The truth about populism and foreign policy


Last week in Foreign AffairsRichard Fontaine and Robert D. Kaplan analyzed the impact of this year’s campaign populism on U.S. foreign policy, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich. Domestic economic difficulties, they argued, have made Americans less willing to have their country play a large role abroad.

In the last half century, there have been only three stretches when Pew found a sharp and sustained decline in public support for the idea that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally.” And each of these periods was followed by a more activist foreign policy, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

In the late 1970s, a ten-point drop in the mind-our-own-business percentage (from 43 percent to 33 percent) prefigured the foreign policy activism of the Reagan years. From the mid-1990s, a similar drop (from 41 percent to 32 percent) anticipated the increased activism of the late Clinton and early George W. Bush years. In the past three years, the number of Americans who say that the country should “mind its own business” has again dropped, from an all-time high of 52 percent to 43 percent.

“Opinion is far from united about what role the United States should play abroad, but the trend at least is clear,” says Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “Contrary to what Fontaine and Kaplan claim, the public seems more ready for greater involvement.”


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