Friday, February 25, 2011

Gallup Poll on U.S. Leadership in the International Community

(I'm not sure this is my best post ever, but I just spent like 40 minutes writing it, and it made me think about some stuff, so I'm posting it, anyway)

So there's a new Gallup Poll that was released a few days ago showing that the number of people in the United States who would like to see the U.S. reduce its role in world affairs is growing. A majority of Americans, 66%, would like to see the United States take a leading or major role in helping to address major international problems or concerns, but the minority view, which would like to see the United States play only a minor role or no role at all in international affairs, is now at 32%, a figure which is up from 23% in 2009. The percentage of Americans who would like to see the U.S. take a lead role in international affairs is down to 66% from 75% in 2009.

I find this trend to be understandable in some ways, I guess, but almost hopelessly naive and unrealistic in many others. I find the desire for isolationism understandable because the rest of the world has frequently seemed like an inhospitable and scary place in recent years. We've had wars going on in the middle east for years now against an enemy that we really don't seem capable of understanding (we've got our fair share of religious fundamentalism, but the sort of extremism that leads people to strap on suicide vests or an enemy to wage war against an enemy with a vastly superior military is still something we have a hard time coming to grips with). Over the last couple of weeks we've been watching Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc. undergo revolutionary upheavals, and while we've hoped for positive, democratic outcomes, we're far from certain about how things will turn out. Pakistan has been a mess as the ruling party has struggled with internal conflict from Islamic hardliners and other dissidents. Russia and Georgia have been in conflict in recent years. Iraq is still fairly unstable. Pirates keep hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. North Korea has sunk a South Korean ship, shelled a South Korean island, and continually threatened to engage in other military hostilities (all while keeping the South Korean capital of Seoul hostage in the crosshairs of missiles and artillery batteries).
On top of all of that, we occasionally have terrorists from foreign lands infiltrating our country and trying to inflict harm upon our citizens (just this week a Saudi Arabian terrorism suspect was arrested by the FBI under suspicion of attempting to build bombs to target sites in California, New York, and Colorado). American citizens in other countries are occasionally kidnapped or harmed (a trial is currently continuing in Iran where American hikers were seized along the Iranian border and have been held in jail since July of 2009 for illegally entering that country).

All of these things have a way of seizing the imagination of both the individual and the public. There's definitely a certain level of instability and chaos happening around the world these days, and big, scary headlines help to drum up ratings (I'm really not sure that the world is any scarier than it has even been, though, and I think there are probably some pretty strong arguments that it's as safe now as it's ever been).
So on many levels it just seems like a mess out there. You can see how their might be a temptation to try to stay tucked away in our little corner of the world, imagining ourselves to be safely protected, for the most part, by two big oceans and an unquestionably formidable military.

But at the same time, the U.S. is more connected to the rest of the world than ever. Our economy is utterly dependent upon international trade. We rely upon inexpensive imports and we sell enormous quantities of our products in foreign markets. We're dependent upon foreign oil for our energy. Manufacturing for American companies has moved overseas. Our companies are using international outsourcing for cheap labor, and our federal government owes massive amounts of debt to other nations.
On a more personal, micro level, the internet and communications technologies now have us linked to every corner of the globe in ways that were previously unheard of. Email, messages, tweets, Facebook updates, and personal video feeds crisscross the planet instantaneously and effortlessly. I've received text messages from my mom as she's bopped around the grasslands of Kenya, and I've accidentally dialed my dad up for a quick question as he was sitting down to a dinner beside Lake Como in Italy.
Fax machines, phone lines, video conferences, and emails allow employees to work with each other across oceans as easily as they might if they shared offices across the hall from each other. And we all know about that "Phil" guy with the strong Indian accent who answers our tech support calls when our laptops crash...
Anyway, there's no going back. If America were to try to retreat from a global economy or to withdraw from substantial involvement in international business and trade, we'd become a third world country within just a few years. Maybe less. We can't stay afloat by only selling our products to our own citizens at this point, and we can't exist without the imported goods that we rely upon from overseas. American businesses and consumers both rely far too heavily upon foreign trade to make isolationism feasible without drastically reducing both the strength of our economy and our standard of living.
So what does all of that mean? Mostly I think it means that we really can't afford to retreat a whole lot from a position of global leadership where we protect our allies and our assets abroad. We have a strong interest in global political and economic stability not just because of a pervasive (and probably somewhat arrogant) belief in American exceptionalism and an accompanying desire to impose our values upon every corner of the globe. We also, more pragmatically, have a vested interest in taking a heavily involved participatory and leadership role overseas because protection of our international interests means protection of our domestic interests at home. Furthermore, the collapse of the American economy in our current international economy would be devastating not only to citizens of the U.S., but to many, many American allies, business partners, and creditors abroad. American consumers are a critical part of the global economic engine, and that the businesses and governments of just about every country have a vested interest in seeing America protect key, fundamental assets that help keep the international economy chugging along.
So we're a little stuck with this leadership role, as I see it. As a belligerent Iran uses warships to begin to attempt asserting control over the Suez Canal, we could retreat into isolationism. I'm not sure how satisfied we're going to feel about that sort of choice, though, when Iranian blockades start cutting off oil supplies to the U.S. and other parts of the world. We can act as if we're going to cut back on our dealings with the Chinese (as some would have us do in retaliation for China's human rights record), but with China holding about $900 billion in U.S. debt, it's sort of hard to see we can isolate ourselves from them without crippling our economy (it would seem a bit like giving your landlord the finger). We could try to ignore the revolutions going on in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, etc., but... we still need the oil (plus, with all of the different factions vying for power over there, do we really want to to ignore the ones that might wish us harm? That didn't work for us very well after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban took over).

Man, I am totally rambling. Totally.

I just don't see how giving up a leadership role in international affairs is a realistic option for the U.S.. We shouldn't be trying to cynically manipulate the internal politics or operations of foreign nations, but I'm all for strong diplomacy. I don't think we should use our military to rectify internal political situations or social unrest within other countries (unless they directly pose a threat to us, obviously), but I'm actually fine with using our military to put a stop to military aggression (especially, but not exclusively, in defense of our allies). I'm also okay with contributing U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions in the case of genocide or other atrocities, so long as our leaders believe that the cause is a just one.

I'm done. I have to be done.
This has been some awful, unfocused writing, but I was just dismayed to see this attitude shift on the part of Americans who think that we can all just hide behind our borders and that everything will work out alright. It's just think it's been a long time since the world was that simple...


aedavis4 said...

Hey, I haven't read this yet (I will, I will), but I wanted to mention that I like the new, smaller photo at the top of your page. I think it looks a lot better... maybe you'll let me redesign your blog over break. It'd be fun! :)

The League said...

I agree with what you've said. I wonder if people have an idea that the ROI of federal budget spent on international presence isn't paying off.

What I would say is that it may also be something of a reaction to foreign policy so often playing out badly, and meaning that we prop up dictators as allies, and the realization that 60 years of doing so has not worked out well again and again and again (see: Saddam Hussein).

Maybe. I know that when I think of our record, as easily as "hey, we really get along with the Japanese these days, don't we?" I can think of an Egypt or someone else we've supported for decades who may have helped us, but who was not helping out his own country.

Not isolationism, but a softer hand in how we manage relations may be what's needed. Maybe.

That said, the North Korean situation keeps me awake at night. There are no easy solutions.

J.S. said...

Yeah, we've definitely had our problems. Serious problems. We get tangled up with some questionable people. Frankly, if the U.S. wants to have much of a role in certain parts of the world, then we really only have questionable leaders to choose from in selecting allies. (and, personally, I think that some of those unstable parts of the world are some of the places where we would be ill advised to complete fell the situation. At least if we're part of the dialogue we might not only have a chance to influence events, or at least have a better handle on what's going on)
On the other hand, when things go well, when other countries benefit from business associations, foreign aid, military protection, etc with the U.S., those stories rarely get much press.
I'm not saying this to express a "poor us" sentiment about our treatment in the media, but just to point out that there's definitely another side to U.S. involvement around the world that isn't grabbing headlines in the same way that the disasters do.

Jean said...

Jason, I like this post very much. It is an issue we talk about in my class frequently this time of year. My seniors are studying the Cold War and the juniors have just started on American Imperialism. In addressing America's role in the post-war world, Stephen Ambrose said, "American influence would never be as great as American power." I agree with him, and I think it's applicable to your post. I also think it is a tough reality for Americans (maybe that explains the ostrich dream of the Gallup poll), and it's an incredible challenge for our leaders as they juggle competition, conflict, and cooperation. Yeeesh. Glad I only grade papers.

Wanna be a guest speaker in a small forty desk kingdom?

J.S. said...

@ Amy- Glad you like the picture! Redesign? Maybe. You don't think that my amateurish, "he doesn't know what he's doing" look gives me indie cred? ;-)
@ Jean- I'm glad to hear that your kids are learning these things in your class! Like a lot of other people, I guess I feel that, as scary as it was, the Cold War brought a certain amount of order to the power structure around the world. Nowadays things feel more chaotic and unpredictable, and in some ways I think that the chaos scares us as much or more than the prospect of a nuclear war with a major superpower. Of course, with smaller "rogue nations" like Iran and North Korea working feverishly to develop nuclear weapons of their own (and probably biological weapons and other nasty stuff), we may soon have the worst of both the Cold War and post Cold War era. How depressing.

Thanks for the comments!