Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, had this to say on US foreign-policy introspection in a recent article in The National Interest:
"It is hard to recall a time when foreign policy issues played so diminished a role in the American public's thinking. Midterm election exit polls found only 8 percent of voters saying that a foreign policy issue was a voting consideration for them, and more generally, national polls show just 11 percent citing a foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the nation. This is the lowest registration of international concerns since immediately before the 9/11 attacks."
He goes on:
"Terrorism, the most immediate threat to [the United States], is a big issue now lacking either prominence in the public’s mind or a heated debate among policymakers. Americans have expressed a steady state of concern about terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, but the polling suggests that most have become somewhat inured to the possibility of another attack. For example, there is no indication this year of widespread anxiety in the wake of reports that terrorists attempted to place package bombs on flights destined for North America. Most Americans (59 percent) say they are worried about an imminent terrorist attack in the United States, but the level of concern today is about what it was in July 2007, and has remained relatively steady since 2003."
Kohut concludes with some interesting thoughts on America's worries in the Asian sphere, specifically China and the Korean peninsula:
"As with terrorism, the public has deep concerns about America's place in the world, but these worries do not evoke a strong policy debate. Yes a growing plurality thinks the U.S. now plays a less important role on the world stage, and majorities recognize China's growing power and worry about it. But for now at least, there is little edge to American attitudes as a consequence. Few regard China as an enemy (17 percent) or a partner (25 percent). As has been the case for more than a decade, China is seen as neither friend not foe by most Americans (52 percent). In fact, more Americans now hold a favorable view of China than did so in 2007 and 2008.
"Neither the recent North Korean bombardment of South Korea as it stands, nor foiled terrorist attack in Portland Oregon seems likely to rouse the American public. If history is any judge, it will take a foreign policy crisis of a major order, to awaken public opinion on international affairs. And when Americans stir, it is hard to predict the new direction of their thinking. What is likely however is that a change in direction of public opinion will be relatively short lived. That has certainly been the case so far in post–Cold War America."
Kohut's last paragraph is his most poignant, and one that identifies a structural American gene within the national political DNA. This level of isolationism would strike European publics as downright otherworldly. Europe is small compared to the U.S., and its foreign policy thoughts are often foremost in mind given that they are always closer to home. The United States has the singular peculiarity of being separated from both allies and enemies by an ocean on each side. So when other matters become pressing, in this case the national economic crisis, unemployment and widespread disillusionment with Obama's platform of hope and change, U.S. citizens traditionally put foreign policy thoughts on a very distant back burner.
Paradoxically, the U.S. seems to be ignoring the very wars it launches, and Europe is just as (if not more) preoccupied with world affairs in which the United States is at work.
This cockamamie balance of today's Atlantic ring countries results in the world's progress toward multipolarization, a status much distrusted by many of the classical powers in the West.
And yet some see beyond this, toward a future power balance in which the West will dull its appetite for world predominance with a healthy slice of humble pie. Just last week Hubert Vedrine, the former French foreign affairs minister, hit the radiowaves asserting that the transatlantic community was guilty of "Western arrogance" and that its member nations are "no longer the masters of the world." The recent economic tremors certainly don't help matters, where in Europe the Euro currency seems ready to crumble. The United States are faring no better, with the latest studies putting the jobless rate at a disastrous 9.8%.
Of course, the obvious insinuation of Kohut's piece is that Transatlantics, while struggling to steady a rocking economic boat, shouldn't take their eye off of the horizon. Prolongued economic travails will only increase the likelihood that one or several Western states drops the ball in a fateful moment of security absent-mindedness.
Should this risky position continue, Kohut's forebodings of a "foreign policy crisis of a major order" -- we're all probably thinking September 11th -- may come to pass. As for predicting the new direction in Americans' thinking should another disaster happen, well, the last lurch in U.S. opinion led to the Iraq War. Yes it was strongly resisted, both in the U.S. and abroad, but it happened anyway.
American voters and the greater West risk more than they know while spending so much time navel-gazing over their domestic problems. They should also keep a watch on the dangers creeping just beyond its borders, and hone their global affairs literacy to know how best to act should action become necessary.