The prudent, not isolationist, public

There's a lot of hue and cry these days about the American public turning isolationist, seeking to retreat from the world. That, though, is both a misreading of the polls and, frankly, reflects a too-readily dismissive view of what pioneering pollster Elmo Roper once called "the common sense of the common man."

Two recent polls have been the main impetus for the yet-again isolationist public. An April 2014 NBC-Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Hart Research Associates poll found 47 percent saying the U.S. should be "less active in world affairs"; 19 percent, "more active," and 30 percent, "at current level." A December 2013 Pew poll found 52 percent agreeing that "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally." While both of these were much higher than prior polls, three factors make their meaning less clear-cut than claimed.

One is the very different data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) surveys. The CCGA 2012 poll found 61 percent saying "stay active" in world affairs and only 38 percent saying to "stay out." While the smallest differential since their 1982 poll, it still is a pretty solid number. And preliminary results for their 2014 poll have 62 percent for staying active. (For the sake of transparency: I serve on the CCGA survey advisory board.)

Question wording may be a factor in these variations. The NBC-WSJ more/less active casts the question relative to recent and current policy, so saying less active does not necessarily mean "not active." The Pew mind-our-own-business has a colloquial phrasing conducive to expression of frustration. The CCGA stay active/stay out poses the isolationist option more absolutely and thus arguably may be a clearer indicator that the public does not want to go that far.

Second is the context. Even if one opts for the Pew and NBC-WSJ numbers and comparisons with their prior polls, this time the question was being asked of a public that had endured eight years of one war widely viewed as unsuccessful (Iraq) while still in the midst of another (Afghanistan). Pew did get 43 percent mind-own-business right after Vietnam, and only got low percentages in the middle of the Cold War (1964, 20 percent) and right after 9/11 (2002, 30 percent).

Third is contrasting data within the Pew and NBC-WSJ surveys. Pew also found 68 percent saying the U.S. is still the leading military power, and 66 percent saying U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing. The NBC-WSJ survey also had 42 percent supporting President Obama for his "balanced approach depending on the situation" and only 36 precent saying that he is "too cautious and lets other countries control events."

The public is not seeking to retreat from the world. It is not going through a mood swing, as some scholars and commentators portray it, as if there were a societal biorhythm periodically shifting between internationalism and isolationism. It is being prudent about what commitments it will support and what role the U.S. should play. And what is unreasonable about that?

In not responding to the overused trope of "America as the world leader" as fervently as during the Cold War, the public is showing its gut sense that such a role is easier said than done. The 53 to 17 percent Pew and 43 to 24 percent CCGA margins saying the U.S. is less important and powerful than 10 years ago are being quite realistic. It just isn't a world where we lead and others follow or get out of the way. This doesn't mean no leadership role, but it does mean pragmatic questions — like what the objectives are, how to lead effectively and who else can and will play a leadership role — need at least some working answers. In its own way, the public is looking for some sense of the big picture, a frame of reference for a world that is so unsettling and so full of uncertainty. Unless national leaders do a better job of that, it will be their fault that the public is reluctant to be more supportive of a robust U.S. global role.

As to the use of military force, of course people are not trigger happy after two such long and costly wars. But they are not as strictly gun shy as often depicted. Even on Syria, in late August 2013 when the chemical weapons use was first verified, 50 percent said they'd support limited military action. And this was without the 7 to 10 percent rally effect that initially comes when a president puts himself behind a policy, since at this point Obama was only intimating that he might use force. It was only when the president showed his own ambivalence, saying he had to go to Congress first, that public support fell way off.

This is not to go way in the wisdom-of-crowds direction. Only 37 percent (Pew) seeing global climate change as a foreign policy priority — 32 percent according to CCGA — is not encouraging. And it would of course be great if the average person had more information and showed greater interest in international affairs. But the public is much more sensible than all too often portrayed. For all his sagacity about foreign policy strategy, George Kennan showed his own elitism in musing whether "a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as the room and a brain the size of a pin." Much closer to the mark was Roper, who, based on "asking the common man questions about what he thinks and wants," observed how "I have often been surprised and elated to discover that, despite his lack of information, the common man's native intelligence generally brings him to a sound conclusion."

Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.