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

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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.

THE INTERNATIONALIST HABIT

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.

The public's internationalist inclinations hold up when one moves from the abstract to the specific. During the Kosovo war, Gallup found that public support for "U.S. participation in NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia" reached as high as 61 percent, and the war always had more supporters than foes, despite widespread criticism of the Clinton administration's strategy. The Pew Research Center found in February that 64 percent of Americans think free trade is good for the country; 62 percent say the same about U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization. These numbers are virtually identical to those in polls taken before the failed WTO meeting in Seattle last year.

Unlike many on Capitol Hill, Americans have not embraced unilateralism. A 1998 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that 72 percent of Americans say that the United States should not act in international crises without its allies' support. This multilateralist preference also carries over to support for international organizations, which most Americans, as polls consistently show, want to strengthen, not weaken.

Moreover, the American public's internationalist attitudes span all parts of the country and key demographic groups. Despite fears that "Generation X" would turn its back on the world because it came of age after the Cold War, polls show it to be as internationalist, if not more so, than the World War II generation. And nothing in the polls suggests that isolationism or unilateralism has much appeal.

Elianation

Why, then, has the public's embrace of internationalism not translated into greater political support in Washington for American engagement abroad? The answer lies in a basic rule of politics: What really counts is not how many people line up on each side of an issue but how intensely each side holds its opinions. Politicians know that opposing impassioned voters may mean looking for a new job, so silent majorities get ignored. In politics, as in the rest of life, squeaky wheels get the grease.

Consider the saga of Elián González. Roughly two out of three Americans favored sending the six-year-old back to Cuba to live with his father. But while many politicians raced to the cameras to demand that Elián be allowed to stay in the United States, few argued publicly for returning him to Cuba -- because the minority of Americans who backed Elián's Miami relatives cared passionately enough about the issue to reward their friends and punish their enemies. By contrast, the majority that favored returning Elián to Cuba was unlikely to remember the boy in six months, let alone use the voting booth to punish politicians who favored letting him stay.

Intensity is crucial to the politics of foreign policy today because the public's commitment to internationalism has ebbed over the past decade. During the Cold War, foreign affairs almost always topped the country's political agenda. Gallup regularly found that 10 to 20 percent -- and sometimes even more -- of those polled named a foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the United States. But today most Americans dismiss foreign policy as relatively unimportant. Only two to three percent name foreign policy concerns as the most important problem facing the country, and Americans have trouble identifying foreign issues that concern them. When the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations asked people in 1998 to name the "two or three biggest foreign-policy problems facing the United States today," the most common response by far, at 21 percent, was "don't know."

The "don't know"s predominate because fewer Americans follow foreign affairs. In February 1999, as the Rambouillet summit convened, Pew found that only one in nine Americans said they followed news about Kosovo "very closely." By comparison, one in six said they closely followed the news of Joe DiMaggio's death. Or take the Senate's rejection of the CTBT, which The New York Times likened to the Senate's 1920 defeat of the Versailles Treaty: immediately after the CTBT vote, Pew found that half of those surveyed admitted they had heard nothing about it.

Americans ignore much of what happens overseas because they see little at stake. In September 1997, Pew asked 2,000 Americans how much impact other parts of the world had on the United States. Solid majorities answered "very little," even when asked about America's allies. (About 60 percent said that western Europe had little or no impact on their lives.)

These poll numbers all jibe with what people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue know firsthand: Americans endorse internationalism in theory but seldom do anything about it in practice. Americans may have wanted to pay their U.N. debt, but few wrote to Congress demanding action. Similarly, most Americans supported the CTBT, but they did not descend on Washington in busloads to save it. Americans approach foreign policy the way they approach physical fitness -- they understand the benefits of being in good shape, but they still avoid exercise.

THE WASTELAND

Apathetic internationalism is reshaping American foreign policy in three ways. First, it encourages politicians, who naturally gravitate toward issues that matter to the public, to neglect foreign policy. Of course, foreign affairs still matter after the Cold War, but the political credit that once came with handling them has faded. President Bush discovered this when he was attacked in 1992 for being too interested in foreign affairs and defeated by a candidate who argued that the country should focus on domestic policy. Over his two terms, Bill Clinton largely delivered what he promised, and to judge by the polls, he did not suffer for it. Foreign policy remains a low priority in the 2000 campaign.

The neglect of foreign policy is, if anything, even worse on Capitol Hill. Both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee have trouble recruiting members. "Foreign Relations has been kind of a wasteland," admits Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a staunch internationalist. "It is not a particularly strong committee to fundraise from." The House Republicans' famous "Contract with America" ignored foreign policy (save for a plug for national missile defense and a broadside against U.N. peacekeeping), and congressional Democrats have virtually purged foreign policy from their vocabulary.

Second, apathetic internationalism empowers squeaky wheels. This happens partly because politicians who abandon foreign policy for greener political pastures cede power to colleagues whose interest in foreign policy arises from personal passion. As former Representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.) noted about life on Capitol Hill, "When there are a few people who will die for the issue, and nobody else gets anywhere close to that, they can have their way."

"Skaggs' Law" clearly operated during the debates over U.N. dues and the CTBT. Once the U.N. bill passed the Senate, Representative Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) linked it to aid for international family-planning programs and for two years resisted intense pressure to back down. In the CTBT case, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and a few colleagues lobbied fellow Republicans and pressed Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to hold a vote. Their zeal -- and the prospect that they would make Lott's life miserable if he postponed the vote -- more than outweighed the fact that 24 Republican senators had publicly asked that the treaty be withdrawn.

Apathetic internationalism also favors the noisy few because it encourages politicians to cater to groups with narrow but intense preferences. That, after all, is where the political credit lies when the broader public is looking elsewhere. Indian-Americans have used their growing political clout (membership in the Congressional Indian Caucus is nearly double that of the Congressional Study Group on Germany) to block efforts to cut aid to India and persuade Congress to condemn Pakistani "aggression" in Kashmir. Human rights activists, labor unions, and environmentalists kept Clinton from winning "fast-track" negotiating authority in trade. The extreme right has turned U.S. participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions into political poison. Of course, narrow interests have always been part of American foreign policy. But without a countervailing push from the political center, they are fast becoming its defining feature.

Third, apathetic internationalism makes it harder for presidents to lead. During the early Cold War, both political savvy and policy arguments encouraged Congress to rally around the president; public rebuffs could embolden Moscow and bring punishment at the polls. Vietnam destroyed this knee-jerk support for the president, but congressional deference survived (albeit tattered) well into the 1980s. Ronald Reagan's great ally in fights over arms control, contra aid, and other issues was moderate Democrats' reluctance to defeat his policies outright. That caution partly stemmed from policy considerations -- a major public defeat would weaken the president's standing abroad -- but also reflected Democrats' fear that Reagan would blame them for playing politics with national security.

But in the 1990s, with no major threat to U.S. security on the horizon and with public interest waning, the costs of challenging the president plummeted. In April 1999, during the Kosovo war, the House refused to vote to support the bombing. Not to be outdone, the Senate voted down the CTBT in October even though President Clinton and 62 senators had asked that it be withdrawn. These episodes were major departures from past practice. When Congress sought to wrest control of foreign policy from the president on issues such as Vietnam, the MX missile, and contra aid, it had vocal public support. On Kosovo and the CTBT, Congress challenged Clinton even though most Americans backed his positions.

The decline in congressional deference has accompanied a growing politicization of foreign policy, for the same basic reason. When the public is engaged, foreign policy is a risky way to score political points; demonizing opponents and exaggerating policy differences energizes core supporters but alienates less fervent voters. But when the public is disengaged, foreign policy becomes -- to paraphrase Clausewitz -- the continuation of domestic politics by other means. The temptation to use foreign policy for partisan gain is hardly restricted to members of Congress or Republicans; witness Clinton's insistence, against all available evidence, that the CTBT had fallen victim to "the new isolationists in the Republican Party." And Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was simply being more honest than most when he pointed out an upside to a vote against the CTBT by William Roth, a Republican senator up for reelection. "Bingo!" Biden said. "That's $200,000 worth of ads."

Without denying the enmity that many congressional Republicans reserve for Clinton, Congress is not likely to start deferring again to the White House when he leaves it. Strikingly, 45 percent of current senators and 61 percent of current representatives first took office after 1992. They have known only fractious relations with the commander in chief. Resurrecting the old norms that members should defer to presidents and leave politics at the water's edge will hardly be automatic, and members are certainly under no pressure from the public to behave. In 1998, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found that 43 percent of Americans thought that Congress' role in foreign policy was about right -- the highest number recorded since the Council's quadrennial surveys began in 1974.

MALIGN NEGLECT

The consequences of apathetic internationalism -- however much they please isolationists, pandering politicians, and ethnic groups relishing their newfound clout -- should trouble anyone who believes that the United States must be engaged in world affairs. They are eroding America's capacity to lead and encouraging what Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has called the "malign neglect" of U.S. global standing.

International affairs spending provides a clear case in point. Just as everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die, politicians routinely deride the idea that global leadership can be had on the cheap but do little to adequately fund American diplomacy. The fiscal year 2000 budget allotted only $22.3 billion to international affairs -- a 40 percent drop in real spending from the peak of the mid-1980s even though the overall federal budget is running a surplus for the first time in decades. The resulting tin-cup diplomacy is penny-wise and pound-foolish. The few tens of millions the United States will save by lowering its U.N. dues, for instance, hardly make up for the damage done to the U.N. as an instrument for U.S. foreign policy.

This myopia about what the United States needs to accomplish its goals abroad goes beyond international affairs spending. Human rights, labor, and environmental groups blocked fast-track and cost the United States the opportunity to push ahead with the trade liberalization that most Americans believe will enhance their prosperity. Narrow-minded laws like the Helms-Burton sanctions, which punish other countries for trading with Cuba, needlessly squander allied goodwill while offering almost no prospect of success. How can any country sustain its foreign policy if it continually gives short shrift to its national interests?

Malign neglect also erodes the belief that the country as a whole benefits from giving the president a degree of deference in foreign affairs. Although presidents possess no monopoly on foreign policy virtue, history has shown that Congress simply cannot run foreign affairs. To be sure, Congress serves the public interest when it scrubs presidential initiatives and advances alternatives of its own. But one can have too much congressional assertiveness as well as too little. The more Congress reverses the president -- especially when it does so gratuitously, as in the CTBT case -- the more timid the White House will be. Moreover, presidential defeats diminish other countries' confidence in America's resolve and in the White House's ability to deliver.

Finally, malign neglect makes it easier to forget that foreign policy should be as much about shaping the world to America's liking as it is about meeting threats from abroad. America is prosperous and secure today because Cold War internationalists, with broad public support, had a vision of the world they wanted to create. Anyone searching Washington today for a similar vision will come away disappointed. Politicians focused on domestic affairs do not see the outside world as a source of opportunity; narrow interests are not looking to transform the world. Historians will look back on the first decade of the post-Cold War era as a squandered opportunity.

KEEPING THE FAITH

The key to fighting apathetic internationalism is persuading the public to act on its internationalist preferences. If politicians believe they will be rewarded for defending broad interests and penalized for tending to narrow ones, they will pay more heed to foreign policy, and squeaky wheels will lose out to a not-so-silent majority.

But how to raise the political stakes in foreign policy? A renewed threat to American security would clearly do the trick. So might a recession. Just as people appreciate the wonders of indoor plumbing only when it breaks down, tough economic times will drive home to many Americans just how much their prosperity depends on an internationalist foreign policy. When the Asian economic crisis suddenly deprived Midwestern farmers of some of their biggest markets, they and their representatives became ardent supporters of the International Monetary Fund and new markets abroad.

It would be better and less painful, of course, to raise the political stakes on foreign policy through persuasion. But who could play this role? Certainly not the public itself, and probably not Congress. Despite congressional moderates' laudable efforts to rejuvenate the political center after the CTBT fiasco, Congress' internal divisions render it incapable of articulating a clear foreign policy message.

Business, however, could do much better. It has both the resources and the incentives to mount a campaign for internationalism. Exports account for more than ten percent of the U.S. economy, and American businesses large and small sell their products abroad. Meanwhile, the malign neglect of America's global standing is undermining the international infrastructure that promotes U.S. business expansion abroad.

But if business is going to raise the political stakes on foreign policy, it must take its case to the country. The traditional corporate strategy of focusing on trade and working the corridors of power in Washington when a major vote approached made sense when an internationalist consensus dominated Capitol Hill. It does not work when the political case for engagement is weak and its opponents vocal. Indeed, antitrade groups redefined the terms of the debate at Seattle -- and put the future of freer trade at risk -- not because they had the better arguments but because they were the only ones on the playing field.

Business appears to have learned from Seattle. In the battle for permanent normal trading relations for China, for example, groups such as the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Farm Bureau mobilized executives, workers, and farmers around the country to lobby members of Congress. This grassroots approach could be broadened into a sustained campaign to remind Americans what they have at stake overseas. One initiative worth emulating and expanding is USA*Engage, a broad-based coalition of nearly 700 business and agricultural groups that opposes the proliferation of unilateral U.S. economic sanctions.

Private foundations could also pitch in by going beyond scholarly research, however important, to underwrite outreach programs to educate Americans about the importance of U.S. engagement. These efforts should be linked to similar efforts by nongovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Association and local councils on foreign relations. These education campaigns will not magically transform Americans into ardent internationalists, but they could help.

Even under the best of circumstances, however, civil society can do only so much. The ultimate responsibility for convincing the public to act on its internationalist beliefs lies with the White House. In a 500-channel world, no one can dominate the political agenda and mobilize support the way the president can. Apathetic internationalism makes it harder for presidents to lead, but it does not make it impossible. After all, Clinton scored some important foreign policy victories: enlarging NATO, ending the war in Bosnia, and securing approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, to name only the most well known. He won because, unlike in his other forays into foreign policy, he committed the full powers of his office to winning, built bipartisan coalitions in Congress, and made the case to the American public. That mix of vision and dedication -- simple to sketch but difficult to do -- is the recipe for future presidential leadership in foreign policy.

With Clinton's term all but over, the responsibility for persuading Americans to abandon their apathetic internationalism will lie with the next president. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush are internationalists by inclination, but their predilections are beside the point; Clinton's leanings were internationalist as well. Rather, the issue is whether the next president will devote time and political capital to persuade Congress and the public of engagement's importance. Even then, there will be no quick fix. Absent a clear and present danger, the temptation to dismiss foreign policy as a trifle will remain powerful. But the malign neglect of America's world standing will worsen badly if the next president turns out to be an apathetic internationalist.

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