Multilateralism Lives!

Despite fears of isolationism, Americans still want their country to be engaged abroad and to work with others.

The last few years have been challenging ones for the foreign-policy community. Strident opposition to incursions in Libya and Syria, a continued sluggish economy, an inconclusive peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a presidential election that was remarkably foreign-policy-free all suggest that the American public is increasingly weary of foreign engagement, desiring a greater focus on domestic policy. Robert Kagan summarized this view in a recent column:

In the United States in recent years, a great many Americans are questioning the nature and extent of their nation’s involvement in the world. It is not just the Great Recession or even unhappiness with the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that are driving disenchantment with what Americans used to like to call their global leadership. The old rationale for that deep global involvement, which took hold in the wake of World War II and persisted through the Cold War, is increasingly forgotten or actively rejected by Americans who wonder why the United States needs to play such an outsize role on the world stage.

It is human nature to take these large pieces of evidence and use them to make bold statements about the decline of a public commitment to multilateralism. Recent survey findings, suggest that the opposite is in fact true. Public opinion in the United States about multilateralism is rather stable. This should give the foreign-policy community considerable optimism.

It is easy to be cynical about public opinion. Survey respondents are drawn from the at-large population, after all, and this includes the educated as well as the lesser educated. But the large number of respondents is a certain strength of these studies. Individual opinions might not be well thought out, but it is much more daunting to argue that every single respondent is equally unaware. Pooling a large number of respondents leads to clustering around a mean value, and it is the crowdsourced nature of surveys that gives them their value.

If the claim that American support for multilateralism is on the wane is correct, then one would expect to see less support for the United States taking an active role in world affairs, greater support for a unilateral foreign policy, and a greater distrust of the United Nations. The Better World Campaign, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project have asked a series of questions over time that help shed some light on these issues. The Better World Campaign based their findings on a survey of nine hundred registered voters. In contrast, the Chicago Council and Pew Global Attitudes Project are based on surveys of adults. The Chicago Council survey was conducted in mid-2012, and the Pew and Better World surveys were completed earlier this year. For each of these three questions noted above, the claim that the U.S. public is turning against international engagement has little support.

Survey respondents are well aware that the United States faces a more challenging environment than it did a few years ago. The Better World Campaign asked if America was more or less respected by other countries than it has been in the past. 73 percent of respondents felt that the United States was less respected than in the past, and this represents an increase of 13 percent compared to when this question was asked in 2009. Survey respondents also recognize that the global distribution of power is changing. Respondents in the Chicago Council survey indicate that both Russia and China are more powerful countries now than in 2006. Though respondents recognize that America is more constrained, they still support engagement with the world. In the Chicago Council survey, respondents were asked if it would be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stay out. In 2012, 61 percent of respondents supported active engagement, which was the same percentage as in 1998 and only one point less than in 1990. So while the world poses unique challenges today, Americans continue to recognize the necessity of engaging with it instead of running from it.