"I solationism" is a politically incorrect rubric applied to people who prefer to call themselves "anti-interventionists." Historically, the term is identified with Americans who resisted Franklin D. Roosevelt's increasing belligerence toward Germany and Japan, the former especially, before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. It's a tainted term because the "America First" movement's apparent indifference to Nazi aggression and its consequences, and certain leaders' hints of anti-Semitism, makes "isolationism" sound like an abdication of moral responsibility in an era when many people feel that the imperative to save helpless lives (the "Responsibility to Protect") overrides all other political considerations.
What to make, then, of the Pew Research Center's report, based on a recent poll, that "Isolationism" in the United States is at a 40-year high? For starters, we should bear in mind that the people polled weren't asked, "Are you Isolationists?" I suspect that at least some respondents who are now listed as such would have denied it if put to them that directly. Instead, they were asked if they believed that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." 49 % of respondents said we should. Seven years ago, in December 2002, in the wake of a chimerical victory in Afghanistan and during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, only 30% of respondents said this. That was a sharp post-2001 decrease from a 41% response in 1995, when Americans still on a post-Cold War high were questioning the wisdom of getting involved in places like Somalia and Bosnia. The desire to lash out at enemies following the September 2001 terrorist attacks is apparently quite exhausted by now.
At the same time, Americans remain in a defensive, worried mood. Pew reports that 57% of respondents affirmed that "U.S. policies should try to maintain America’s role as the world’s only military superpower." If Americans are increasingly reluctant to intervene abroad, then they must think superpower-level military supremacy essential for their own self-preservation. There's a little bit of irrational thinking behind that. It may not be surprising to learn that 44% of Americans now think that China is the world's economic superpower (only 27% say the U.S.), but it's odd to see that even 18% think China is the world's leading military power, and that only 63% think that the U.S. still is. For some respondents, "isolationism" may be less a matter of principle than the consequence of their assumption that the country is too weak to make a difference abroad. It's clear enough that for many respondents, "isolationism" doesn't represent a new national modesty. Pew reports that 44% said that the U.S. "should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not." Pew defines this as "unilateralist sentiment" and notes that it's at its highest level ever now in 45 years of asking the question. "Unilateralism" has also surged since it fell to 25% (paradoxically?) in December 2002, but we should be careful not to identify what Pew calls unilateralism with the Bush administration aggressive unilateralism. For many respondents, it may simply be a matter of giving the world the finger, as Americans love to do. To "go our own way" doesn't necessarily mean lashing out at enemies whenever we please; in some cases it probably means something closer to "leave us alone."
The public has mixed feelings about Afghanistan, according to Pew. 70% of poll respondents see the Taliban as a "major threat" to the U.S., but only 56% now retroactively endorse the 2001 invasion, and 47% believe that Afghanistan can be made stable and Taliban-proof. The number of respondents who think that the U.S. is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was before September 2001 has risen sharply this year, though this can probably be attributed to a partisan lack of confidence in President Obama. In any event, the implication of the "isolationist" findings is that a plurality coming close to a majority of the population, if the sample is representative, should oppose Obama's escalation in Afghanistan. With Democrats likely to enforce party discipline in favor of this strategy and Republicans tempted to continue criticizing it as insufficient for "victory," who remains to represent the rest of the country? We may not know until the real opposition starts representing itself.