"Internationalism" is a research Rorschach test. Ask Americans about abstract objectives, as Gallup recently did, and 88 percent will say that "prevent[ing] terrorism" should be a top American aim.

But when abstractions give way to realities, Americans seem less inclined toward international involvement, if not increasingly isolationist.

This was apparent during the debate over how, or even if, the United States should respond to what the Obama administration considered state-sponsored terror: Syria's use of chemical weapons.

And it's also apparent in an analysis, "American international engagement on the rocks," from the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. It's penned by Pew's founding director, Andrew Kohut, who writes that internationalism had widespread support for 50 years, with three notable exceptions: Post-Vietnam, in 1974; post-dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1992, and post-insurgency in Iraq, in 2005-06.

These three eras all came in the wake of exhausting and expensive wars — hot ones in Vietnam and Iraq and the cold one with the Soviets.

Today's increasing isolationism has some of the same dynamics: Wars wound down (Iraq) or winding down (Afghanistan). But despite Russian resurgence, the recent friction between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unlikely to reheat Cold Warriors.

In fact, since 1964 there has been a pronounced inward turning: Back then, only 18 percent of Americans agreed that "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." By 2009, 46 percent of Americans agreed.

Comparing relatively recent eras, in 2007 there was a split between those who thought that the president should focus on domestic policy (39 percent) vs. foreign policy (40 percent).

Today, it's a landslide: 83 percent think the president should focus on domestic policy, while a scant 6 percent favor foreign policy as a presidential priority.

This big picture of an increasingly inward nation is influenced by other pictures — of chaos in Cairo, Damascus, Benghazi or other Mideast muddles where the Arab Spring long ago turned to winter. Or, images from Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are threatened by shadowy enemies like the Taliban (and even "allied" Afghan soldiers).

These more martial media narratives may be affecting support for humanitarian foreign policies, including global food security — the focus of the Minnesota International Center's sixth annual Great Decisions Conference on Oct. 11.

In fact, Pew's analysis surrounding the Syrian situation, titled "In foreign affairs, Americans are less receptive to moral arguments," included a 2012 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The data indicated that only 42 percent of Americans say that "combating world hunger" should be a very important policy goal. And even fewer — 33 percent — say that "limiting climate change" is very important, even though a warmer world may suffer more food insecurity.

These attitudes could undermine the ability and willingness of any president to rally relief efforts in sub-Saharan Africa, or other places not deemed to be an immediate "national interest," at least if the effort involves some kind of combat component.

"The public generally supports the role of providing assistance. It doesn't support the role of peacemaker," Kohut said in an interview.

Kohut said involvement is more likely "if there are more portrayals of people in great need who could use our assistance — and we can do it without military engagement. The issue is military engagement. And there what's required is the public has to have a sense that America's vital interests are involved."

Building support for humanitarian relief is one of the top tasks for Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee. Reached via e-mail in London, Wordsworth acknowledged the evolving environment, but said that Americans still will respond.

"If Americans hear a story of human need, they respond. Sometimes politics can overshadow that story, but we find that Americans still generously support international causes. When they hear about people in need, they want to help. We also find that Americans don't want to isolate from the world but instead want to engage in a different way. They want to see different and more robust solutions to the world's most challenging humanitarian crises."

Leaders from politics, government, business and nongovernmental organizations, as well as everyday citizens, will need to craft these "robust solutions" in order to convince Americans that isolationism only exacerbates the conditions that lead many to turn away from their screens, and away from America's unique role in the world.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics.