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Citation: Andrew Kohut and Robert Toth, "Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War World: A Public Perspective," in Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War World: The Role of Intervention. Report of the Aspen Institute Conference, August 2-6, 1995, (Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Institute, 1996) pp. 105-117.
Kohut and Toth analyze public opinion polls to describe the American public's attitudes toward foreign policy, the United Nations, and U.S. use of military intervention.
The authors determined that there are equal and opposed hard cores of support and opposition for military intervention. The remaining population (roughly 40%) is split. Twenty percent support only humanitarian intervention. Twenty percent support intervention only to protect U.S. vital interests.
They found that public support for intervention depends on two variables: relevance to national interests, and perceived moral responsibility. Even in the presence of both factors, the public usually requires definitive Presidential leadership or congressional debate before they are willing to act. Two interventions are generally felt to be clearly matters of national interest: protecting energy sources, and preventing nuclear weapons proliferation. Currently there is also substantial support for stopping illegal drug trade, illegal immigration, and terrorism.
The authors find the public increasingly tends to "rally around" and support a decision to intervene militarily, once that decision is made. Media coverage of American troop casualties does not tend to undermine support for intervention, if the intervention is thought to be a matter of national interest. When there is no national interest at stake, then troop casualties drastically undermine public support for the mission.
The public's attitude toward particular foreign policies seems to depend primarily on the degree to which the policy advances U.S. interests, rather than whether the policy involves use of military force.
American attitudes remain solidly internationalist. However, the there is a growing, though still minority, trend toward isolationism. The authors found that the current level of isolationism is very similar to that of the immediately post-Vietnam War period.
When asked to rank U.S. foreign policy goals and problems, the public tended to identify issues with a strong domestic import as most important. The top-ranked goal of U.S. foreign policy was protection of American jobs. The top-ranked problem was preventing drug trafficking. The lowest ranked goals were promoting human rights and democracy abroad, and improving living conditions in the third world.
Nevertheless, support for the United Nations remains high. Kohut and Toth note that "Americans who like the United Nations say that it brings nations together, helps maintain world peace, and helps nations needing assistance. Those who dislike it complain primarily that it is ineffective and costly to the United States."[p. 113] Significantly, Americans also mistakenly tend to believe that the U.S. pays more than its fair share of UN costs. While strongly internationalist Americans tend to support the UN, isolationists and those who would see the U.S. as sole world leader oppose it.
Recent UN peacekeeping failures have left the American public wary of committing U.S. troops to multinational missions. A majority of Americans rated the UN at fair or poor in peacekeeping and restoring order. Support was very high for UN programs to combat disease and improve health care. Support for other UN activities, such as monitoring human rights and offering economic aid to poor nations, was lukewarm.
International polls allowed Kohut and Toth to compare American attitudes with other public opinions in Europe, Mexico, Canada, and Japan. First, each country gave very low ratings in believability and positive influence to their main leadership institutions. The media received generally high ratings in each country. The authors argue that this points to a crisis of confidence in the leadership of these nations. This general lack of support may in turn undermine support for the nations' foreign policies.
Second, they found that "Americans know far less than people in European states about world events."[p. 114] This may be due in part to the fact that American TV news is the least informative, and American gain most of their information from TV. However, Americans simply do not value knowledge of world events as highly as some other nations do. This relative ignorance makes it difficult to gain public support for foreign policies. Soberingly, the authors conclude, "Basic political knowledge helps an individual to process international events in a manner that allows the events to become more understandable and thus produce less anxiety and feelings of vulnerability when confronted by social and economic change. Such basic knowledge is rare in America today."[p. 116] Third, compared to Germany or Japan, Americans support notably less altruistic foreign policies. The authors suggest that American emphasis on national and domestic interests reflects a growing isolationism, and an unwillingness to continue in the role of Leader of the Free World.
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