This week, I attended two fascinating briefings on how the American public is thinking about the world. The first was a press conference to unveil research sponsored by the UN Foundation and the second was a small working group organized by the Stanley Foundation.
The major takeaway from both sessions? We’re living in a post-Iraq world and looking for a post-Iraq foreign policy as of right now. The post-9/11 era that dominated U.S. opinion and decision-making for the early part of this decade is effectively over, except in the minds of the approximately 25 percent of Americans that represent the Republican base.
This isn’t a momentary change, either — it’s a more fundamental change in the way that Americans view the world.
Americans want something different than what we’ve got now. People want the U.S. to work with other countries, forge global partnerships, and restore our standing in the world. “Go it alone,” is a non-starter. Interestingly, Americans view the decline of our reputation as a major problem. The classic conservative mantra “foreign policy isn’t a popularity contest” isn’t really politically viable anymore.
One disconcerting finding, though, is that there appears to be a new wave of isolationism, represented by folks like Lou Dobbs and Ron Paul. Both would probably object to “isolationist” as an appropriate label for their school of thought, but they do believe fundamentally that neither the U.S. nor the world is well-served when the U.S. is involved in global problem-solving.
This group of citizens — who are primarily young Kerry voters — would prefer that the U.S. government focus its attention on domestic problems and worry less about global issues. In part, that’s because this group can’t conceive of a different form of global engagement other than the Bush foreign policy of pre-emptive military strikes and poorly executed occupation.
Barring a catastrophic, public psyche-shaking event, the American electorate will not accept a candidate who proposes to continue President Bush’s arrogant approach and emphasis on unilateral use of the military to solve problems. To satisfy many of these “new isolationists,” the next President will have to present a compelling vision of positive American influence based on diplomacy, working with international institutions, and genuine global partnership. That will be hard — but not impossible.
— Scott Paul