For the first time in 50 years, a majority of Americans wants the U.S. government to mind its own business internationally.
According to a new Pew Research poll that measures Americans' perception of their country's place in the world, 53% of Americans say the U.S. "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own" and that the U.S. "plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago." Meanwhile, some 70% say the U.S. is less respected than in the past.
For those of us, including a huge majority of millennials, who are growing increasingly skeptical of the utility, and financial and mortal costs of war, this is welcoming news. There are also two key factors behind the poll that suggest reason for even more optimism.
While Americans want the U.S. less involved around the world militarily, the partners behind the Pew poll — the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) — express nearly the opposite view. The CFR is an organization with a mix of foreign policy experts with a heavy interventionist bias and the support of large corporate and banking interests. In other words, they are the policy wonks who advocate intervention in wholesale, never having to admit that they were wrong, and their research is supported by corporations that profit from an aggressive foreign policy.
That same Pew poll shows that "By contrast, about twice as many CFR members say the U.S. does too little internationally as opposed to too much (41% vs. 21%); 35% say the U.S. does the right amount [emphasis added]." Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria, yet a supermajority of CFR members supported it.
To those in power, there is no difference between military intervention and commercial relations abroad. But this isn't how Americans see it. Despite calls for their country to mind its own business, in the same poll two-thirds of Americans said greater U.S. involvement in the global economy would be a good thing.
This fact hasn't stopped the mainstream press from deeming Americans a bunch of retreating "isolationists."
Ah yes, isolationism. Which brings me to the second key factor behind the poll. The smear of isolationism has been used for a century by warmongers as a straw man to dismiss any potential criticism. The Washington Post, commenting on this Pew poll, recently had a headline discussing this recent upsurge in "isolationism" and its implications.
But isolationism, like many political labels, is virtually meaningless. Properly understood, it is an ideology that favors no political and economic relations with the rest of the world. Is there any country that actually follows this policy? North Korea, the closest candidate, even talks with China and South Korea occasionally.
The Pew poll, thankfully, takes the time to make the distinction between isolationism and non-interventionism. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say "that growing trade and business ties between the United States and other countries are either very good (23%) or somewhat good (54%) for the U.S ... 66% say greater involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it opens up new markets and opportunities for growth."
Growing American opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad does not mean that we want to cower and hide behind a tariff wall; in contrast, we want peaceful commercial relations with the rest of the world: good old-fashioned free enterprise and free trade, not crony capitalism. The military should only be used in self-defense and should be kept as close to our shores as possible.
This means trading Iranian oil for American products, not threatening them with a nuclear holocaust. We should be sending the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea, not our B-52 bombers. Forget government-corporate "trade agreements," just let Americans and the rest of the world trade in peace.
To the political elite, this seems preposterous. To them, ordinary people cannot manage their own affairs and must be guided by the hand of an iron-fisted (but benevolent!) state, both domestically and internationally. Anything else is "isolationism!" But what is more isolating than starting aggressive wars, enforcing trade sanctions, training Joint Special Operations Command death squads, and a navy policing every ocean?
Perhaps more than any figure in modern history, former Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) helped pave the way for this necessary distinction as he championed a peaceful foreign policy and global free trade at the same time; indeed, they are two sides of the same coin. Maybe now the "isolationist" smear will be thrown in the garbage where it belongs, and we can begin to have actual debates and choices when it comes to foreign policy.