Americans want U.S. foreign policy with a domestic payoff, poll reveals

November 02, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- From the boardroom elite to men and women on the street, Americans are increasingly opposed to the United States tackling world problems by itself and want a foreign policy that yields a domestic payoff, according to a new Times Mirror poll.

"They want a foreign policy that serves them," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. The center is operated by the Times Mirror Co., a nationwide media company that owns The Baltimore Sun.

A separate survey of the public, corporate leaders and top professionals in a number of fields indicates a long-term trend toward isolationism among Americans and a desire even among the best educated and most successful citizens for what the center calls a "minimalist" foreign policy.

Not since the immediate post-Vietnam War period has a bigger proportion of Americans -- 37 percent -- said the United States should "mind its own business." And never in the last 30 years has a greater percentage said the United States should "concentrate more on our own problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home."

Mr. Kohut compares it to the inward-turning that followed World War I, when the Congress rejected President Woodrow Wilson's dreams of a world order based on law and raised new barriers to free trade.

"It's going to take a hell of a lot more to get people behind a foreign policy. There is no consensus among the influentials, and the public wants to see us stay at home unless [a policy] is clearly in our interests or our backyard or is relatively painless to pursue," he says.

These attitudes would curb any post-Cold War foreign policy, but for President Clinton the problem is even tougher.

Americans generally don't think he's good at handling foreign affairs and say he should concentrate on domestic concerns. Only about one-third approved of the way he dealt with Somalia and Haiti.

This lack of esteem may be creating what Mr. Kohut calls a "negative halo" effect, clouding the public's view of how Mr. Clinton handles health care reform and the economy.

Particularly scornful are men of Mr. Clinton's generation and professional stature who, unlike him, served in the military. Among opinion leaders generally, he gets far more criticism for the way he handled Bosnia than praise for pushing through a Russian aid package.

The elite groups are skeptical of Mr. Clinton's goals of boosting democracy and advancing human rights worldwide. They don't want to promote democracy if it means electing an anti-American, totalitarian government or promote human rights at the risk of antagonizing friendly countries.

They overwhelmingly oppose promoting self-determination if it risks breaking up established nations into warring regions.

The center coupled its poll, conducted in September and again in October, with an unusual and detailed survey of U.S. leaders in a number of fields: business, state and local government, science, academia, foreign affairs and national security, religion, media and culture.

The surveys of elite groups and the general public revealed deep discouragement about the country and the world at large. But few want to see the United States alone try to correct the world's ills.

All agree that strengthening the domestic economy should be a top, if not the top, foreign policy priority. The public, and five out of nine elite groups, make protecting U.S. jobs a key foreign-policy goal. All assign priority to halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

The public also gives high priority to stopping international drug trafficking; and like many in the elite groups, it wants adequate energy supplies assured, the global environment improved and the trade deficit reduced.

The elite groups were less pessimistic and isolationist than the public, but share many of its domestic-centered goals and priorities in foreign policy.

Most reject having the United States as the single world leader. But they favor the United States at least sharing world leadership with others and remaining the most assertive partner. Most of the public feels the United States should be no more active than any other nation.

The elite groups would send U.S. forces abroad to honor long-standing U.S. commitments and protect vital interests.

The public is less willing to project military power. It backs the use of force to show aggressive dictators that the United States will meet commitments to allies. But questioned about specific situations, Americans appear ready to fight only Iraq.

The public strongly opposes fighting to protect South Korea, to which the United States has a longtime security commitment, and even, by a narrow margin, for Israel. It backs using U.S. forces to prevent famine and mass starvation, as former President George Bush did in Somalia, but not to restore law and order.

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