Though the American public is looking inward, the United States is not returning to isolationism. Nearly half of Americans believe the United States should take a less active role in the outside world, according to pollsters at The Wall Street Journal and NBC on Wednesday. This percentage is higher than the same poll showed over the past two decades. The poll suggests that renewed tensions between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine crisis have not triggered a broader public desire for the United States to take a stronger stand in defense of Ukraine's new pro-Western government. And this poll was only the latest of several showing that, apparently, more Americans are coming to see the wisdom of George Washington's farewell warning, "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?" Needless to say, Washington's admonition has a global application today.
At the same time, another report Wednesday submits a major reason Americans are unconcerned with matters abroad: continued economic sluggishness. The U.S. economy grew by a measly 0.1 percent in the first quarter of the year, according to the Commerce Department. However distorted by bad winter weather, the underlying message of the (always rough) quarterly data is that the economy is stagnant. High numbers of workers have stopped looking for work despite drops in the headline unemployment rate, and financial insecurity remains rampant among American households. With Americans so concerned with incomes and jobs, it is little wonder why they seem disinterested in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Yet it would be unusual if the United States did not recoil after a period of extensive intervention abroad. Moreover, the financial crisis and abnormally slow recovery have heightened concerns about the tax consequences of defense spending as well as the overall economy.
But the turn against foreign entanglements should not be exaggerated. A higher proportion of Americans (49 percent) apparently believe the U.S. role in the world should stay the same or become more active than believe it should decrease (47 percent). Today's polls hardly suggest a mass reversion to the isolationism of the 1910s or 1930s.
Rather, the polls reaffirm a foundational American tendency rooted in its geography. The U.S. is a continent-sized country with an extensive sea and land buffer separating it from rival great powers. Countries such as France, Germany, Russia and China historically have faced much greater struggles to win inferior buffers, even temporary ones. For this reason, the United States, even more so than other powerful nations, tends to focus on its own affairs — the bustle of its own markets and the bling of its own entertainments. Arousing the United States requires either a strike on the homeland, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, or the constant threats of a peer competitor like the Soviet Union. Putin's Russian resurgence does not attain this level of pervasive threat, though it is by no means a negligible one. China is years away from inspiring the kind of dread that stirs the U.S. to unified outwardly directed action, and to do so it must overcome growing internal divisions.
Even in the periods of American history most famous for isolationism (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), America's underlying global power expanded rather than contracted. Since World War II, the United States has engaged in numerous small actions to modulate regional balances of power even when not involved in major engagements. And the intensity of war weariness is no indication of the duration of American withdrawal, judging by the rebound from Vietnam. To be sure, weak economic recovery since 2008 has aggravated America's inward focus for the time being. But American presence and power projection will continue in various ways through the coming years of public distaste for foreign troubles. The danger is that the more disconnected the public becomes from the outside world, the sharper the reaction will be when a direct threat emerges. Lack of preparation and overcorrection are flaws that grow out of America's geopolitical position, though so far the strengths of that position have ensured that these flaws have not been fatal.