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Not U.S. Isolationism, But a Rebalancing of Priorities and Means

by Scott A. Snyder
October 29, 2014

shangri la sideline U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (center) join hands with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera (left) and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 12th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore on June 1, 2013 (Edgar Su/Courtesy: Reuters).

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2014 survey released last month entitled “Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment” reports that over 40 percent of Americans believe that the United States should “stay out” rather than take an active part in global affairs. But the survey also shows that over four-fifths of Americans believe that the United States should continue to show strong leadership in world affairs. Possibly the strongest counter-arguments for smart American leadership versus isolationism and retrenchment are expressed in poll results regarding American attitudes toward its alliances in Asia. This is an important finding because it shows growing American understanding of the importance of Asia and growing support for the strategic value of the U.S. rebalance to Asia.

New analysis of the Chicago Council survey results on Asian issues by Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura shows that over three-fifths of Americans now express support for the U.S. rebalance to Asia and that American favorability toward its two closest American allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, have reached their highest levels since the poll was started. Sixty-two percent of Americans recognize that Japan is one of America’s top ten trading partners and 64 percent support a long-term U.S. military presence in South Korea. While 59 percent of Americans surveyed prioritize building the alliances over partnership with China, two-thirds of Americans continue to say that the United States should seek friendly cooperation and engagement with China. Over 63 percent of Americans support the Trans-Pacific Partnership and over 72 percent of Americans support free trade agreements as an effective way to pursue U.S. foreign policy goals.

Analysis of the Chicago Council poll results for Japan by Michael Green of CSIS underscores the high level of trust among Americans toward Japan, rating Japan fourth globally in favorability (at 62 out of 100) behind only Canada (79), Great Britain (74), and Germany (65). Over four-fifths of Americans think of the United States and Japan as mostly partners rather than mostly rivals, and Americans recognize that Japan is an “important global player,” just behind the United States, China, and the European Union. Green finds that Americans and Japanese mostly concur in their respective threat assessments, recognizing a need for talks with North Korea despite widespread public distrust. On China, Green finds that American and Japanese concerns overlap, but that there is a gap in the intensity of American and Japanese concern over the possibility that a territorial dispute may arise between Japan and China.

My review of the Chicago Council poll results for Korea shows a growing gap in American favorability toward South Korea (55 out of 100) versus North Korea, which at 23 out of 100 scored the lowest favorability among nations included in the poll. Despite an ongoing diplomatic stalemate between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, 85 percent of Americans continue to favor the use of diplomacy over military options for dealing with North Korea. However, reflecting rising frustration, two-thirds of Americans would support interdiction of North Korean ships suspected of trafficking in nuclear materials and arms in line with UN Security Council resolutions passed following each of North Korea’s three nuclear tests. Although the poll results clearly show that Americans regarding use of force on the Korean peninsula as a last resort, 47 percent of Americans support sending U.S. troops to defend South Korea, the highest recorded level of support since 1974.

A final area of concern remains the fact that despite clearly increased favorability of South Korean and Japanese allies in the eyes of Americans, the relationship between Japan and South Korea remains fraught. South Korean and Japanese polls show strikingly low levels of trust toward each other, and disconcerting pluralities in both countries even see the other as a potential military threat. While the U.S. Department of State has clearly stated it will not mediate between its two allies, it would be to America’s benefit if current high levels of American public goodwill toward its two closest allies were contagious enough to influence their attitudes toward each other.

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