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.
The commitment to multilateralism remains robust among survey respondents. The Better World Campaign survey asked respondents if they felt it was better for the United States to either work with allies and through international organizations or act on our own. 78 percent of respondents felt that it was better for America to work with allies and through international organizations, which is exactly the same percentage as in 2003. Respondents value multilateralism as a force multiplier for U.S. interests. The Chicago Council survey asked respondents about the best way for the United States to use military force. Less than one in four respondents felt that America is best served using force on its own. 38 percent of respondents felt it best if America used force as part of a UN operation, while 34 percent of respondents felt it best if America used force as part of a NATO operation. This finding fits what we understand about international organizations. Using international organizations helps make burden sharing easier, and this in turn reassures voters.
Support for the United Nations remains strong across surveys. Survey respondents in the Better World Campaign survey were asked how important it is for the United States to maintain an active role within the United Nations, and 88 percent of respondents agreed that U.S. engagement with the UN is important. Favorability numbers for the UN are high and have improved. In the Pew Research survey, the UN’s favorability numbers have gone up ten points since 2007 (to 58 percent), while the Better World Campaign reports a similar ten point jump since this time last year (to 60 percent). By way of comparison, the Better World Campaign asked respondents to rank the favorability of the U.S. Congress, which was 22 percent. Survey respondents continue to see the value of the UN as an institution. When asked whether it is still needed today or if it has outlived its usefulness, 71 percent of respondents felt that it is still needed, a view that has remained consistent since 2009.
Our own personal beliefs are often slow to change. In much the same way, the evidence suggests that Americans still realize the imperative of international cooperation and look to work with other countries and through international organizations in pursuit of common goals. For analysts of U.S. foreign policy, this should be welcome news. Changes in the U.S. economy and the international arena have not translated into public support for isolation. Multilateralism’s future, in turn, could be as bright as its past.
Martin S. Edwards is an associate professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Aotearoa. CC BY-SA 3.0.