Inspired by Roger Cohen’s somewhat alarmist claims regarding an American isolationist turn, supposedly as evidenced in public opinion polls, Andrew Sprung looks at the longer polling history, and concludes, contra Cohen, that “America’s ‘inward turn’ is moderate and proportionate.” Yet the poll results actually say little for or against either writer’s position, since they fail to address the nature of America’s role in the world sensibly.
Cohen and Sprung begin with the results from a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Americans, we are informed, are 62%-34% against “tak[ing] the leadership role among all other countries in the world in trying to solve international conflicts,” and are 72%-15% against having “the United States try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can.” Sprung searches further into the archives for us, and discovers that in September 2002, the first question drew 49%-45%, showing a difference that he acknowledges as “significant,” yet considers still “quite moderate in light of the decade of disastrous war that followed.” As for the second question, the percentage in favor of trying to democratize dictatorships never rises above 29% even at its peaks in 1989 and 2005.
The problems with analyses like Sprung’s and Cohen’s originate in the poll questions themselves, or in the comprehension of the underlying issues that they reflect. Whatever the poll respondents may think they are being asked, or intend to express with their answers, the notions of the United States trying to solve international conflicts and trying to change dictatorships into democracies where it can are, given a moment’s reflection, inconceivables. International conflicts, which experience and history tell us are inevitable and countless, are rarely “solved.” Some might suggest that poll respondents are expected to understand “conflict” as a synonym for “war,” but that would be an absurdity, even apart from the differences in types of war, since one does not “solve” a war. Wars generally are themselves attempts to “solve” particular conflicts. The sensible questions about war – containing, entering, ending, preventing, winning, losing, etc. – would be very different questions, while the international conflicts that sometimes lead to wars are managed, not solved, except on those relatively rare occasions that one or another nation ceases to exist. As for the ability to change dictatorships into democracies, the question seems to propose that Americans take a look at a world map, and start picking off dictatorships one by one in a series of offensive wars of regime change, without regard for any other interests or consequences. Even the most ambitious, frankly imperialist neo-conservative or fellow traveler of the ’00s never proposed such a policy.
In short, the poll questions are somewhat ridiculous, a condition that, though well-known, rarely prevents respondents from answering whatever they think the questions really mean or ought to mean, or analysts from attaching uncertainly related conclusions to the answers. Thus, Sprung:
These numbers suggest to me that there is a decades-long disconnect between U.S. defense spending and Americans’ view of America’s appropriate role in world affairs. U.S. military spending is 40% of the world’s total and exceeds that of the next fifteen largest spenders combined. That disproportion makes U.S. leadership in trying to solve world conflict almost inevitable.
On behalf of Americans in their long-abiding willingness to support a vast investment in defense, we can equally surmise that for them the unchanging condition of the world – of being ridden by conflicts that Americans reasonably make no commitment to “solving” – is what requires the U.S. to maintain an expensive military. A parallel logic applies to Sprung’s further conclusion:
The military-industrial complex is indeed the tail that wags the semi-democratic dog. The Beltway consensus that America always should take the lead in resolving conflict worldwide — exemplified by Cohen — is at odds with consistent majority sentiment.
As we were just observing, no one really believes or can believe in the U.S. or anyone else “tak[-ing] the lead in resolving conflict worldwide.” There is a Beltway consensus, sooner or later backed by a popular consensus, in (re-)solving aspects of some conflicts in some places, in particular where they seem to pose immediate threats to Americans, American allies, and American interests. Most of the investment is not about solving conflicts in any meaningful sense, but about the much more realistic objective of containing them effectively, sometimes even by letting them simmer on indefinitely rather than moving to solve or resolve or help to solve or resolve them.
A maritime trading power of global reach interested in preserving disproportionately high consumption of global output must (or is thought to be required to) maintain a large investment in its armed forces. Those forces secure or are thought to secure a vast international resource, supply, and delivery system or network in material support of the lives of billions of people. The world seems rather accustomed to this arrangement, and no one seems to possess any plan of transformation, other than by cataclysmic disruption, workable on any reasonably short time scale. Critical aspects of the overall calculation can change, even disastrously, at almost any time – and that potential provides the second main offered and accepted base justification for the America’s large investment in defense.
“Resolving conflict worldwide” and “changing dictatorship into democracies” count in this context as simplistic, even childish reductions of any questions truly before us. When we focus on such simplisms instead of treating them for what they are, every movement of any kind falls subject to strategic hypochondria, a condition under which even a move consequentially “inward” also becomes impossible: A hypochondriac nation will resist turning consequentially in any direction at all.