Mark S. Mellman: Foreign policy paradox

Mark S. Mellman: Foreign policy paradox
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Isolationism is extending its grip on public opinion. 

The last time I made that argument, friends critiqued me, with some justification, for basing the conclusion on voters’ stated reluctance to become militarily engaged in Syria. Opposing military intervention is not the same as opposing involvement with other countries.

However, there is more, and more direct evidence of isolationist sentiment. 


Nearly half of Americans want the U.S. to be less active in world affairs, 13 percentage points more than at any time since 1995, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Pew found a record-high 53 percent saying that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally,” compared with 41 percent who said so in 1995 and 20 percent in 1964. Similarly, 51 percent told Pew the U.S. was doing too much to help the world solve its problems, with only 17 percent seeing too little action in that regard.

Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan claims the president is delivering just the foreign policy that Americans want and yet, paradoxically, most disapprove of the job he is doing on foreign policy. But one could argue — I would — that the president is not nearly as isolationist as Kagan suggests, or that public attitudes are not as closely calibrated with administration policy as Kagan asserts.

But take Kagan’s argument at face value for a minute. Americans may, as he says, “prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world. ... They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.”

Kagan’s attempt to resolve the paradox, grounded in false consciousness, is not falsifiable and therefore not amenable to scientific exploration.

I would suggest two other simple, more plausible explanations of Kagan’s paradox.

First, as former President Clinton once succinctly put it, Americans would “rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.” Indeed, even as more Americans than ever were telling NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters that they wanted less American involvement in world affairs, by a 55 percent to 39 percent margin they wanted “a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.”

Whether engaged with the world or not, Americans want to show strength and are concerned we have not. At the end of 2013, 53 percent told Pew pollsters the U.S. played “a less important and powerful role as a world leader today,” the largest number perceiving declining American power in 40 years. Fifty-one percent said the president was not tough enough in approaching world affairs, up 13 points from 2009.

Another potential resolution to Kagan’s paradox starts from the presumption that voters care more about results than about process. Voters, never forced to reconcile means and ends, may want to limit American engagement with the world but nonetheless want a president who can make world events “turn out right,” even if by magic. No one can look at the current situation in Ukraine or in the Middle East or elsewhere and proclaim “mission accomplished.” My own view is that there is little any president could have done to change that, but in a world where presidential approval suffers in bad weather, it’s not surprising to see voters ascribing some responsibility to the chief executive.

Kagan’s paradox does not arise from mass guilt or national remorse. The president doesn’t receive negative foreign policy performance ratings because the public is embarrassed by its desire for limited engagement. More probably, evaluations of the president’s foreign policy are negative both because voters sense American weakness and don’t like the end results even if they endorse the strategy.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.