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Isolationism on the rise

John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes about the growth of isolationist sentiment:

Since 1964, polls--first Gallup, then Pew--have been asking Americans whether the "United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." An affirmative answer is a good indication of isolationist sentiment and hostility to both liberal internationalism and neoconservatism. In 1964, for instance, Gallup found only 18 percent of Americans agreed, while 70 percent disagreed, with this statement. The number began to rise soon afterwards; by June 1995, with the end of Cold War and the Republican capture of Congress, it had risen to 41 percent.
In September 2001, as Americans learned the hard way of our connection to the rest of the world, the number fell to 30 percent. Americans once more saw themselves as having global responsibilities. But according to the current Pew poll, it has now risen to an all-time high of 42 percent. That represents a sharp shift, and according to the Pew numbers, most of it took place in the last year, as Americans have become thoroughly disillusioned with the Iraq war. As might be expected, the public is also increasingly hostile to international institutions. Since 2002 the percentage of Americans believing that the United States "should cooperate fully with the United Nations" has fallen from 67 to 54 percent, and the proportion wanting the United States to go its "own way in international matters ... whether countries agree or not" has risen from 25 to 32 percent.

Perhaps harsh criticism from abroad contributes to these isolationist sentiments as well.  Large parts of the world are either concerned about US interventions or about US isolationism, it seems. The article points out that President Chirac was complaining in 1995 that the post of world leader was "vacant." As always, finding the right balance is the key to everything.

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Rosemary on :

Hi there! I was an isolationist before September 11, 2001. Now I believe we should help oppressed peoples that cannot (and want) our help. It is difficult, however, since we cannot help everyone. I still agree we should help ourselves first. Americans help ourselves, though. To have all countries in the world rid of evil dictators, fascists, communists, and socialists (another word for communists!) would lead to a more peaceful world. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to be people! lol. Most are generally good, while there is still that few that have to spoil it for everyone. I am still on the point? Hmm...

Kathy K on :

Consider the source. They can't imagine any other reason for this than Americans becoming "thoroughly disillusioned with the Iraq war." Indeed, the only possible reason they can come up with for Bush winning the election is that the rest of America is stupid. Liberal here, and warning you that those East and West coast liberals are completely out of touch with the rest of the country. I think TW is right. These are the first signs of an American backlash. Our media was formerly able to hide what was being said about us throughout the world. It can't anymore. Americans are finding out. And we don't like what we're finding out, especially from Europe. As for isolationism, we will probably be less altruistic. For example, we were condemned for stopping genocide in the former Yugoslavia by Europeans who called the deed nothing but "bombing Yugoslavia." So, you see that we did not establish a no-fly zone to stop the genocide in Darfur. As for the UN, more and more Americans are coming to see it as corrupt.

David on :

Judis points out in his article that there is a huge gap between the "elites" and the general population on this issue, with the elites generally supportive of internationalism (although not of Bush-style interventionism). This highlights root cause of American isolationist thinking: the complete failure of our education system. A recent survey showed that basic literacy among >i< College graduates in the US has fallen significantly over the past decade. We have a two-tiered educaton system in the US, with the 80% in the bottom tier falling further and further behind. The vast majority do not the the skills to "think" globally, and therefore they cannot compete globally in the marketplace of talent.

At the Zoo on :

What recent survey? And does it compare the situation in Europe and other developed countries on the basis of the same testing prameters? The reason I ask is such such claims are usually very misleading. They contribute to the bigoted myth that the "general population" in America are a bunch of ignorant boors. The elites really like to think that, don't they? As a former teacher I am well aware of the problems in education. All the money thrown at it the last 30 years has had no good effect except in poor areas that cannot locally support their schools. But this decline in academic achievement is seen throughout Western Europe and North America. As for "American isolationism," I don't know what it is, because in one breath we're accused of being isolatioist, and in the next breath we're accuesed of meddling. It's easy to see that when the world wants us to foot the bill for something or solve a problem for them, they accuse us of being isolationist. Then, when they get us take care of a situation, they turn around and bash us for meddling. I think the American people are just unwilling to stick our neck out anymore unless there's something in it for us. And in this world climate, I rather think that's a good idea. Kathy K

David on :

The study was performed by the US Dept. of Education and was widely reported in the US and International Press: http://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/remarks2005/12_15_2005.asp

Stephen Bradford on :

Ugh... you don't understand how the U.S. government can be called isolationists and meddlers in the same breath? The answer is right there. The U.S. government took the role of being meddlers who didn't care what other nations thought. So... is that too difficult for you to comprehend? The whole, "screw you guys, we'll do it our way," attitude doesn't help how people of other nations think of the U.S. So theres a little perspective for you, and you're welcome.

Thomas on :

Yes, the US education system has many problems. As do the systems in many European countries. David, the results of that study should embarass such a rich and creative and democratic country as the US. However, I do not think that this is the problem for isolationist thinking. Rather I think most educated and uneducated Americans lack exposure to world news. The US media is a joke. There are only a few newspapers and TV news programs that could be called news. Everything else is infotainment that keeps the readers and viewers both ignorant and scared. Educated Americans are as ignorant and stupid as uneducated Americans, when it comes to international affairs. One the one hand I agree more or less with the esseence of Kathy's argument ("when the world wants us to foot the bill for something or solve a problem for them, they accuse us of being isolationist. Then, when they get us take care of a situation, they turn around and bash us for meddling."), but on the other hand I think in many cases it is a bit more complicated.

At the Zoo on :

Americans are not stupid and ignorant. We are not boors. We are not bloodthirsty. We are not brutal. We are not fascists. We are not racists. We are no fatter than Europeans are. We don't let the poor go without food, shelter, education, and medical care. We, our form of government, and our lively culture is in no way inferior to Europe's. Considering the myths about America (that bear anti-resemblance to reality) almost universally believed in Europe, I disagree about which side of the Atlantic the "joke" press and the "stupidity" and "ignorance" is on. Really -- I'm dead serious. Europeans are the ones who know NOTHING about the people on the other side of the Atlantic. We have been all over Europe in droves, in both war and peace. Maybe it's about time a few Europeans stopped just flying over the flyover states and came in for a landing and a reality check. I guarantee that the visit will enrage you over how you've been brainwashed. -- Kathy K

David on :

Recently National Geographic and Roper gave a simple geography test to young men and women aged 18 to 24 from nine nations -- Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and the United States. Sweden's youth scored the highest. Young Americans, however, didn't do as well. In fact, America came in second to last, with 83 percent of those quizzed unable to locate Afghanistan. Many Americans were unable to locate the Pacific Ocean or New York State. Only 25% could pick the population of the United States on a multiple choice test. (The most common answer given by Americans was 1-2 billion.) No wonder we Americans are unable to think globally - we don't even know much about our own country!

At the Zoo on :

Well that's your problem. But don't lay it on the whole country. This hick is able to think globally. And the American government thinks globally very well. The proof will be in the results. Just wait and see. The answer to why people have a different opinion isn't always that they're just ignorant and stupid. As for where the heck Afghanistan is, it's on another continent. Knowing where it is wasn't a priority. Jumping on some little tidbit like this and making a federal case of this one aspect of knowledge, as though it's the only category of knowledge that should be measured in defining who is stupid and ignorant, is like giving an IQ test designed for one culture to people of another. Geography is just not taught in most American schools. And being able to locate countries on a map doesn't make people able to think globally. That's spit-back type memorization of infomation, not critical thinking, which is what the American educational system focuses on. This is like the stupid idea that Americans should speak foreign languages like Europeans do. We don't need to. So we don't. Doesn't mean we're stupid and self-absorbed. That's bigotry. What if I said Africans were stupid and ignorant? That would be different, wouldn't it? -- Kathy K

Shah Alexander on :

Education may be one of the reasons for isolationism. But not everything. It is widely known that the quality of secondary education in America is poor while higher education is excellent. Also, the rise of isolationism mentioned in this post is a recent phenomenon. America has been repeating a cycle of interventionist and isolationist. This comes from its national foundation. Interventionists, like liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, have missionary instincts to promote American universalism throughout the world. On the other hand, isolationists want to protect the Land of Pilgrim Fathers from dirty politics in the Old World. Also, since the end of the Cold War, America has become an unrivalled super power. At the same time, quite often, people hate America, simply because of this unrivaled power. This is the trend since the Clinton era, and I don't think George W. Bush is the primary cause of isolationism. No wonder, the United States is tempted to "go it alone" policy

Thomas on :

Knowing the basics about the world is general knowledge and does not preferentiate one culture to another. "Geography is just not taught in most American schools." That's a major reason why so many Americans are ignorant about the world they live in. So you admit it. Of course, Americans are not ignorant by nature. This is so obvious, it does not have to be said, but to please you, I do. It's the education system and media that makes them ignorant. Geography is easily tested. Critical thinking is more difficult to assess. However, you can check out the PISA tests, conducted in all OECD countries. The US was not so good. Americans were very bad in Math, ie analytical thinking, if I remember correctly. "This is like the stupid idea that Americans should speak foreign languages like Europeans do. We don't need to." Sure you do. Are you joking? You still have not caught Osama Bin Laden and other bad guys, because you don't have enough people who can speak Arabic, Pashtu, Farsi and other languages. And you have less and less allies to help you find them, because your diplomats cannot charm their counterparts by speaking the local languages. "Doesn't mean we're stupid and self-absorbed." It doesn't? Why do you need to say so then? Your assumption that you don't need to learn foreign languages is arrogant, self-absorbed and ignorant. "What if I said Africans were stupid and ignorant? That would be different, wouldn't it?" Of course, it would be, because most Africans cannot afford a good education like the super-rich USA. However, most Africans speak more foreign languages than Americans, and many know more about the world than Americans.

joe on :

Some how I am failing to follow the logic of the comments being made. Are we confusing thoughts here or even topics? What about the study of history? Could that equally apply to attitudes?

At the Zoo on :

They have nothing to do with the topic -- rising isolationism and its cause. As I said, I agree with the poster, that the cause is all the America-bashing. If people think that will make Americans be nice to them, they have another think coming. But just mentioning the subject of isolationism pushed America-bashing buttons. So then we get a perfect example of what causes this rising isolationism -- bashing Americans as stupid and ignorant. Then the name-calling list grows to arrogant, self-absorbed. What is more arrogant than presuming to tell people of another country what courses they should teach in their schools and what languages they should speak? --Kathy K

joe on :

Kathy K, Thank you for clearing up what is going on.

Joerg W on :

Thank you for the spirited debate! There are many reasons for rising isolationism, I believe. The human and financial costs of the Iraq project are one reason. Other reasons could be international criticism of the US as well as the US education system and the media, which reports less about international issues than the European media does, which again has various reasons. Then there are many historic reasons. I think it is fair enough to address all these potential reasons for isolationism. Kathy, you said the "the cause is all the America-bashing." However, as you know isolationist sentiments have often been quite strong in US history, even when there was the exact opposite of America bashing: Jewish groups, Poland, Britain and many others countries attacked by Germany in the Second World War asked the US to fully join the war and rescue them, but as far as I know most of the US public was against getting involved in Europe -- until the US itself was attacked in December 1941. BTW: We might have to enable captchas as spam protection, because we got a lot of online casino nonsense recently. Please don't let the capchas stop you from commenting.

At the Zoo on :

The impression I have is that, historically, Americans didn't want us "to get tangled up in Europe's constant wars." In other words, whether rightly or wrongly, they viewed Europe as quagmire. In fact, some of my own ancestors had come here to get away from that. That was true "mind-our-own-business" isolationism. But in the Cold War, I think Americans came to believe that we have a weighty responsibility in the world. I hear no isolationism here. If there was any, 9/11 got rid of it. But there is a strong sense that we get grief from whence there should be gratitude. We're going to react to that the same way anybody would. The military has the capability to handle much more in an emergency, but not long-term (where you have to rotate troops). It's not just Afghanistan and Iraq, it's also the transformation and repositioning the military is currently undergoing. But that may not be the determining factor when the US holds back. My impression of Bush is that he believes in letting things fix themselves when possible and nudging stakeholders to assume responsibility. I suppose that's hard to believe, but I bet he's slower to "send in the Marines" than Clinton. -- Kathy K

Tom P on :

I find it funny that a bunch of Germans would express concern about growing American isolationism without mentioning Mohammad Ali Hammadi and how freeing him would impact US willingness to engage a global community that seem so anxious to stab us in the back.

Tom P. on :

While I'm at it, is Germany still looking to sell weapons to China? I only ask because of a little thing called the US 7th Fleet that stands between it and Taiwan.

Jorg W on :

Not anymore. As far as I know, the EU decided that it will not consider lifting the arms embargo for a couple of years. And the new German government said it will not lobby for arms exports to China.

Tom P on :

Joerg, Thanks for replying to my question. I'm glad to hear that the EU will not lift their arms embargo in the near future. But admittedly, I was irritated that it was even brought up in the first place given that US security guarantee that we gave to Taiwan. This whole issue of growing US isolationism is misplaced. The US national interest is firmly entrenched in the world as it has been since WWII. Much of the criticism we face is due to our increasing refusal to allow others to dictate what those national interests are and their demands that we subjugate our interests to their whims. 9/11 was a wake-up call for many Americans. We were reminded that a) it's a rough world out there and b) don't count on anyone else to look out for us. It must be recognized by critics of the US how their actions impact US public opinion. Many Americans see the hypocracy in the criticisms we get from the rest of the world. Is Germany really an ally when it freed the murderer of a US sailor or want to sell arms to a country who may be our enemy in the future? Instead we get lectured on how we treat the very people trying to kill us and how violent we are when its our capacity for violence that ultimately keeps an island nation safe from its much bigger neighbor. This is just too passive-aggressive and we're sick of it. When it comes down to it, Americans recognize our global responsibilities. It isn't isolationism when we refuse to listen others lecture us about what those responsibilities are when they themselves seems more interested in undermining then helping us. If Germany started sending troops to Dafur or launched air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, I think more Americans will be more open to German criticisms. As in life, so is the same in international relations, talk is cheap.

At the Zoo on :

One more relevant point. The original poster said: "Large parts of the world are either concerned about US interventions or about US isolationism, it seems." Exactly. Case in point: Afghanistan (through a proxy) attacked the US on 9/11, and people condemned our counterattack as "intervention." As if that's not absurd enough, the same people meanwhile also condemned us for NOT sending troops into Liberia! So, if the US goes in, it's guilty of "intervention." If it stays out, it's guilty of "isolationism." We aren't going to take noise like that seriously. Nobody would. -- Kathy K

Joerg on :

Tom, regarding the plans for lifting the Chinese arms embargo, we wrote this back in February: [url]http://atlanticreview.org/archives/49-Europeans-have-lost-their-moral-compass-on-China.html[/url] I absolutely agree with you on Darfur and the credibility of criticism. Check out our posts on Darfur [url]http://atlanticreview.org/plugin/freetag/Darfur[/url] Thank you!

Tom P on :

Excellent posts. Angela Merkel will be visiting the US soon, no doubt to address the rift in German-US relations. Does this mean that German foriegn policy will start coming out of Berlin instead of Paris? If Merkel is planning a realignment in German foriegn policy, it's not going to be in regards to Dafur but to Iran. Hopefully an unified strategy can be hammered out between her and Bush. The EU's soft approach towards Tehran have proved to be a embarrassing failure and the clock is ticking on this issue.

ROA on :

Re: Merkel’s visit to the US: I have read that she is going to discuss the fate of the Turkish citizen who grew up in Germany and is being held at Guantanamo. The post I read said that Germany wanted to prohibit this gentleman from returning to Germany or any of the Schengen (?) countries. If this is true, it seems hypocritical to condemn the US for detaining someone who is deemed unfit to enter Germany. The post also said that Germany is pursuing a seat on the Security Council. Why does Europe deserve three countries on the SC? What has Germany done to deserve to be on the SC? My first thought is that Germany wants to be on the SC so they will be worth more when the next oil-rich dictator needs to bribe the SC to prevent the UN from taking action.

David on :

The Turkish citizen is Murat Kurnaz from Bremen. A US federal judge decided that he was being held without cause at Guantanamo, but the Bush administration has appealed that decision. Every American should be concerned about the gross abuse of basic civil rights that is occuring in Guantanamo. Angela Merkel is correct in calling for the prison be be shut down. Meanwhile the Guardian reports on the brutal methods being used to force-feed the prisoners who are on a hunger strike: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,16937,1681736,00.html

At the Zoo on :

The Guardian has zero credibility. But even if it's true -- shall we let them starve so you can condemn us for that? Since when do prisoners of war have to be convicted of a crime in a civilian court before they can be imprisoned? Get real. Anyone with any moral sense can see that the American government is morally obligated to keep these people from murdering Americans. Or, are American lives cheap and dispensible, to be sacrificed for the liberty of psychotic mass murderers? And some we wish to release, but their home countries won't take them. Their home countries then are the ones not fulling an obligation to their citizens and are therefore the ones to be condemned. - Kathy K

ROA on :

Here is a link to a column that appeared in the German paper “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” that presents a different picture of life at Guantanamo: http://powerlineblog.com/archives/012722.php#012722 It was written by Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University, who served for a year as special counsel to the general counsel of the Defense Department.

Thomas on :

Kathy, Bush did not grant them prisoner of war status. If he did, then he would be obligated give the Red Cross access. Do you know anything about the guys held in Guantanamo? The US military admits that they have often arrested innocent and harmless guys. Your blind faith in Bush is stunning... Guantanamo has made the US less secure, because it increases hatred of America and alienates US friends. ROA, I don't care what kind of food and entertainment they get a Guantanomo. The Gitmos problem is not the quality of life, but the lack of the rule of law. Are you comfortable with holding innocent guys at Gitmo for four years and more? Imagine, you are on holidays in Mexico and the authorities arrest you, because you are a stupid tourist who walks in a neighborhood in Mexico City, where the Chiapas guys hold conspiracy meetings. Do you think it's okay to detainee you without charge indefinitely?

ROA on :

Thomas: From the link I posted: “After the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of last year, the military created a special tribunal to decide if each detainee was properly captured. The government informs the detainee why the military is holding him and gives him an opportunity to respond and present his evidence. Some detainees waive their right to participate. In addition, the military created another level of hearings (not required by the U.S. Supreme Court) that determines if the detainee, even if a member of al Qaeda or the Taliban, should nonetheless be released because he is no longer dangerous. Through these two proceedings, the military has released several hundred detainees from Guantanamo. Some of these releases are mistakes: about 5 percent to 10 percent of them are later recaptured or killed in battle. Others will return to battle but we will never know that. One released detainee later killed a judge leaving a mosque in Afghanistan. Another detainee, Abdullah Meshoud, bragged that he fooled interrogators into releasing him, so he could return to battle. In other cases, the government will release someone wrongly held. For example, the military stopped a truck in Afghanistan holding about 21 people, all dressed like local farmers, along with many weapons. One of them said that he was not part of the group and was just a farmer hitching a ride on the truck. The other 20 refuse to talk to the Americans because they are infidels. They were all taken to Guantanamo and, after several months, some of the people, impressed by their treatment, started talking and confirmed the first person’s story. The military released that person. Given the fact that the terrorists masquerade as civilians, these mistakes are both very unfortunate and unavoidable.” I’m not saying the system is perfect, but it is certainly not nearly as bad as its been portrayed. And thanks for making the point that the detainees at Guantanamo should definitely not be treated as POWs. Your Mexico stroll scenario would definitely not occur if all the detainees there were wearing uniforms. As it is, there is no way of telling who is an enemy combatant and who is a stupid tourist. But please stop blaming the US, George Bush never issued a Fatwa prohibiting al Qaeda from wearing uniforms. That is something they decided to do on their own

David on :

"The Guardian has zero credibility>" How about the FBI then? "On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water," the FBI agent wrote on Aug. 2, 2004. "Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more." In one case, the agent continued, "the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14936-2004Dec20_2.html

ROA on :

Prisoner mistreatment. Of course the US is much worse than Germany, or any other country for that matter. Opposed to that civilized Wolfgang Daschner, deputy police chief in Frankfurt, who authorized torture to extract information "by means of the infliction of pain, under medical supervision and subject to prior warning" just to find some rich banker’s kid.

joe on :

Thomas, what are the laws in Mexico?

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