Daniel W. Drezner

The American public is pretty realist. The American public is also pretty dumb.

The American public is pretty realist.  The American public is also pretty dumb.

So, Pew has a new survey of elite and mass attitudes about foreign policy, and it’s chock-full of interesting results.  Turns out Americans sound pretty realist right now:

The average American is both less internationalist and less multilateral

In the midst of two wars abroad and a sour economy at home, there has been a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment among the public. For the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should “mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along the best they can on their own….

The public sees China’s emerging power as more worrisome than do the foreign policy opinion leaders. There has been virtually no change since 2005 in the percentage of the public saying that China represents a major threat to the United States (53% today, 52% then). Moreover, while Iran is mentioned most often as the country that poses the greatest danger to the United States, China continues to rank among the countries frequently named by the public as dangers to the U.S….

At the same time, there has been a rise in unilateralist sentiment. Fully 44% say that because the United States “is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.” That is by far the highest percentage agreeing since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1964.

Hmmm… this sounds familiar.

Now, you might think supporters of these policy positions would be overjoyed at this news, or at least extoling the sage wisdom of the common folk of America.

The thing is, there are other results in this survey suggesting the public is kinda, sorta stupid*: 

In a reversal of opinion from the beginning of last year, 44% of the public now says China is the world’s leading economic power, while just 27% name the United States. In February 2008, 41% said the U.S. was the top economic power while 30% said China.

Now I understand that China’s relative power has grown vis-a-vis the United States in the past year two years decade.  Maybe in a decade or so, China will be the more powerful and robust economy.  Maybe.  Right now, however, there is simply no way you can describe China right now as “the world’s leading economic power.”

If you were to take a snapshot of the distribution of economic capabilities in the world, then the United States remains the most powerful country in the world, and it’s not close.  The U.S. share of the global economy has hovered around 25% for the past decade.  This is twice the size of China or Japan, and far larger than that of any other individual nation-state.  Any measure of science and technology outputs generally has the United States coming out on top.  Historically, the U.S. is not only the current hegemon – the country controls a far greater share of the world’s resources than most great powers of the past.  [But, but, but, China has the largest amount of official currency reserves in the world!!–ed.  Yes, and a fat lot of good that does Beijing.] 

Is China more economically powerful than it was in 2008?  Absolutely. Is it more powerful than the United States?  No f***ing way. 

There’s a lot more to dig through here — I’ll be bashing the inconsitencies of foreign policy elites sometime this weekend.  But I highlight these results to suggest that anyone talking about this stuff as an example of the “wisdom of crowds” does not know what they are talking about.  These are very interesting results, but they’re based on a pretty high degree of ignorance about world politics.

*Yes, the more accurate word to use would be “uninformed,” but I’m trying to provoke here.