The Myth of Fortress America

The American public doesn’t want to pull back from the world, and a serious read of the poll numbers proves it.

If you're reading the newspapers these days, it must seem like isolationism is the new black. Yesterday's headlines blared, "Americans Want to Retreat From World Stage, Poll Finds." Trouble is, it's not true. The poll didn't say it and a wealth of data shows that the public does not want to retreat into Fortress America.

Here are the facts: In the poll that drove the headlines on April 30, 47 percent of respondents said they want their country to be "less active in world affairs." Thirty percent favored the current level of activity, while 19 percent wanted the United States to be more active. No one said they wanted to "retreat from the world stage."

But there's more nuance here: Fully 55 percent of those polled agreed that "[w]e need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America's willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles." Only 39 percent wanted a president who emphasized "a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike."

Similarly, in a much discussed major survey published last November, the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans thought the president's approach to foreign policy was "not tough enough," with only 37 percent saying his policies were "about right."

Even before recent events in Ukraine, Pew Center data shows that 56 percent of Americans want the country to remain a superpower, the same as five years ago. An overwhelming 84 percent want the United States to be a world leader, with many of those saying they want the country to be most active of all leading nations. Strikingly, Americans have given the same answer to this question in a dozen polls over the past 20 years.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has put together data reaching back to 1947 which show consistent and robust support for taking "an active part in world affairs."* Sixty-one percent of Americans favored an active role in their most recent survey, down from a post-9/11 high of 71 percent, but right in line with typical numbers from the 1980s and 1990s.

There's no contesting the fact of a sour mood in the country; the appetite for military solutions to problems like the conflict in Syria is low, perhaps because so many have lingering fears about embroiling the United States in another intractable Middle East conflict. But the rhetorical trick of equating toughness with military action is a straw man. The Chicago Council finds that 51 percent of the public "doubt President Obama is tough enough on foreign policy" and yet they cite no calls for additional military confrontation for the United States. Let's be clear: the strength Americans want to see and running headlong into war, guns ablaze, are not the same thing.

But addressing the notion of growing isolationism requires more than just correcting the record; it requires understanding the groupthink that has taken hold in Washington. There is a genuine eagerness to retreat from the world, but it comes less from the people of the country and more from its leaders. Both the president and, many in Congress on both sides of the aisle, have wanted the United States to lower our global profile. "Nation building here at home" is the clarion call of this movement, and it has become a fig leaf for failing to lead abroad.

Certainly, Americans are worried about jobs and the dragging economy -- which grew just 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014. But getting America well again doesn't translate into withdrawing from the world -- at least not for the public.

One of the drivers of Washington's "retreat" mantra is the mistaken assumption that Americans swing back and forth between gung-ho interventionism and Fortress America isolationism. But the numbers show that the public is a mass of complex opinions, believing, for example, that a necessary war like Afghanistan did not meet expectations; and that the United States should remain a global leader, but approach the world more cautiously in coming years.

Both the Pew Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have made persistent efforts to ask Americans precisely what kind of foreign policy they want.* While favoring an active approach, Americans don't support policies they believe are too costly or just not working. And the reality is that often the public wants things both ways; resolving that challenge -- Do more! Spend less! -- requires leadership and a willingness to make tough decisions.

The time has come for the advocates of U.S. passivity to stop talking about the popular mandate they never had and to speak honestly to the American people. And it's high time for others to stop cowering before this imaginary consensus. There are real challenges to U.S. security and prosperity out there -- from Ukraine to Iran, Syria to China. It's time to give Americans the leadership they want.

*Correction, May 2, 2014: This article originally misstated the name of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in two places. The name has been corrected.

Harry How /Allsport


Ukraine's Mob War

The country's gangsters who are turning underworld might into upperworld power.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of trying to impose its will through the "barrel of a gun and the force of a mob," he could just as well have said "the force of the mob." After all, this is the new model of asymmetric conflict in which Moscow is using myriad covert, third-party, and deniable agents to extend its power. Among them are local gangsters, both petty and powerful, who are providing everything from local political allies to street muscle. In the process, Moscow is demonstrating the extent to which organized crime can be used as a tool of statecraft and war.

Although Russian state agents clearly are working in eastern Ukraine, from Spetsnaz special forces to intelligence officers, the exact number is hard to define. In any case, it is undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the camouflaged gunmen seizing buildings, blocking roads, and skirmishing with loyalist forces are either locals -- including defectors from the notorious Berkut special police -- or else irregular Russian volunteers who have been allowed or encouraged to cross the border and join the conflict.

Some in the new generation of local paramilitary commanders -- warlords, we'd call them in other settings -- appear to be gangsters who have spotted an opportunity to convert underworld might into upperworld power. The infamous Russian lieutenant colonel who appeared to introduce the Horlivka police to their new commander in mid-April was later identified as a local criminal, for example. More seriously, a closer look at some of the figures emerging as power brokers in the Russian-dominated east reveals distinctly dubious ties.

To a large extent this reflects the endemic criminalization of the Ukrainian state under successive leaders. Like Russia, Ukraine experienced a massive upsurge in organized crime in the 1990s, when new political and economic systems were being created at a time of catastrophically weak state control. Overt gangsterism in the streets was matched by the rise of a new elite who often blended political, economic, and criminal enterprises. Unlike Russia, though, there was no subsequent reassertion of the primacy of the state, something that did not so much eliminate organized crime as house-train it, bringing it back under the dominance of the political elite.

As a result, Ukraine headed into this current crisis already undermined and interpenetrated by criminal structures closely linked to cabals of corrupt officials and business oligarchs. However, a particular problem is the extent to which many local gangs -- and not just in the Russian-speaking east -- are connected with Russian organized crime networks. In Crimea, not only was the new premier, Sergei Aksyonov, allegedly a mobster nicknamed "Goblin" in the 1990s (he has denied this, but the one time he tried challenging the claim in court, his case was dismissed), but the new political elite is drawn largely from the former one, richly seeded with known and identified criminals.

For example, Russian law enforcement officers have confirmed to me that on the Ukrainian mainland, the Moscow-based Solntsevo network, Russia's largest and most powerful mob, has a long-standing relationship with the "Donetsk clan," an infamous political-criminal circle in the eastern Ukrainian industrial city of the same name. This was the heart of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's power base, and his Party of Regions became a "haven for Donetsk-based mobsters," according to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev to the National Security Council. There certainly seems evidence that the mobsters have enthusiastically joined the separatist cause: Seven of them were visible among the thugs who beat peaceful pro-Kiev marchers recently, as the police looked on. A Donetsk prosecutor's warning in March that "through crime networks [Moscow] has an army of hoodlums it can use," seems depressingly prescient.

The gangs of the rest of Ukraine, though, also have ties to Russia. The Black Sea port of Odessa is an infamous smugglers' haven and a key hub in Russian global trafficking networks, not least moving Europe-bound Afghan heroin arriving from the Caucasus. Even in Ukraine's west, gangs are often closely involved in the lucrative trafficking of heroin, people, and counterfeit cigarettes into Europe -- businesses that largely depend on the Russian connection. Unless Odessa's godfathers want to lose a growing share of this underworld business to Crimea's port of Sevastopol, they will have to play nice with the Russians.

Furthermore, the rising against Yanukovych was not simply about wanting a closer relationship with the European Union or just anger at his heavy-handed repression. It was also driven by anger at the blatant corruption and criminality of the state he represented. Although it is too early to know whether any of the dreams of Euromaidan will come to fruition, these ideals sit uncomfortably with those who have benefited from the old order. Some, such as oligarch businessman and front-running presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, have been able to join the new Ukraine. It will be far harder, however, to see a role for local godfathers whose businesses are too dirty, whose connections too shady, and whose loyalties too questionable to be able to make such a transition.

For a few, the solution seems to be to find common cause with the resurgent extreme right, itself an almost autonomous force within today's Ukraine. Nationalist Right Sector leader, Oleksandr Muzychko, killed in a gun battle with security forces in March, for example, was actually wanted for membership of an organized crime gang.

But the concern is that there will be more gangsters, even from the country's west, who will feel that their only chance of preserving their wealth, power, and liberty will be in alliance with the Russians or at least doing all they can to ensure that the new government in Kiev is no more willing or able to clean up the country than the earlier ones. Gennady Kernes, mayor of the eastern city of Kharkov and a man both with criminal convictions and claims of more recent gang ties, was a stalwart of the Yanukovych regime. Of late, however, he had begun to try to build bridges with the new government in Kiev. On April 28, unidentified gunmen shot him in the street, leaving him fighting for his life. Although it is too soon to know, the chatter in the Moscow security community is that Kernes was targeted for his "treachery," though opinions vary as to whether this attack was by a local gang or a Russian hit.

Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, a key precept of the Russians' new style of asymmetric war is to work through as many different agents as possible, from reliable allies to useful dupes. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently told the Russians "don't behave like gangsters," but the growing threat, one articulated to me by a Ukrainian representative at a recent security conference, is rather that the gangsters will find common cause with the Russians.