The New Apathy: How an Uninterested Public Is Reshaping Foreign Policy

Americans and their leaders disagree on foreign policy. Polls show that 80 percent of Americans support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it. Two-thirds of Americans want to pay their country's back dues to the United Nations, but Congress took three years to appropriate the money and then demanded that the U.N. write off more than $400 million in bad debt. Nearly half of all Americans supported using ground troops in Kosovo, but the Clinton administration resisted admitting that it was even considering the option.

What explains this gap between what Americans want and what Washington does? The common answer -- that politicians are misreading the public -- is as mistaken as it is popular. It rests on the flawed premise that in politics, majority preferences trump all. But politicians worry less about what the public thinks about an issue than about how intensely it cares. And therein lies the great irony of the post-Cold War era: at the very moment that the United States has more influence than ever on international affairs, Americans have lost much of their interest in the world around them.

This apathetic internationalism is reshaping the politics of American foreign policy -- encouraging the neglect of foreign affairs, distorting policy choices to favor the noisy few over the quiet many, and making it harder for presidents to lead. Left unchecked, these impulses will prevent the United States from capitalizing on its great power. So the most important foreign policy challenge facing the next president is not encouraging democracy in Russia, coping with a rising China, or advancing a liberal economic order. Instead, it is persuading the American people to pay more than lip service to their internationalist beliefs.


Despite fears that Americans would turn inward when the Cold War ended, they still consistently support an internationalist foreign policy. Since 1947, the Gallup polling organization has periodically asked, "Do you think it will be best for the future of this country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs?" In 1999, 61 percent of those surveyed responded that active American involvement in the world was critical -- roughly in the middle of the range of responses recorded over the past 50 years.

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