Much has been written about how the end of the Cold War is reshaping American foreign policy. Less well understood is how this change interacts with an equally momentous change in domestic affairs—the buildup of a powerful anti?status quo sentiment among the electorate. The mood of the American electorate radiates anxiety, mistrust, pessimism and an implacable determination to change the way things are done in Washington. The energy generated by the convergence of these two powerful changes is likely to effect a major transformation of American foreign policy.

The mood of today’s electorate differs from that of previous presidential campaigns in the postwar period. Though unmistakably potent, it is easily misunderstood. The public mood is linked to the economic recession, but in an indirect way. Most observers oversimplify this cause?effect relationship.

Economists are thus bewildered by the public sentiment in light of the fact that, in objective economic terms, the present recession is less severe than that of 1981?82; fewer Americans have lost their jobs or have suffered as badly as in the recession of a decade ago. Yet the public is far more agitated now than it was then.

In his own analysis President Bush also ties this public mood too directly to the recession. He attributes his steep decline in the opinion polls to it, and he apparently assumes that once voters realize the recession is over their confidence in him will spring back to previous higher levels. But a careful reading of the public mood suggests this inference may be wrong. The more likely scenario is that, even if the economy picks up before the election, confidence levels in the president will rise only moderately and probably remain below 50 percent (in sharp contrast to the almost 90 percent approval ratings of last year).

The public mood interacts with the end of the Cold War to influence foreign policy. A better understanding of the characteristics of that mood and how it relates to the economy will throw light on its implications for America’s foreign relations after the presidential election.

II

Journalists invoke words like "anger" and "outrage" to describe voter sentiment. These words do apply to roughly one out of five Americans. But for the vast majority anger and outrage are not the dominant feelings. Most Americans are less angry than they are anxious.

Over the past year the public’s level of anxiety has been rising steadily. What worries Americans is that the economy is growing stagnant or declining (75 percent), that Japan is ahead of the United States in terms of its ability to compete (77 percent) and that as a consequence the American standard of living is in grave danger. The main source of voters’ anxiety is not the recession as such, but their interpretation of its meaning. There is a big difference between the public’s reaction to this recession and its reaction to the last one. The public experienced the recession of 1981?82 as if it were a giant traffic jam: once it was over the nation could resume normal speed. People are not reacting to the present recession in the same way, as if it were part of the normal business cycle. Even though they cannot quite put their finger on it, they fear that something is fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy. They look to their leaders to pinpoint what is wrong and what to do about it. When their leaders fail to respond well, the anxiety deepens and spreads.

Most voters are coping reasonably well with the present; it is the future they fear. What frightens them is the prospect of fewer good jobs, college tuition climbing out of reach, skyrocketing health?care costs, pensions and retirement benefits at risk and a humiliating rise in homelessness, poverty and urban decay—a shameful America unable to take care of its own.

For years Americans ignored warnings that all was not well with the economy and that the Japanese were forging ahead. Until the recession people were able to brush aside these warnings ("If things are so bad, how come they are so good?"). When the recession finally came, it gave credibility to the dire predictions and confirmed people’s worst fears.

Surveys show that pessimism among the affluent has grown more sharply than pessimism among lower income groups. Unlike previous recessions this one hit white collar as well as blue collar people. No group in the population was taken by surprise quite as much as the giant baby?boom cohort. The majority of affluent well?educated baby boomers had taken for granted, as if it were a law of nature, that the equity in their homes would increase every year, that jobs were secure, that incomes would rise steadily and inexorably and that the smart sophisticated way to manage money was to leverage debt. Now this group, like almost every other group in the population except older affluent suburbanites, has been thrown badly off balance. Its assumptions for living are in disarray.

Americans have grown virtually obsessed with the economy. But this obsession is not self?evident; in opinion polls people express concern about other issues such as health care, education, crime and drugs. A little probing, however, shows that what makes people so anxious about those issues is their economic dimension. At bottom the concern about health care is primarily economic. People ask themselves what will happen if they lose their jobs and, consequently, their health insurance. Most Americans today (88 percent) assume that to get ahead one needs a college education. But they see college tuition costs rising well above the inflation rate (as are health?care costs), and they despair about the future education of their children. Crime and drugs, too, are seen as symptoms of poverty and a deteriorating economy.

Americans realize that many noneconomic factors contribute to the nation’s problems as well. But even these are swept up with economic concerns. Americans suspect that the nation’s economic difficulties are rooted not in technical economic forces (for example, exchange rates or capital formation) but in fundamental moral causes. There exists a deeply intuitive sense that the success of a market?based economy depends on a highly developed social morality—trustworthiness, honesty, concern for future generations, an ethic of service to others, a humane society that takes care of those in need, frugality instead of greed, high standards of quality and concern for community. These economically desirable social values, in turn, are seen as rooted in family values.

Thus the link in public thinking between a healthy family and a robust economy, though indirect, is clear and firm. The nation should anticipate a growing wave of social conservatism as Americans grapple with the complexities of how to recover their economic dynamism through renewing their commitment to America’s traditional core values.

Anxiety alone, even an obsessive anxiety, cannot by itself fully account for the mood of the electorate. One other factor must be added: frustration with America’s leadership. Americans are losing confidence in their leaders not because of the recession (they did not lose confidence in Ronald Reagan in 1981?82) but because they perceive a lack of leader responsiveness. People feel that their leaders are not getting the message.

Congress is seen as responsive to the wrong people—special interests with money to help win elections. The president is seen as unresponsive. Voters turn to George Bush with concerns about their economic future and, instead of allaying their anxieties, he fans them. He has appeared oblivious to people’s fears about the future and passive in relation to the present. The president seems to think in terms of the inexorable logic of the business cycle; the American people are thinking about other aspects of economic life—inroads by Japanese products and investment, corporate "restructuring" that means jobs lost forever, the flight of manufacturing jobs to other countries, the erosion of wages in this country, annual "givebacks" to employers in the form of paying more for less health?care coverage, the Los Angeles riots. The public is convinced that a great deal can be done to avert the economic threat to the future, if only government and business would stop bickering, push aside special interests and quit "fooling around."

This lack of responsiveness by leadership engenders massive voter frustration that, in turn, creates a crisis of legitimacy. Such crises arise when people come to believe that the institutions that are supposed to serve them are instead serving themselves and, as a consequence, the government has stopped working. The conviction that the government no longer works has been growing for a long time and is not likely to dissipate soon. Out of these bone?deep frustrations immense pressures for change are building.

III

The American public began to grow weary of the Cold War in the mid?1980s, years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, let alone the rise of Boris Yeltsin. The turning point in public sentiment can be identified as Ronald Reagan’s shift early in his second term from stern judge of "evil empire" to warm friend of Mikhail Gorbachev. As usual Reagan reflected the nation’s Zeitgeist with uncanny precision. He did not personally cause the change in public attitude (though, with his anticommunist credentials, he accelerated it). By the mid?1980s the American people were ready to abandon the Cold War at the first realistic opportunity. The reasons were these: domestic problems were piling up and the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev offered hope of improved relations with the Soviet Union. People sensed the difficulty of trying to do two things at once—concentrating on both external and internal threats.

It was time, the public sensed, to turn the nation’s attention inward. Opinion polls clearly showed that from the mid?1980s to the present the nation became increasingly worried about economic vulnerability as a threat to national security. The time had come to turn away from the imperatives of fighting communism and toward domestic priorities.

It is important to realize how ready the public was to turn inward long before the national mood began to grow sour. The recession may have precipitated the sharp decline in citizen confidence, but it did so mainly in the sense that it "proved" to the public that America’s downward spiral was accelerating. The unresponsiveness of the political system then fueled voter frustration and the public’s determination to take action.

In the early weeks of the Republican primaries the positive response to Patrick Buchanan’s "America First" slogan gave many observers the impression that the public was moving away from internationalism toward isolationism. A superficial glance at public opinion polls also reinforced the impression that America, in its eagerness to address domestic concerns, was ready to turn its back on the rest of the world. By margins of almost five to one Americans agreed that "we shouldn’t think so much in international terms, but concentrate more on our own national problems." Most rank orderings of issues in polls placed foreign policy and defense at or near the bottom of public priorities.

It is certainly true that Americans feel an urgent need to focus on domestic issues, but this does not mean they are ready to abandon the nation’s international commitments. Support for Buchanan and other protectionist candidates like Jerry Brown was part of an unstable protest vote that flowed to Ross Perot when it had the chance. It had little to do with isolationism, except for about 15 percent of the electorate.

A more careful reading of public opinion polls better demonstrates the likely consequences of the political mood for foreign policy. In focus?group discussions average citizens invariably start by loudly and insistently emphasizing the need to pay more attention to America’s internal problems. But probing shows that the desire to focus on urgent economic concerns is predicated on a firm commitment to internationalism. Alongside the desire to concentrate on domestic problems is a strong assertion (71 percent) that America "must take an active part in world affairs." Majorities feel America has the right number of troops stationed in Europe and regard a continuing military alliance with western Europe as indispensable to America’s national security.

If one looks at the full panoply of issues facing the nation, American opinion varies widely, ranging from "raw opinion" on one extreme to responsible "public judgment" on the other. Raw opinion refers to views that are flabby, contradictory and unstable. These are views yet to be subjected to any careful deliberative process: the public has not wrestled with the tradeoffs, hard choices and conflicts of values that all truly important issues pose. Raw opinion is the knee?jerk view that people carelessly express without real consideration of the consequences. Unfortunately public opinion on many issues today (for example, what to do about the nation’s health?care crisis) falls into this category.

In sharp contrast are those select issues on which the public has made the long voyage from casual opinion to thoughtful consideration. Fortunately for the nation the issue of isolationism versus internationalism is one of those. The experience of two world wars followed by the forty?year Cold War with its crises in Berlin, Korea, Cuba, the long divisive war in southeast Asia, as well as the conflict in Afghanistan and more recently the post?Cold War campaign against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—these and other searing experiences have given the American people ample time and opportunity to ponder the pros and cons of America’s relations with the outside world.

From this extended deliberation voters have drawn a number of lessons, and these have stuck. Americans have learned the hard way that:

—the United States cannot withdraw with impunity from involvement in world affairs;

—it cannot go it alone in this dangerous world without friends and allies;

—great power carries with it great responsibility;

—it is unrealistic to break off relations with nations simply because we happen to dislike or disapprove of their policies;

—it suits America’s practical interests as well as its ideals to promote democracy and market?based economies among other nations;

—it is important to remain strong militarily in an unstable and unpredictable world.

The American people have made a thoughtful and stable commitment to these and other tenets of internationalism that will endure through many a domestic crisis. A commitment to internationalism is one of a handful of issues about which citizens have carefully considered the consequences of their views and have come to accept responsibility for them—the defining characteristic of mature public judgment.

IV

Public influence is likely to bring about some decisive changes in American foreign policy. There is a shift in emphasis away from national security defined in military terms, away from ideology described by either anticommunist or prodemocracy commitments and away from geopolitical thinking defined by a balance of power. Instead the public wants greater priority given to America’s economic interests.

It is not that Americans are opposed to noneconomic policy goals. Most people, for example, strongly support efforts to encourage the spread of democracy to other nations. When asked in the abstract about supporting democracy abroad they embrace this national goal with enthusiasm. But when it comes to setting actual priorities, support for democracy and other worthy foreign policy goals is subordinated to economic concerns. Asked which is the more important goal for the United States to pursue in the world—promoting democracy or promoting American economic interests—by two to one (62 percent to 31 percent) the public chooses economic interests. Similarly when national security and economic interests collide people give priority to the economic side of policy, partly on the grounds noted earlier, that America’s present economic weakness is seen as the larger threat to national security.

What does this view of priorities mean in practice? It has large?scale consequences. Consider, for example, America’s relations with Japan. Throughout the Cold War America’s economic interests vis?à?vis Japan often conflicted with national security considerations and, almost invariably, economic interests were brushed aside. Even today geopolitical aspects of the Japanese relationship consume a great deal of policy?makers’ attentions. Public pressure is mounting, however, to redefine America’s relationship with Japan primarily along economic lines.

Political leaders may argue that the present relationship does benefit the United States economically as well as Japan. But the public is persuaded otherwise. It sees the relationship as zero?sum, with Japan the winner and the United States the loser. Significantly Americans do not place majority blame on the Japanese. Much of the fault, they believe, lies with America itself, notably the shortsightedness of American business and the inadequacy of American government policies.

It is this belief that has kept protectionist sentiment at bay throughout the 1980s. But it will not do so in the 1990s. With economic anxiety so all?pervasive the question of blame is less important than how to improve matters in a practical way. The administration’s vision of a new "global partnership"—the United States and Japan cooperating to mount a joint attack on world problems—is, from the average American’s point of view, a nonsensical fantasy. It will remain so as long as the relationship is seen as one?sidedly beneficial to Japan. The only vision of future American?Japanese relations acceptable to the public is one that creates a new pattern of competition and cooperation that also benefits America—and is perceived as doing so. If both sides win, then a new era of good relations will not only boost the American and Japanese economies but the global economy as well. If present patterns continue, protectionism and worse is the probable scenario, and both sides will lose.

Unfortunately a policy that creates new patterns of economic competition and cooperation is far more difficult to implement than a national security policy: the two governments cannot force the necessary economic relations by themselves. Other players—business, labor, science, technology and the academy—are needed to move from vision to practical strategy. Farsighted government policies on both sides can provide leadership, inspiration and practical help, but implementing such policies will not be accomplished quickly or easily.

V

If Americans are preoccupied with revitalizing the economy yet mindful of international commitments, where will those concerns lead the country? They will probably lead to stringent selectivity in America’s future military involvements abroad. President Bush correctly assessed the national mood in his reluctance to intervene militarily in Yugoslavia, despite that nation’s agony. The end of the Cold War and other global trends have unleashed the passions of ethnic tribalism all over the world. American intervention in such disputes could make Vietnam’s quagmire look like a small puddle. Americans have even less appetite for assuming the role of world policeman than in the Cold War years. Yet they recognize the need for a policeman of some sort. One of the public’s best learned lessons is that America must not intervene in world trouble spots unilaterally. Leadership may come from the United States but, without allies who see a similar threat and who are willing to share the sacrifice, it is folly to act alone.

The logic of the situation calls for strengthening those multilateral institutions such as NATO and the United Nations that are organized to counter threats to regional and world security. To be sure, many obstacles stand in the way. NATO is a creature of the Cold War. Germany and France flirt with other security concepts that would exclude U.S. leadership. The United Nations often remains toothless without aggressive American?driven initiatives. And by temperament, American policymakers are loath to share leadership with other nations.

Where does the public stand? The public remains ambivalent toward the United Nations—far more positive than in the era when it was dominated by anti?American Third World rhetoric—but still ambivalent. There is no active demand by the American public that the United Nations take more initiative as the world’s policeman. But there is a latent willingness to support such policy. If Americans do not want the United States to do the job unilaterally—yet feel some responsibility for indeed getting it done—the United Nations is the most credible candidate for the task. Americans are willing to be sold on this proposition, to have their questions and resistances addressed, and their enthusiasm sparked. This will not happen spontaneously. It will require active leadership. The potential nonetheless exists, if America’s leaders wish to take advantage of it.

VI

Preoccupation with the economy will almost surely lead to developing an aggressive industrial policy, and this will happen whoever wins the presidency.

In all likelihood the term "industrial policy" will be avoided because of the negative ideological baggage it carries. A majority of economists and business leaders passionately rejects the idea. For economists the term conjures up the distortions of command economies that have failed so spectacularly in communist regimes. Business leaders shudder at the idea of government telling them how to run their shops and at the gruesome image of Washington?based bureaucracies picking economic "winners and losers."

In the past few decades these concerns have prevented serious consideration of an industrial policy. Instead the United States conducts its economic business with other nations through a mishmash of ad hoc regulations and laws that are frequently contradictory and self?defeating. Critics have identified more than 300 pieces of legislation and regulation that would ordinarily be labeled as part of an industrial policy, if the government were to admit that it harbored one.

There are, of course, countless ways of formulating and conducting industrial policy. Eastern Europe’s former command economies may be a horrible example of one type. But the kind of business?government nexus undergirding Japan’s and Germany’s economic performance can hardly be cited as examples of failure. The argument is compelling that what may work well in Japan or Germany will not necessarily work in the United States. But there is nothing to stop the United States from developing an industrial policy that fits its own special needs and circumstances. Such a policy would be different in critical respects from Japan’s or Germany’s.

For decades the debate over industrial policy has been confined to economic opinion leaders in universities, think tanks and Washington. Up to now it has gotten nowhere. Now, however, public sentiment is starting to exert irresistible pressure. The public’s position could hardly be clearer. The public believes that in countries like Germany and Japan business and government get together to strengthen the nation’s economic competitiveness; in the United States business, Congress and the president are too busy bickering with each other and too bogged down in partisanship to do what is needed to create American jobs and economic growth. Fewer than one out of five Americans attribute the nation’s economic problems to "forces beyond anyone’s control." Majorities do not believe that Congress alone or the president alone can improve America’s competitive strength in the world but that this goal can be achieved only if the two work together (85 percent). Americans want to see more and better training for workers, tougher trade policies, greater efforts to keep jobs in the United States and more attention to improving the quality of American products. They hold government responsible for seeing that these things get done.

Even among experts, attitudes are changing in subtle but important ways. The shift away from factory jobs to a service and information economy has proven a disappointment. It has caused wage levels of the average worker to erode severely. Sentiment is building for a revitalization of America’s manufacturing base and a strengthening of its technological leadership. The combination of a changed climate of public opinion and the brutal lessons of competing more effectively in a global economy has broken the ideological gridlock. Whatever new label may be attached to it, an aggressive industrial policy lies in America’s future. It is likely to reside at the very heart of the nation’s future foreign policy.

VII

The end of the Cold War finds an America anxious to respond to the imperatives of the new global economy. There is a widespread conviction in the country that America’s economic leadership has been far too complacent and shortsighted in recent years. Americans fault the country’s moral climate for breeding an atmosphere of "everyone out for themselves," with the result that the nation is falling behind on many fronts, especially the economic.

Proponents of the "end of history" are too narrowly focused on geopolitics. The next chapter in American history will feature different players and themes than in the past. The drama will focus on restoring America’s competitive vitality, not its military strength. The dominant note will be pragmatism, not ideology. The competition will be with Germany and Japan, not the Soviet Union. The question of "domestic or international" will be brushed aside as irrelevant, since the domestic economy will stand or fall in the international arena. America’s moral fervor, always close to the surface, will be rechanneled from anticommunism to a new era of American patriotism centered on improving the quality of America’s goods and services—an uninspiring vision, perhaps, for old Cold Warriors but not for the hard-pressed American public.

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  • Daniel Yankelovich is Chairman of DYG, Inc. and President of the Public Agenda Foundation. His most recent book is Coming to Public Judgment.
  • More By Daniel Yankelovich