We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems.
At first blush, this looks like isolationism. After the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan, and amid the lingering economic stagnation, Americans are turning inward.
But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically. More than three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. should get more economically integrated with the world, according to Pew.
America is not turning inward culturally. Large majorities embrace the globalization of culture and the internationalization of colleges and workplaces. Americans are not even turning inward when it comes to activism. They have enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development.
What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that U.S. political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. U.S. opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation – that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.
This sense of limits is shared equally among Democrats and Republicans, polls show. There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940. That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much.
These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a by-product of a deeper and broader cultural shift.
The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units – big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.
The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.
Commanding U.S. leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.
Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded – in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by U.S. military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.
The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.
This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism – the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism – the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power – where it comes from and how it can be used – has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.
It’s frankly naive to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.
One set of numbers in the data leaps out. For decades Americans have been asked if they believe most people can be trusted. Forty percent of baby boomers believe most people can be trusted. But only 19 percent of millennials believe that. This is a thoroughly globalized and linked generation with unprecedentedly low levels of social trust.
We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.