America’s Missed Opportunities

David Gergen. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 1. 1992.

A year a go America stood astride the world. Its troops were poised to lead an international coalition against Saddam Hussein, its president showed greater mastery over foreign affairs than any chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt and its prestige was soaring. In every quarter other nations acknowledged that the United States had emerged from the Cold War as the only functioning superpower and that the ideas it espoused were increasingly triumphant. An influential American columnist, Charles Krauthammer, wrote a year ago in this journal that a unipolar moment had arrived and that a confident United States should learn to accept its new role, aggressively imposing its own vision.

What a difference a recession makes. Few outside the White House talk anymore of creating a “new world order,” unless in jest. The United States cannot achieve order in its streets or even in its capita, much less in the rest of the world. Staggered by an economic downturn that has taken a deeper psychological toll than expected and frustrated by a paralysis in its politics, the United States toward the end of 1991 turned increasingly pessimistic, inward and nationalistic. Its secretary of state could still bring recalcitrant leaders from the Middle East into face-to-face conversations, but its president had so much trouble corralling the leaders of his nation’s political parties that he began wobbling in foreign policy. From the campaign trail politicians who were misreading the public mood—and who also knew better—began whipping up the winds of a new isolationism. Insistent cries came along that the nation should embrace a new philosophy of putting America first: turn a hard, flinty eye toward economic competitors, said its advocates, and curtail the long tradition of generous idealism in foreign policy. As troubles spread in America, other powers began edging away from its orbit. In Japan the press was intrigued by the sudden popularity of kenbei—a feeling of condescension toward America—while in Europe leaders gathered in Maastricht without thinking twice about any interest the United States might have in their deliberations.

In a world where the outlook changes as often as the weather the question arises whether we shall ever again see a replay of early 1991, America the ascendant, or if that was the last gasp of a great nation visibly and sourly slipping Will the United States during the 1990s still seek to build a new international regime, or will it slink away into a new isolationism? Will it remain an agent of openness and change, or will it close both its wallet and its borders?

No one can be certain, of course, but there were enough clues in the months leading up to the Persian Gulf crisis and afterwards to suggest that with the Cold War’s end, domestic politics will become a much more significant factor in the formation of foreign policy and will increasingly drive the United States toward a new world role that fits neither extreme. When the recession is over tempers presumably will improve, and Americans will better appreciate that they remain the predominant military, political, economic and cultural force in the world. They will want to stay engaged internationally, they will still be capable of rallying against an international menace like Saddam Hussein and their diplomats will continue to mediate international disputes. As President Bush demonstrated in the Persian Gulf, a resourceful president may also have occasional latitude to organize international coalitions that command support at home.

Yet the tangle of domestic problems is so thick and enduring that economic growth may be disappointing and will exercise a restraining hand on the foreign policy activism of earlier days. While it remains rich, the country will think and act as if it is poor, choosing not to accept as idealistic and expensive a role as it has played in international affairs over the past 45 years. Absent a direct challenge to its national interest Washington will be more reluctant to assert its leadership in quelling dangerous conflicts—a pattern already begun with Yugoslavia. (Ironically, it was an American diplomat from an earlier administration, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was making one of the largest contributions toward peace there.) In its economic relationships, especially with Asia, the country will be tougher and more demanding. The standard by which policies will be judged will be much less of “What’s in it for the world?” than “What’s in it for us?”

In short even though the political candidates who espouse “America First” are unlikely to beat George Bush in 1992, their influence will linger. America seems destined to scale back its traditional role of international leadership even as it asserts a harder-edged policy of self-interest. It will be a superpower, but a most reluctant one. And if it fails to resolve its internal crises the face it turns toward the world will become very surly indeed.

II

America’s movement away from its former activism in international affairs actually began in the late 1980s, so that the crisis in the Persian Gulf constituted a brief, albeit spectacular, interruption. The change in direction was due in part to the well-understood differences between Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

President Reagan always considered himself a crusader, whether he was pursuing the most massive buildup of armaments in history or the most complete build down of nuclear weapons that history has known. He was determined to roll back the “evil empire” and to knock down the Wall that cemented it together. President Bush, in contrast, shies away from grand schemes, preferring to solve problems and seize opportunities as they ripen. He underestimates his own capacity as a communicator, so that he rarely seeks to mobilize a public march. Yet with an intimate knowledge of other leaders and the world’s largest Rolodex, he happily assembles fraternities of nations to achieve concrete short-term goals. The net result is that under President Bush the administration has been eager to act when a specific challenge arises but has had much less interest in thinking through and molding the future. For planning purposes its long-term horizon seems no more than a year. While the disintegration of the Soviet Union commands the president’s attention, as does a violation of the old order in the Middle East, little thought is given to forging a new long-term partnership with Japan or shoring up the fragile democracies of eastern Europe. The Bush administration has been far more adept at cleaning up the debris of an old world than building the framework of the new.

But more than the personality of George Bush was involved in America’s scaling back during the late 1980s. As the Cold War wound down during the final days of the Reagan administration, most Americans were weary of the commitments their nation had carried for more than forty years and were eager to share them more fully with others. Burden-sharing became a battle cry in Congress, as members on both sides of the aisle lobbied for U.S. troops to begin coming home and pushed Europe and Japan to pay for more of those troops’ expenses. Feeling hard-pressed financially Americans were also suffering from “compassion fatigue” in their willingness to help developing nations.

A 1989 national poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that an astonishing 50 percent of the American public believed that foreign aid had become the largest single item in the federal budget, and they were demanding foreign aid cuts, along with reductions in domestic welfare. In fact foreign aid, including both economic and military assistance, had fallen to 0.21 percent of U.S. GNP in 1990, about three-fifths of what it was during the 1960s, and the United States had sunk to last place among the seven leading industrialized nations in the share of its economy devoted to overseas assistance.

In 1990 the Bush administration asked for only paltry sums to assist the fledgling democracies of eastern Europe; its original request amounted to only $2.60 per Polish citizen. A Democratically controlled Congress forced larger commitments, but even so the U.S. package of $500 million was less than one-twelfth of what Germany provided. South Korea gave more money to Hungary than did the United States, and eastern Europe was treated as a second-or third-tier problem by the State Department.

Once the leader in international population control, America was so internally torn by the abortion issue during the 1980s that under Presidents Reagan and Bush it nearly cut off funds for population-control efforts by the United Nations and International Planned Parenthood. Moreover, despite America’s claim that it gave birth to the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, other nations had to drag the Bush administration into a more ambitious campaign against ozone depletion. Indeed over the past two years America has been widely criticized in Europe and Japan as a major obstacle to a treaty on global warming.

Even in international trade, where the United States was for forty years the principal advocate of a liberal regime, recent trends have been worrisome. President Reagan was a strong apostle of free trade, but a 1989 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that during the 1980s most industrialized nations—including Japan—moved toward lower barriers, while the United States had the worst record for erecting new ones. During the Bush administration U.S. Special Trade Representative Carla Hills has pushed tirelessly for a successful General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty, but others in the administration have broadly hinted that the United States will join the move toward regional trading blocs.

III

Saddam Hussein was among those closely watching the first tentative steps toward a reduced American role, and it is not wholly surprising that when he sent his troops into Kuwait in August 1990 he apparently thought the United States would allow him free passage. Had he not menaced Saudi Arabia as well, he might have been right. Indeed President Bush himself told the press the morning after the invasion that he was “not contemplating” the use of U.S. troops despite a Kuwaiti appeal. As stakes became clearer and friends weighed in from overseas, however, the president quickly stiffened and began rallying both his own country and others around the world.

The U.S. response—its largest military mission since the Vietnam War and one that enjoyed enormous support at home—was such a major departure from the country’s behavior that it is worth considering the domestic side of the Persian Gulf conflict in greater detail. The success of the White House in mobilizing the country tells a good deal about those kinds of overseas ventures that are still politically tenable for the United States and about the kind of power the president retains. In retrospect there were three features to the gulf crisis that explain why the country was so enthusiastic about the U.S. role in the war.

First, in contrast to most other foreign policy threats Americans could readily see that Saddam’s invasion posed a clear and present danger to their own well-being. Most Americans now understand that OPEC’s interference with oil prices in the 1970s not only caused two recessions and long gas lines but also marked a turning point in the American living standard. For a quarter century after World War II average wages in the United States were on a steady upward escalator. But after OPEC ratcheted up oil prices in 1973 that escalator came to a halt, and it has been stalled ever since. Thus Americans hardly had to be reminded that if Saddam advanced into Saudi Arabia—gaining control over more than 40 percent of world oil supplies—he would disrupt their lives and might cost them their jobs. Never mind that if the United States had a serious energy policy in place it would not seem so threatened. The policy for ensuring a reliable flow of oil from the Middle East to the United States boiled down to four words: send in the troops.

The public was not eager to fight in those early days of August, but it fully agreed with the president that it was worth putting a force on the ground in order to block an Iraqi takeover of Saudi Arabia. Over 70 percent of the public immediately supported Bush when he announced the first deployment, and large majorities backed him throughout the ensuing crisis. Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, wrote in September: “In the 45 years since World War II, I can find no other instance when so large a segment of the public has endorsed committing U.S. troops prior to their actual engagement.”

Second, the president wisely decided to internationalize the opposition to Iraq. While it was obvious that the United States was calling the shots, the fact that the U.N. Security Council gave its blessing to American policy at each step along the way provided a stamp of international legitimacy—one that was highly influential with the American Congress and public. The fact that other members of the coalition were willing to defray the costs borne by U.S. taxpayers also made the effort much more appealing. Many in the foreign policy establishment, such as former Secretary of State George Shultz, have decried the spectacle of Secretary James A. Baker carrying a tin cup from capital to capital. But had no collection been made, it is highly unlikely that Congress would have authorized the use of force. In their new mood neither the Congress nor the public is willing to go it alone on a major commitment in foreign policy: they insist that friends come along for the ride and pay full fare.

Third, by successfully mobilizing an international coalition and by taking a series of bold decisive steps overseas at critical points during the crisis, the president amassed enough authority to overwhelm all potential domestic opposition. He provided a textbook case of how, in the right circumstances, a skillful president can still use the powers of his office to marshal domestic support for a foreign venture.

President Bush even made it look easy, as he was far more preoccupied with managing the international dimensions of the crisis than the array of forces at home. Congress, public opinion and the press were usually afterthoughts for him—problems to be addressed after making difficult military choices about Saddam, people to think about after exhausting his international phone directory. As is often the case with the Bush presidency, domestic management by the administration was sometimes maladroit, too; it rarely inspired with rhetoric, frequently seemed uncertain of purpose and lacked the sure, deft touch the president showed abroad. Yet, by the end of the ground war in late February, Bush had achieved almost as complete a mastery of the domestic scene as of the foreign.

Again and again Bush practically ignored Capitol Hill as he made his decisions. While the administration spoke positively of consultation with Congress, it engaged only in notification—and usually after the fact. The president is an easy, affable man, but he is also secretive and likes to rely upon a closed circle, even within the executive branch. He is disinclined to trust Congress on sensitive foreign policy questions because he thinks it incapable of keeping a secret and, worse, that it is infected with partisanship. Divided government has taken a heavy toll on comity between the branches. In the six months of the gulf crisis, Democratic leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives had less influence upon the Bush White House than Margaret Thatcher, who resigned as British prime minister in November 1990, or Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

The pattern of ignoring Congress until the last minute was set in the early days of the crisis. When President Bush announced the first deployment of U.S. troops on August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Senate Majority leader George Mitchell (D-Me.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, both said they learned of the decision after the fact. Because Congress left Washington in early August for its summer recess, it was also out of the picture during a crucial month when the administration was building an international framework for much of what followed. On October 30, 1990, the White House reached a second milestone in the crisis when the president decided to double the U.S. troop commitment. Again Congress was not seriously consulted, and President Bush even decided to withhold pubic disclosure until two days after the congressional elections.

This time Senator Nunn erupted, as he was first informed of the decision only an hour before its announcement and, because he was called on a public telephone at a restaurant, was not even afforded the courtesy of a confidential conversation with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Senator Nunn felt the decision contravened earlier assurances he had received that the United States would rely primarily upon air power, and he soon called for public hearings that consequently almost turned the tide of congressional opinion against the president in December. A presidential adviser later admitted that “we screwed up” the consultation process. Democratic opposition was heightened by the president’s vulnerability over raising taxes and by off-year election losses, so that in mid-November, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) warned, “If George Bush wants his presidency to die in the Arabian desert, he’s going at it very steadily.”

Thereafter the White House paid more attention to Congress and to its dwindling support in public opinion polls as it undertook the third stage of the crisis: passage of U.N. resolution 678 by the Security Council, authorizing military force against Saddam unless he evacuated Kuwait by January 15, 1991. The primary purpose of the resolution was to evict Saddam and bind together the international coalition. But as Secretary Baker privately pointed out inside the administration, passage would make it almost impossible for Congress to reject the use of force. In effect the White House was boxing in Congress, leaving it only two options: go along with a huge international coalition against Iraq or pull the plug: and let the United States suffer a devastating defeat.

President Bush realized over the Christmas holidays a year ago that he would have to secure a favorable vote from Congress in order to keep the country behind him in a war. But in gaining Security Council backing of the resolution and in continuing to show a willingness to talk with Iraq, he broke the back of his domestic opposition. In the end the vote in both chambers was relatively close, so close that the 52-47 favorable margin in the Senate was the smallest approval rating that body had given to a U.S. military action since the War of 1812. Even when cornered by the president and when U.S. interests were so clearly affected, Congress almost denied the White House authority to use force—a fact that underscored how reluctant a superpower the United States was becoming.

The public was much more militant about Saddam Hussein than its elected representatives and thus more prepared to follow the president’s lead. To illustrate the difference: in mid-November, after the president announced a doubling of troops, support for his policies slipped badly: Democrats in Congress accused him of rushing into war, but public polls showed that most of his opposition came from people who thought he was moving too slowly to remove Saddam. That hard-line feeling surfaced again at the end of the war, when many Americans felt the fighting ended too soon and that the coalition should have forced Saddam from power.

Just as he had with Congress, President Bush cleverly influenced public opinion at home by first mobilizing support overseas and then taking clear, decisive actions that changed the terms of debate. As Krauthammer noted at the time: “Bush managed to rally a reluctant nation to a successful war not with inspiring words or soaring visions, but with a series of shrewd and forcing actions.” In August 1990, when the president imposed economic sanctions, he won enormous public support, yet 56 percent of the respondents told a Gallup poll they opposed sending troops. After Bush then sent the troops—on the assertion that they were part of an international force and were only meant to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—81 percent expressed approval. That the administration’s spokesmen offered a “rationale du jour” for their policies—creating confusion about their ultimate goals—was less important than that Bush, through his actions, established “new facts” that prompted the public to line up behind him.

During the fall of 1990 most Americans were anxious to avoid a shooting war, but after the White House gained passage of resolution 678 and set January 15, 1991, as an endpoint for negotiations, the public’s willingness to use force rose sharply, reaching 75 percent in an ABC-Washington Post poll on January 9. Similarly, a CBS-New York Times poll found in February that only 11 percent of Americans favored a ground attack, but the day after the coalition forces launched their assault, 75 percent approved. The clear lesson is that strong, clear-cut and well-conceived presidential initiatives, especially those taken in partnership with other nations, can transform public opinion in favor of the White House. Public opinion often dictates the outer limits of policy, but in the right circumstances and with forceful leadership a president can occasionally break out of its constraints.

It is arguable how much of a lesson the gulf crisis holds for the willingness of the United States to commit its forces to defeat future aggression or to undertake a conventional war. Many believe that the Gulf War is sui generis, that the United States would never have intervened but for the unique circumstances of that region and its oil, and certainly would never have fought if Kuwait had grown broccoli. Thus, it is said, the war has no relevance beyond its own terms. Others worry that the war will make the United States more trigger happy, so that if economic difficulties persist, the country may enjoy lashing out occasionally, just as the economic depression of the early 1890s was but a prelude to the jingoism of a “splendid little war” against the Spanish later in the decade.

Both arguments overstate the case. Evidence from public opinion polls and from the political dialogue since the war suggests that the victory did dispel the “Vietnam syndrome” so that Americans are more self-confident about winning future conflicts without major loss of life and therefore may be more willing to fight. But the nation’s economic difficulties and reductions in its military strength will both be restraining influences. The upshot from the war, then, is that the United States may threaten military action more often but it is likely to unsheathe its sword only when truly vital interests are at stake.

IV

In the months that followed the Gulf War, President Bush triumphantly rode the crest of victory, but it was probably a shorter ride than he imagined. Public esteem for his competence in foreign policy, as well as for his overall performance as president, rose to extraordinary heights. Not since the end of World War II had so many Americans, some 90 percent, given their president such heartfelt approval. Far more than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which stirred only modest hurrahs (the viewing audience for American network news programs actually fell when that story broke), the Gulf War seemed to mean a magical restoration of America’s greatness. That Saddam remained in power and that the United States at first stayed on the sidelines as his troops smothered Kurdish and Shiite uprisings did little to take the sheen off the war for the public. Six months after the conflict some 75 percent of those polled continued to think that the war had been worth it and that the United States had scored a big win.

Democrats in Congress were completely cowed. Four-fifths in the Senate and two-thirds in the House had voted against authorization of force, and may saw their political standing fall sharply in their constituencies. President Bush soon won congressional support on two issues that probably would have failed if members had voted in the dark: approval of fast-track authority to negotiate both a free trade accord with Mexico and to wind up the GATT negotiations and, secondly, extension of most-favored-nation status for China. Anxious not to appear weak on defense, Congress also lowered its voice on the Pentagon budget, giving the president most of what he wanted before year’s end and bolstering many of the weapons systems that seemed most promising after the war, particularly SDI.

Robert Gates, whom many in the press counted out because of the Iran-contra affair, was forced to undergo a prolonged, 26-week examination before becoming CIA director (the entire Soviet empire collapsed between the time of nomination and confirmation, he quipped), but the final Senate tally in his favor was a resounding 64-31.

The surprise is that the president, his power at full bloom, chose to exploit his victory for so little beyond the agenda already planned. In foreign affairs President Bush and Secretary Baker did seize the moment to push for face-to-face negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, and success in those talks would obviously become a dramatic accomplishment of the Bush years. Washington also bolstered security arrangements in the gulf and, without saying much publicly, gained assurances of good commercial relations with states in the area in both oil and trade. The war, however, seemed to have little spillover effect upon relations with Europe or with the Soviet Union and, in the case of Japan, contributed to a new deterioration in relations, especially among many Japanese who were offended by U.S. demands during the conflict. The United States also had hoped that the war would lead to a major breakthrough in curbing proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but momentum on that front had slowed by the end of the year.

On the domestic side a president with such unprecedented popularity could have secured passage of a sweeping new set of initiatives, but President Bush asked only that Congress enact crime and transportation measures submitted earlier, a request so modest that it suggested the lack of a serious agenda. Had he chosen, the president could probably have used his new leverage to push through both an economic and energy package. He could, for example, have convinced both the public and his own party that the country needed a sizeable increase in gasoline taxes in order to become more independent of foreign energy sources.

After victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War the president also had an important opening to rebuild a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy. Such a consensus was enormously valuable to U.S. policymakers in the formative years after World War II but was lost, of course, in the jungles of Vietnam. With the Soviet menace disappearing and the United States once again alone at the pinnacle, the Bush administration had an opportunity to articulate a new centrist framework for the 1990s that would have commanded the support of both political parties. Having been on the wrong side of history in the Gulf War, liberal Democrats were in no position to challenge the president if he had called for a strong internationalist policy. Conservative Republicans, no longer preoccupied with the communist threat, were also prepared to follow the president’s lead in redefining America’s security interests.

In his frequent incantations of a “new world order,” President Bush seemed on the verge of setting forth a new set of doctrines for U.S. policy, and the White House even announced that he would give four commencement addresses in the spring of 1991 fleshing out his vision. Because his staff felt that public debate over a new order was spinning beyond control, however, the president gave only one of the addresses and then pulled back, returning to a more comfortable, day-to-day management of foreign affairs. In the early fall he did set forth an ambitious plan for reducing nuclear armaments, which won justifiable praise both at home and abroad. But the “new world order” seemed destined to become no more than a campaign slogan for 1992. A rare moment of opportunity had passed.

By the mid-fall of 1991, only seven months after the crisis ended in the Persian Gulf, domestic problems were building up so quickly that they were wiping away memories of the war, and the president’s power was slipping away from him. The political turning point came in November when a little-known Democrat in Pennsylvania shellacked the state’s best-known Republican in a Senate race that was widely seen as a referendum on the Bush administration. Emphasizing a theme of “taking care of our own,” Democrat Harris Wofford scored heavily with a television advertisement that said: “We shouldn’t put American jobs on a fast track to Mexico or a slow boat to China.” Wofford’s victory traumatized the White House and convinced Democrats in Washington that they could frontally attack Bush on foreign policy. Democratic presidential contenders, tapping into growing economic fears, denounced the president for spending too much time on foreign affairs while neglecting domestic problems. Their speeches were reminiscent of Congressman Richard Gephardt’s call for a new economic nationalism in the last presidential campaign. That appeal met with only limited success in 1988 but in recessionary times was striking a deeper chord within the populace.

Meanwhile the president faced a growing rebellion on his right flank that also spelled trouble in foreign affairs. Patrick Buchanan, a conservative journalist who once worked for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, declared his candidacy against Bush for the GOP nomination with a thunderous appeal for a new isolationism: bring home U.S. troops; stay out of foreign wars; eliminate foreign aid; end support for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; treat Japan and Europe as economic predators and concentrate on “America First.” David Duke, a Louisiana extremist who has become a permanent (and embarrassing) candidate for Republican office, also began to challenge President Bush with appeals to underlying racism and nativism. Neither man will defeat the president, but they will give greater legitimacy to fears and prejudices seething below the surface.

So hot were the political winds blowing through Washington that in the closing weeks before the winter recess, Congress as well as the Whit House began a series of tactical retreats in foreign policy. After a spirited debate over the country’s domestic needs Congress killed the annual foreign aid bill, postponing final consideration until 1992 when election year politics could jeopardize both it and a variety of other overseas assistance programs. Foreign aid, never popular among Republicans in Congress, has depended for survival upon Democratic votes. But in the new economic atmosphere many Democrats want to freeze or reduce it in size.

The constraints upon policy were well illustrated in the fall of 1991 when Congressman Les Aspin (D-Wisc.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation to divert $1 billion from defense spendings to help in a peaceful transition in the Soviet Union. His initiative was first squelched by both Congress and the administration. Only after the CIA and visiting Russian leaders privately warned Congress of impending chaos, including the possible overthrow of both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, did Washington enact a stripped down version of the Aspin bill, Proposals also sprouted in Congress for tougher trade laws, aimed especially at Japan and China, and the likelihood has grown that Congress will become more protectionist in the next few years.

If anything the slump in the economy and in the president’s popularity in late 1991 threw the White House into more of a tumult than Congress. Hours after the Wofford election victory in Pennsylvania, President Bush held a dawn news conference to announce postponement of his trip to Asia; his foreign policy advisers complained privately that the “political people” made the trip decision without consulting them. A few days later top officials spread the word that negotiations with Mexico over free trade, a favorite target of American labor, would be slowed and that Senate consideration of a treaty would probably be delayed until after the 1992 elections. The White House also ducked the initial debate over emergency help for the Soviets and refused to say whether it would spend the money allocated by Congress. In December Secretary Baker did call for a greater effort by the industrialized nations to assist the former Soviet republics and invited America’s partners to Washington to arrange better coordination. But it vas clear that any new funds from the United States would be limited to scraps left over after adoption of an anti-recession package. As if to symbolize the new mood, the year ended as President Bush revived his trip to Japan. But, his bearings lost, the president turned it into an ill-fated quest for managed trade. The opportunity for building a new partnership with Japan was missed, and economic nationalism was clearly in the saddle in Washington.

To an outside observer it must not have seemed the same country that only a few months earlier stood as a world colossus. Indeed how could anyone be sure that if hard times persisted America would ever again be a strong, effective leader in world affairs?

Numerous polls during 1991 indicated that in trying to placate the electorate with their retreats toward neoisolationism, politicians in Washington were actually misreading public sentiment. As the glow of the Gulf War faded and fears spread about the economy, the polls showed that Americans were indeed becoming discouraged about the nation’s future, nervous about protecting their jobs and health care, and anxious that the president end his preoccupation with foreign affairs. There is a fine line, however, between shifting to a greater emphasis upon solving domestic problems and precipitously pulling back from the world, as many politicians advocated. The first course is wise; the second invites catastrophe. While most voters want government to do more to help them economically and less to help others overseas, they have not yet embraced full-blown isolationism, protectionism or nativism. It is the politicians who have often strayed to the other side. The “America First” theme on the campaign stump means something different to most voters than it does to candidates like Buchanan and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Opinion surveys show that a majority of Americans, at least for now, would like the United States to remain actively involved in international affairs but want others to share more of the burden and also want the United States to be more hard-nosed in advancing America’s economic interests. The Potomac Associates, headed by William Watts, has asked a series of questions since 1964 designed to test internationalism versus isolationism in U.S. public opinion. A survey in October 1991 found that 54 percent of those sampled qualified as total internationalists, compared to 14 percent who were total isolationists. The results reflected only modest changes since 1985 and were much less isolationist than in 1976, when defeat in Vietnam had brought a more serious inward turn (the 1976 results: 44 percent internationalist, 23 percent isolationist). Similarly the Gallup Organization has for the past 44 years asked Americans whether they want the country “to take an active part in world affairs.” Some 60-70 percent have responded positively, and this past fall 71 percent said yes—the highest figure recorded in 26 years.

Most Americans realize that American prosperity and job security have come to depend heavily upon trade. Over 40 percent of U.S. economic growth in the past four years and the creation of at least two million jobs are attributable to increases in U.S. exports.

In the wake of the Gulf War public support has also increased for solving international problems through the United Nations and other international bodies, rather than relying upon unilateral American leadership. A Time magazine poll in March 1991 found that 75 percent were opposed to the United States playing world policeman. Americans Talk Issues, an organization that has plumbed opinion about security questions more deeply than anyone else in recent years, found that 80 percent of the public thought the United Nations should take the lead when aggression occurs. A survey in October 1991 by the CBS-New York Times news organizations found two-thirds approved of the United Nations, the highest level of support in surveys they have taken since 1953. Clearly Americans want to shed their role as chief and almost sole protector of international order, but they recognize that the world still has problems—terrorism, thuggery, environmental degradation—and they are more prepared than in the past to cooperate in multilateral solutions.

The Soviet threat has disappeared so quickly that it is difficult to gauge public sentiment on defense spending. The polls suggest that the mass public, apparently still wary of another Saddam or a takeover by hard-liners in Moscow, is more cautious than elite opinion in supporting deep defense cuts. A CBS-New York Times survey in October 1991 found that 52 percent wanted to keep defense spending the same, far more than thought it should be cut. However, other polls, including a survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, have found that most Americans also want sharp reductions in U.S. troop levels in Europe and elsewhere overseas.

The most striking changes in American public opinion are the growing fears that the United States is rapidly losing its economic dominance and that Japan is overtaking it. When CBS asked respondents in 1989 which country would be the number one power in the world in the next century, 47 percent named the United States and 38 percent singled out Japan. When CBS-New York Times surveyors posed the same question in October 1991, only 25 percent chose the United States and 58 percent named Japan—a 41 percent swing in only four years.

While most Americans tend to place primary blame upon themselves for their reversal of fortune and profess admiration for the Japanese, they also believe that the Japanese and others are getting ahead through unfair economic practices. As a consequence, they are demanding that their government become less assertive in protecting others and more assertive in protecting the United States, especially its economic interests. The public told pollsters from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that the most important priorities of U.S. foreign policy should be, first, protecting jobs of American workers; second, protecting the interests of American workers abroad; and third, securing adequate supplies of energy. Defending allies, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and advancing human rights were seen as less important. Helping to spread democracy to other nations was 15th on a list of 15 priorities.

VI

Most analyses of U.S. security in a dramatically changing world begin with a tour d’horizon of the threats and opportunities beyond American shores and extrapolate from that a prescription for policy. The events of 1991 suggest that to a far larger extent than during the Cold War, political dynamics within the nation will define its foreign policy. A recession, sinking public confidence in government and a depleted federal treasury had as much influence over policy toward the end of the year as Saddam Hussein had at the beginning. Unless more Saddams appear out of the overseas mist to endanger the nation’s vital interests, the continuing, deep-seated domestic problems of the United States are likely to make it more reluctant as an international leader but more assertive in its nationalism.

Constraints upon financial resources for foreign affairs will become even more severe in the next several years. Adding up its defense expenditures and its economic and military assistance to other nations, the United States now spends about six percent of its GNP to protect the international order. That figure has been steadily declining from a peak of nearly seven percent in 1985 and was expected by the Bush administration to fall to about 3.7 percent by the mid-1990s, the lowest level since 1939. With domestic pressures mounting for steeper cuts in defense and foreign aid, however, it is probably more realistic to assume that the figure will fall to three percent during the 1990s. Under such constraints the United States will have great difficulty undertaking any expensive new initiative in foreign affairs unless it is an emergency measure to protect the homeland. Even now, as the democracies of eastern Europe grow more fragile, Washington talks of cutting rather than increasing U.S. assistance. Only a handful of Democrats, such as presidential candidate Bill Clinton of Arkansas, have bucked the tide, calling for more support of democracy movements. The unwillingness to provide more than token assistance to the peoples of the former Soviet Union will almost surely continue, as will the desire to leave western Europe with responsibility for quelling conflicts in nearby countries to the east. Nor can one expect the United States to be an active leader in preserving the global environment, curbing the population explosion or addressing poverty in developing nations. It is a measure of how much the U.S. role has changed that in the late 1940s, against the popular will, President Truman could successfully launch a Marshall Plan that equalled 1.1 percent of American GNP, but that anyone who talks of a new Marshall Plan for anything today—even to rescue the nation’s cities—is regarded as a village idiot.

While discouraging, the reluctance to be an active superpower still leaves room for constructive action in the near term, especially for actions undertaken in cooperation with other nations. A newly elected president, whether Bush or his Democratic opponent, would carry enough support into 1993 to erect a mulinational security and economic system in the Pacific, so long as responsibility and costs were both small and shared. The executive branch also retains enormous latitude at home to negotiate peace settlements in places such as the Middle East and Cambodia, though Congress might balk at any further extensions of American military guarantees. As noted earlier the public would also like to see a strengthening of the United Nations and would no doubt support the formation of a U.N. rapid deployment force as well as new multinational efforts to curb proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. A proposal for the United Nations to impose a tax on international arms sales—with proceeds to go for humanitarian purposes—also enjoys public support. While the labor movement is gaining strength in its opposition to free trade with Mexico, the White House should also be able to convince the public and in turn Congress that an agreement will ultimately create more jobs in the United States and will thus serve America’s self interest.

If the nation fails to address its more fundamental domestic needs, however, this window of opportunity for constructive internationalism will gradually close. Both the will and the capacity of the nation to undertake new commitments, even ones embedded in multinational arrangements, will diminish sharply if the U.S. economy stagnates during the next five years. There is thus some urgency to move ahead in laying the foundations of a new enlightened foreign policy while the public will still support it. But there is even greater urgency to address the internal crisis of the United States.

Unless the nation embarks upon a comprehensive program of domestic renewal, the United States within a few years could become so deeply mired in its own troubles that its politics will turn even more embittered, xenophobic and inward. The specter of neo-isolationism that raised its head in late 1991 will then be but a precursor of worse to come, as reluctance to act as a leader turns into outright refusal, and international politics becomes a bare-knuckled brawl.