November 8, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: Are Americans Isolationists at Heart?


The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Americans, preferring to stay out of world affairs, are isolationists at heart. But the conventional wisdom is wrong, as James M. Lindsay and I explain in an op-ed in the Washington Post this week:

Since 1992, every successful presidential candidate has campaigned on a promise to do less abroad and more at home. Bill Clinton ran on the idea that “it’s the economy, stupid” and promised to “focus like a laser beam” on improving it. George W. Bush, despite warning that “America’s first temptation is withdrawal — to build a proud tower of protectionism and isolation,” nonetheless promised to focus more attention at home. And Barack Obama ran on ending the wars his predecessor had started with a pledge to begin nation-building at home. . . .

There’s only one problem with the notion that Americans want to retreat from the world: They don’t. They tell pollsters they favor a broad and active role for the United States, and they have done so for decades. If anything, public support for American leadership abroad has increased as voters have seen firsthand what “America First” means in practice.

The public’s increased appreciation for the old way of doing business—let’s call it internationalism—can be seen in the latest survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The Council has been polling public attitudes on foreign policy since 1974, and its surveys offer some of the clearest insights into how views have and haven’t changed as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, won the Cold War, launched a war on terrorism, and shifted to putting America first.

Take the broad question of what role the United States should play in the world. Seventy percent of Americans want it to take an active role in world affairs. That is six percentage points higher than when Trump was elected. The only time that question recorded a higher level of support in the past 44 years came just after Sept. 11, 2001, when 71 percent favored an active US role abroad.

The public’s preference for internationalism holds in specific circumstances. Ninety-one percent say that it is more effective for the United States to work with allies and other countries to achieve its foreign policy goals than to go it alone. Sixty-four percent say that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the United Nations, and with its allies, even if that means Washington might have to adopt a policy that is not its first choice. That’s the highest support recorded for that question in a dozen years.

Americans also like having allies and military bases overseas. Seventy-five percent believe the United States should maintain or increase its commitment to NATO, a level of support that has held steady for years. Six in 10 Americans also want to keep US military bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Strikingly, support for overseas military bases in these three countries and elsewhere has risen by 10 percentage points or more over the past decade. . . .

Make sure to read the entire op-ed in the Washington Post. As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you haven't already, click here to subscribe to This Week's Reads.

How the Irish Border Backstop Became Brexit’s Defining Issue

Alex Barker and Arthur Beesley / Financial Times

As I mentioned in a recent This Week’s Reads, the Irish border has become a defining issue of Brexit negotiations. In a new essay for the Financial Times, Alex Barker and Arthur Beesley explain why. “The political magic of the Good Friday pact relied in part on Ireland and the United Kingdom being EU members,” they write. “The pact does not mention borders or customs because common EU rules and courts allowed the Irish frontier to become virtually invisible,” they add. Brexit has not only made the border visible, it has brought the issue to the fore. Worse, no one seems to know how it might get resolved before the United Kingdom’s slated departure date from the European Union in 2019.

The Great Schism That Could Pull the European Union Apart

Timothy Less / New Statesman

“A contest is under way for the future of Europe and the battle lines have been drawn,” writes Timothy Less in the New Statesman. On one side are the stalwart defenders of the postwar European liberal order, champions of the rule of law and an open society. On the other side are the challengers to the liberal order, prioritizing nationalism over the greater European project. “If the European Union proceeds in this direction, it will eventually come to resemble a kind of United Nations for Europe, in which its member states discuss their concerns and cooperate when it suits them, while the real politics takes place at the national level,” Less explains.

Japan Must Ponder the Risks of Closer Ties with China

Yoichi Funabashi / The Washington Post

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to China on October 26 “marked a return to normal Sino-Japanese relations,” writes Yoichi Funabashi in the Washington Post. “This is a step in the right direction but there are certainly risks to Japan’s foreign policy,” he adds. The risks are that capitals across Asia could see Tokyo as caving to Beijing and that Washington could see Tokyo as hedging against its relationship with the United States. Nonetheless, “Abe is determined to avoid the biggest toll of all—lasting damage to the US-Japan alliance,” Funabashi writes.

The Artificial Intelligence Cold War That Threatens Us All

Nicholas Thompson and Ian Bremmer / WIRED

“At a moment of great anxiety about the state of modern liberal democracy, Artificial Intelligence in China appears to be an incredibly powerful enabler of authoritarian rule,” write Nicholas Thompson and Ian Bremmer in WIRED. They describe a bleak scenario in which China not only develops its own effective technologies that counter any opposition to Beijing’s control of the state, but also exports that technology abroad, as China is already doing in Zimbabwe, to prop up authoritarian leaders around the globe. Bremmer also spoke about the perils of Artificial Intelligence when he visited the Council in late October.

The United States Must Avoid a New Cold War with China

Martin Wolf / The Financial Times

Vice President Mike Pence’s speech on US-China relations at the Hudson Institute in early October is arguably the most important event of 2018 to date, Martin Wolf writes in the Financial Times. “It stated America’s intention to confront a rising China across the board,” Wolf explains. Yet, he adds, “The United States has good reason to avoid the open-ended conflict Mr Pence declared.” Washington should take heed that China today is neither the rigid ideological rival nor the economic underperformer that the Soviet Union was, and that any conflict would be exceedingly costly for the United States.

The Sino-American Cold War’s Collateral Damage

Minxin Pei / Project Syndicate

A new Cold War between the United States and China, Minxin Pei writes for Project Syndicate, “would undoubtedly produce collateral damage so far-reaching and severe that the very future of humanity could be jeopardized.” From an initial wave of disruptive economic relocations and an unraveling of the global financial system to the long-term problems from failing to jointly address climate change, the consequences of a prolonged conflict, even one short of an all-out war, are dire. Yet, Pei adds, “It is not too late for the United States and China to change course.”

The Weaknesses in Liberal Democracy That May Be Pulling It Apart

Max Fisher / The New York Times

“There is a gap between how liberal democracy . . . is sold and how it works,” writes Max Fisher in the New York Times. “When institutions fall short, as they did in Brazil, voters can grow skeptical of the entire idea of accruing power to bureaucrats and elites who failed in ways that highlight the gap,” he adds. The problem with such skepticism and the resulting anti-elitism is that what comes next, attempts at direct rule by the people, can result in leaders who bend personal authority toward autocratic ends. “A populist’s promise to tear them down feels like freedom, though that is rarely what it brings,” Fisher writes.

Nukes in Europe: Facts, Not Hysteria

Franklin C. Miller / New Atlanticist

“The United States has been raising Russian violations of the INF Treaty with Moscow since 2014,” writes Franklin C. Miller in the New Atlanticist. “To believe the INF Treaty remains in force is risible: Russia’s continued deployment of SSC8s has rendered it null and void.” As such, President Trump was simply acknowledging the reality of the situation when he called for the United States to exit the INF Treaty, he writes. But now, Miller adds, Washington should work with its NATO allies in Europe to develop a counter to Russia’s SSC8 since the Kremlin will only negotiate and abide by arms control agreements when it wants to block or constrain the deployment of Western weapons.

The Secret History of the Saudi Consulate Affair: Turkey's Counter-Attack

Melik Kaylan / Forbes

“Almost everything we know about what actually happened in the Saudi Consulate comes from the Turks,” Melik Kaylan writes in Forbes. “And make that what we think we know,” he adds. None of this is to dispel the fact that the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, or that Riyadh has failed to provide a convincing explanation for his death. Yet Kaylan’s op-ed is an important reminder that Ankara has its own goals in bringing attention to Saudi Arabia’s role in the murder. “Essentially, Ankara and Riyadh are jockeying for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world,” he writes. “President Erdogan as a Neo-Ottomanist wants Turkey to act as the fons et origo of legitimate Islam in the old imperial way. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia harbors its own pretensions backed by oil billions.”


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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