A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 47 percent of respondents saying the United States should be "less active" in global affairs. The Wall Street Journal describes the results as a "marked change from past decades," but the poll provides some data from previous decades, which may partially belie that notion.
The polls in 1995 and 1997 found 34 percent of Americans wanting the U.S. to be "less active" and, crucially, just 17 percent supporting the U.S. being "more active." This time, 19 percent of respondents wanted the U.S. more active. A plurality in the 1995 and 1997 polls (47 percent and 46 percent) thought the U.S. should continue its current level of activity.
The numbers did change rather drastically in the (presumably post-9/11) 2001 poll, which found 37 percent in support of the U.S. being more active and just 14 percent to be less active. Even then a plurality, 44 percent, believed the level of U.S. activity in global affairs was just right. After 13 years of escalating interventionism by the U.S. around the world (Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Somalia, and Libya, and the rest of Africa, and the "Asia pivot"), it shouldn't be a surprise that supporting U.S. activity in global affairs at current levels finds the support of only 30 percent of respondents in the latest poll.
As I pointed out in my column yesterday, President Obama has been able to maneuver his foreign policy politically in such a way as to maintain the pillars of interventionism while reshaping the domestic perception of American activity abroad just enough to run as a kind of "anti-war" candidate not only in 2008 but in 2012. It appeared last summer he was ready to plunge into a military intervention in Syria, pulled back at the last minute by a John Kerry gaffe exploited for diplomatic purposes by Russia.
Other recent polls show the American non-interventionist mood extending to specific situations, which is not always so. A recent Reason poll found 58 percent of respondents wanting the U.S. to stay out of Ukraine altogether. The prospect of war in Syria wasn't popular last summer either; a Reason poll last year found 64 percent of respondents believing airstrikes in Syria were not necessary to protect U.S. interests. Nearly half believed the Washington political establishment wanted war more than they did. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last year found a record 67 percent of Americans believing the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. That war continues.
The Wall Street Journal also noted that its results crossed party lines: self-identified Democrats and Republicans want the U.S. less involved in global affairs. The last two times around, Democrats chose a candidate who talked peace but whose policies never matched and Republicans chose candidates who played into that narrative while trying to out-warmonger Obama. Non-interventionism ought to be popular on the campaign trail, although as the American electorate should know by now, given recent history, not every candidate vehicle will be authentic.