2paragraphs: A recent Wall Street Journal editorial described the Obama administration’s challenge, in part, as ensuring “American strength and internationalism in the face of growing isolationist sentiment.” Given the harrowing prospects of engagement in the “messier” world of the future, isn’t it likely that isolationism will become the default mode of American opinion? Is there a way to engage a public whose twice-bitten reluctance could paralyze American influence?
Stephen Sestanovich: At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, pollsters found that 79% of Democrats—and 79% of Republicans too—wanted the United States to pay less attention to foreign affairs. More recent surveys—by NBC and the Wall Street Journal and by the Pew Center—have come up with similar results. In my book, Maximalist, I show that this trend in public opinion is not as new as some commentators have suggested. The American people have often wanted their presidents to find a way back from over-commitment. And it hasn’t taken a stalemated war like Korea, Vietnam or Iraq to produce a change in priorities. In the early months of George H.W. Bush’s tenure—before the Berlin Wall came down—only 6% of Americans put international issues among the top problems facing the country.
Our presidents, of course, often ignore the polls in deciding what to do. The first President Bush spent his first two years almost exclusively focused on foreign policy. Bill Clinton bombed Serbia and sent peacekeepers into Bosnia although the polls showed scant support for such measures. These presidents believed they would ultimately be blamed if they didn’t act. When people predict that future presidents will behave differently, they mean that both policymakers and the public are moving toward a radically different conception of America’s interests and responsibilities—that the United States will not see itself as the “first responder” in times of crisis, that it will have a higher tolerance for global disorder, that it may not even feel the same need to meet its commitments to traditional allies. A change on this scale is certainly possible, but we should not conclude from today’s polls that it has already taken place. If it does occur, it will happen—as it has in the past—through political debate and electoral competition. These involve very different choices from those posed in pollster’s questions. The leading candidates for 2016 are just starting to try out the themes that they will put before the voters. We don’t yet know whether they will propose policies similar to those that President Obama has pursued or offer up a change of course. This debate—and the election to follow—will tell us more than any polls about America’s evolving role in the world.
—Stephen Sestanovich, author of Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (Knopf, 2014), is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 1997 to 2001 he was the U.S. State Department’s ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union.