public opinion would seem to have held remarkably steady over the past decade. Americans want their country to remain strong, and they want it to play a vigorous role in world affairs. Yet in many ways the evidence is much more ambiguous than this simple statement suggests. Recent samplings of opinion do show a high degree of continuity with the past; but they also show signs of an increasing introversion, world-weariness, and even isolationism.

Like most people, Americans prefer to focus their energies and resources on their own affairs. Nations do not usually expend large quantities of treasure and blood, over prolonged periods of time, in the pursuit of abstract ideals or in the defense of other, distant peoples. The extrovert foreign policy pursued by the United States in the cold-war decades marked an exception to this well-nigh universal rule, and it should therefore come as no surprise if, with the demise of the USSR, Americans should yearn to turn inward.

Since the mid-1960’s, pollsters have been asking people whether they agree or disagree with the notion that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” The numbers of those agreeing with this view shot up sharply during the drawn-out agony of the Vietnam war, dipped after the aggressive aims of the USSR were made brutally manifest in the late 1970’s, and then proceeded to rise again throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s. The upward trend has been especially marked since the close of the cold war. By 1997, fully 39 percent of those questioned said that the United States should “mind its own business,” while a bare majority, 54 percent, did not. Summing up these findings, the Pew Research Center recently called isolationism a “large minority sentiment” in the United States.

Other studies echo this conclusion. In the past, ordinary citizens may not have known much about foreign affairs, but they did recognize that what happened in the wider world could affect them. Today, when asked whether events in Western Europe, Asia, or even Canada and Mexico matter to their lives, substantial majorities say “no.” By the mid-1990’s, for the first time since questions of this nature began to be asked regularly, no foreign-policy issue made it onto the top-ten list of the “biggest problems facing the country today.” And when pressed to identify the country’s biggest problems in this area, respondents have given answers with a distinctly isolationist tinge: “getting involved in the affairs of other countries,” giving away too much foreign aid, and letting in too many illegal immigrants.

Similar answers have been forthcoming when people are asked what the national-security goals of the United States should be. Between 1991 and 1995, the fraction of those who believed “defending allies” was a very important objective fell from 61 to 41 percent; also losing ground were the aims of “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” and “protecting weaker nations from aggression.” By contrast, Americans now strongly favor such self-protective goals as “stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S.” (85 percent), “protecting the jobs of American workers” (83 percent), “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons” (82 percent), and “controlling and reducing illegal immigration” (72 percent). Increasing numbers of Americans, it seems, would like to build high walls around their country’s borders in order to shield it from a menacing world.

Finally, there is some, albeit ambiguous, evidence to suggest that ordinary Americans may also share the Clinton administration’s favorable opinion of multilateral institutions like the UN as substitutes for American power. For a number of years now, Steven Kull and his colleagues at the University of Maryland have been sampling opinion in this area. They have allegedly discovered that Americans are indeed ready to “move away from the role of dominant world leader” and to “rely more on the other members of a cooperative multilateral system.”

As it happens, however, the evidence for this conclusion is less compelling than the authors of the Maryland study contend, being based on some highly freighted questions and formulations. For example, when asked if they want the United States to be “the world’s policeman,” most Americans, naturally enough, demur; when the alternatives proposed to them are that the U.S. either withdraw from its present commitments altogether or act “primarily on its own,” large majorities, again naturally enough, prefer instead that we act “together with allies or through the UN.” These two options are, of course, very different. On closer examination, some of what Kull characterizes as a newfound enthusiasm for multilateralism amounts to but a stronger version of the longstanding desire for a more equitable sharing of burdens within existing alliances like NATO. When it comes to the United Nations, to judge from responses to the Maryland pollsters, the prevailing public attitude remains pragmatic and instrumental. The UN is seen primarily as a means for the United States to “move away from its role as world policeman and reduce the burden of its large defense budget,” and UN peacekeeping as “a way we can share the burden with other countries.”



Where, then, does the public really stand? In light of the second set of data, reflecting a growing introversion, should the first set, indicating a continued desire for American activism, be judged as little more than a reflex left over from the cold war—in other words, inertia? Is isolationism the wave of the future?

More likely, the message of these two contradictory-seeming findings is that, at least for the moment, the American people remain mindful of the world and its claims but, in one way or another, are looking for ways to lighten the load their country has been carrying for over a half-century. One can hardly blame them; the responsibility has been a heavy one indeed. Unfortunately, however, it is profoundly unrealistic to think that the burdens of leadership can be easily shared or cast aside.

America’s allies are preoccupied with their own economic and political concerns, and are likely to remain so. In some cases, their interests diverge sharply from ours, and their strategic focus is anyway primarily regional, while ours is by definition global. Multilateral institutions may have their uses, but, as has been shown time and time again in the last decade, they are limited, not to say crippled, by their cumbersome bulk and by the conflicting interests of the many states that make them up.

These are obvious points, and yet in recent years scarcely anyone in a position of public authority has troubled to make them. What will happen as it becomes increasingly evident that there really is no one else on the world scene to whom the buck can be passed? Even to ask the question is to bring us back to the role played by the nation’s elites in the formation of public perceptions, and in particular to the role played by the President and his advisers.

Clearly it does not help matters that, on most major foreign-policy issues, the actual record of the Clinton administration has wavered between dismal and disastrous. The administration has permitted itself to be thwarted and manipulated by hostile lesser states like Iraq, Iran, Serbia, and North Korea; it has acquiesced in the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan, and it has pushed the Middle East peace process in directions that may yet issue in catastrophe for Israel; it has been slow to respond meaningfully to the growing menace of international terrorism; it has mismanaged relations with most of the world’s major powers, including Russia, China, India, and Japan; and it has failed signally in its efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

To this list of failures we must now add another, no less significant. After nearly two terms in office, and despite the occasional rhetorical reference to the United States as the “indispensable nation,” neither Bill Clinton nor anyone else on his foreign-policy team has done anything to shore up popular support for a vigorous American role in the world. On the contrary, by encouraging the American people to concentrate exclusively on domestic concerns (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and to place its faith in multilateralism, the administration has helped set the stage for disillusionment—a disillusionment that may well end by accelerating public pressures for a true global disengagement. A hint of the nation’s testiness on this score was on humiliating display last winter at the “town meeting” in Columbus, Ohio, where, before an audience of ordinary Americans (and a handful of Spartacist hecklers), the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Adviser were spectacularly unsuccessful in defending a firm policy toward, of all people, Saddam Hussein.

The benign international situation that existed briefly at the beginning of this decade has already disappeared from view. In the inevitably turbulent years ahead, American global leadership will be more necessary than ever. Sustaining that leadership will require the informed support of the American people, and mobilizing that support will require, in turn, a serious, long-term effort to explain our country’s responsibilities as the preeminent global power, and their likely costs. As in so many other areas of our national life, the task of restoration looms dauntingly large; the longer it is delayed, the larger it becomes.



1 The data I draw upon in this article are from two successive studies edited by John E. Reilly, American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1991 and American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1995; a 1997 report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, America’s Place in the World; and another 1997 study by Steven Kull, I.M. Destler, and Clay Ramsay of the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland entitled The Foreign Policy Gap: How Policymakers Misread the Public.


About the Author

Aaron L. Friedberg teaches politics and international affairs at Princeton. From 2003 to 2005 he served in the office of the Vice President as deputy assistant for national-security affairs. He is writing a book about the U.S.-China rivalry.

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