The myth of fortress America
The American public doesn’t want to pull back from the world, and a serious read of the poll numbers proves it.

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Article Highlights

  • 55% of those polled agree that the US needs a president who will present an image of strength that show's US willingness to confront enemies.

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  • Only 39% wanted a president who emphasized "a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike."

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  • Pew Center data shows that 56%t of Americans want the country to remain a superpower.

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If you're reading the newspapers these days, it must seem like isolationism is the new black. Yesterday's headlines blared, "Americans Want to Retreat From World Stage, Poll Finds." Trouble is, it's not true. The poll didn't say it and a wealth of data shows that the public does not want to retreat into Fortress America. 

Here are the facts: In the poll that drove the headlines on April 30, 47 percent of respondents said they want their country to be "less active in world affairs." Thirty percent favored the current level of activity, while 19 percent wanted the United States to be more active. No one said they wanted to "retreat from the world stage."

But there's more nuance here: Fully 55 percent of those polled agreed that "[w]e need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America's willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles." Only 39 percent wanted a president who emphasized "a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike."

Similarly, in a much discussed major survey published last November, the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans thought the president's approach to foreign policy was "not tough enough," with only 37 percent saying his policies were "about right."

Even before recent events in Ukraine, Pew Center data shows that 56 percent of Americans want the country to remain a superpower, the same as five years ago. An overwhelming 84 percent want the United States to be a world leader, with many of those saying they want the country to be most active of all leading nations. Strikingly, Americans have given the same answer to this question in a dozen polls over the past 20 years.

The Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs has put together data reaching back to 1947 which show consistent and robust support for taking "an active part in world affairs." Sixty-one percent of Americans favored an active role in their most recent survey, down from a post-9/11 high of 71 percent, but right in line with typical numbers from the 1980s and 1990s.

There's no contesting the fact of a sour mood in the country; the appetite for military solutions to problems like the conflict in Syria is low, perhaps because so many have lingering fears about embroiling the United States in another intractable Middle East conflict. But the rhetorical trick of equating toughness with military action is a straw man. The Chicago Council finds that 51 percent of the public "doubt President Obama is tough enough on foreign policy" and yet they cite no calls for additional military confrontation for the United States.

Let's be clear: the strength Americans want to see and running headlong into war, guns ablaze, are not the same thing.

But addressing the notion of growing isolationism requires more than just correcting the record; it requires understanding the groupthink that has taken hold in Washington. There is a genuine eagerness to retreat from the world, but it comes less from the people of the country and more from its leaders. Both the president and, many in Congress on both sides of the aisle, have wanted the United States to lower our global profile. "Nation building here at home" is the clarion call of this movement, and it has become a fig leaf for failing to lead abroad.

Certainly, Americans are worried about jobs and the dragging economy -- which grew just 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014. But getting America well again doesn't translate into withdrawing from the world -- at least not for the public.

One of the drivers of Washington's "retreat" mantra is the mistaken assumption that Americans swing back and forth between gung-ho interventionism and Fortress America isolationism. But the numbers show that the public is a mass of complex opinions, believing, for example, that a necessary war like Afghanistan did not meet expectations; and that the United States should remain a global leader, but approach the world more cautiously in coming years.

Both the Pew Center and the Chicago Council on World Affairs have made persistent efforts to ask Americans precisely what kind of foreign policy they want. While favoring an active approach, Americans don't support policies they believe are too costly or just not working. And the reality is that often the public wants things both ways; resolving that challenge -- Do more! Spend less! -- requires leadership and a willingness to make tough decisions.

The time has come for the advocates of U.S. passivity to stop talking about the popular mandate they never had and to speak honestly to the American people. And it's high time for others to stop cowering before this imaginary consensus. There are real challenges to U.S. security and prosperity out there -- from Ukraine to Iran, Syria to China. It's time to give Americans the leadership they want. 

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