Do American policymakers really know what the American public wants in U.S. foreign policy? Through extensive interviews with members of the policy community, the authors reveal a pervasive belief -especially in Congress -that, in the wake of the cold war, the public is showing a new isolationism: opposition to foreign aid, hostility to the United Nations, and aversion to contributing U.S. troops to peacekeeping operations. This view of the public has in turn had a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. However, through a comprehensive review of polling data, as well as focus groups, the authors show that all these beliefs about the public are myths. The public does complain that the United States is playing the role of dominant world leader more than it should, but this does not lead to a desire to withdraw. Instead people prefer to share responsibility with other nations, particularly through the UN. The authors offer explanations of how such a misperception can occur and suggest ways to improve communication between the public and policymakers, including better presentation of polling data and more attention by practitioners to a wider public.
Steven Kull, a political psychologist, is director of the Program on International Public Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, USA, and WorldPublicOpinion.org, an international project studying public opinion around the world. He comanages the international polling for BBC World Service. His previous books include Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism (Brookings, 1999), written with I.M. Destler. He regularly appears in the U.S. and international media and has briefed Congress, the State Department, NATO, the United Nations, and the European Commission. His articles have appeared in Political Science Quarterly, Foreign Policy, Public Opinion Quarterly, Harpers, the Washington Post , and other publications. I. M. Destler is professor and director of the Program on International Security and Economic Policy at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, USA.