- By Mike GreenMichael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chair in modern and contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
"America is isolationist as to continental Europe, but it has never been and is not now isolationist in the region of the Caribbean or the Pacific Ocean."
–Walter Lippmann, Foreign Affairs, April 1935
For many decades the journalistic and scholarly narrative about American "isolationism" has overprojected American wariness with fighting in one region of the world to the problems of the entire globe. In Gallup polls in July 1941, for example, 79 percent of respondents said that the United States should "stay out" of the war against Germany and Italy, but when asked whether the United States should "take steps now to keep Japan from becoming more powerful, even if this means risking a war," 70 percent answered yes. In the early postwar years many Republicans who were opponents of the Marshall Plan were permanently labeled "isolationists," when in fact they were known among their colleagues at the time as "Asia firsters" — skeptical of entrapment in the Old World, but not the Pacific, where many were hawkish supports of Douglas MacArthur’s vision of a broader confrontation with communist China.
President Barack Obama’s disastrous retreat on Syria last year has elicited a new wave of punditry at home and abroad about American war-weariness and neo-isolationism — a thesis unhelpfully advanced by the administration’s own defensive description of its foreign policy. Once again, however, the polls show that Americans are much less isolationist than the pundits argue, if questions of American power abroad are disaggregated from the Middle East. For example, in polls taken in recent months:
Only 9 percent of Americans polled say U.S. forces should be pulled out of Japan (Gallup), and 59 percent say the United States should work more closely with Japan in the future (the highest number in a secular upward trend).
Ninety-two percent of Americans surveyed say the alliance with Korea will continue to be important into the future (Asan Institute), and 61 percent say the United States should come to the defense of South Korea if it is attacked (CNN) — this after polling by Gallup shows that close to half of Americans think the North will, in fact, attack the South in the near future.
The point is not that the United States should "pivot" away from the Middle East to Asia. America is a global power with global interests, and even if the country cared only about the Pacific, it could not inoculate security there from events in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. But when the American people are led — when they understand what is at stake as they apparently do in the Pacific — they are hardly isolationist.
And one final point to ponder from prewar polling by Gallup. In the 1920s a majority of Americans thought it had been a mistake to fight in the Great War. By the late 1930s, as totalitarianism spread in Europe and Asia, over 70 percent of Americans answered that they thought the United States had been right to fight. Americans will brood and lick their wounds for a time, but as Theodore Roosevelt used to say, it is not in the American character to "scuttle and run."