As the global financial crisis rages on, European leaders bicker endlessly, the Middle East seethes, China flexes its muscles, and Washington debates cutting defense spending and foreign aid budgets and withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians and publics around the world are starting to worry — with good reason — about a global leadership vacuum. Looming elections and power transitions in America, Europe, and China next year are only heightening the anxiety. Yet as every sign seems to be pointing inward, there is one strong force pushing with surprising vehemence in the opposite direction: global public opinion.
The conventional wisdom has it that in tough economic times like today, voters demand that governments look to their bases and pay more attention to problems at home. Indeed, according to new public opinion poll conducted in 24 countries by the Halifax International Security Forum and IPSOS, nearly 80% of citizens surveyed want their leaders to focus less on the world and more on domestic issues. The more likely those surveyed saw their economy as struggling, the less they were to agree that their country should engage with the world.
Yet these findings are only part of the story. Despite their worries, publics everywhere world reject isolationism in the strongest of terms. When asked whether their country should play an international role, overwhelming majorities of those surveyed (82%) said their countries should help others suffering from natural disasters or famines, support economic sanctions against states that abuse their citizens (79%), help promote democracy abroad (76%), and assist countries with less developed economies (63%). The message is clear: voters want more, not less, global engagement. They understand that in today’s interconnected world it is not an option to wait until the economy recovers before facing global challenges.
The question is who will do the engaging. Of all countries surveyed, the United States has become the most inward-looking: 90% of Americans surveyed said that, due to financial problems, Washington should focus more on problems at home. By contrast, only half of Swedes agree, compared to about two thirds of South Koreans and Germans.
Yet even Americans haven’t given up on the rest of the planet. Despite their concerns, three-quarters of them still say their country has a responsibility to be a moral leader and to set a global example. Majorities of Americans also agree the United States should provide humanitarian assistance, promote democracy, and assist countries with less developed economies. It turns out that Americans are only reluctant to act abroad when it comes to military intervention; on that question, just 40% said their country should do things like provide security in Afghanistan or support the rebels in Libya.
Meanwhile, other powers are even more internationalist. India, Japan, and South Korea showed some of the strongest support for helping other countries with natural or economic problems or for promoting democracy. It’s worth noting that all three of these states were big recipients of foreign assistance in the past before becoming major aid donors themselves.
The message for Washington? Should it continue engaging with the world in smart ways, the United States will find plenty of cooperation. Among all the countries surveyed, a majority (albeit a slim one) say that U.S. influence on global affairs is positive. Even more striking is the fact that support is strongest in surging global powerhouses like India (74%) and Brazil (66%) — vastly outstripping traditional European allies such as Sweden (35%) and Germany (35%).
Next year will be a season of change, with elections in the United States and France, a leadership handoff in China and the return of Putin to the Russian presidency. In all these places, candidates will be tempted to pander by telling their constituents they can ignore their global responsibilities. But the publics know better — and politicians will ignore them at their peril.
John K. Glenn is policy director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Jonathan Tepperman is Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs. Both are advisers to the Halifax International Security Forum, which was held Nov 18-20.