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Fear and Loathing in the North


President Bush signed a bill this week authorizing the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigration experts and counterterrorism experts say that this new plan to barricade the southern border will have little impact on immigration flows and terrorist networks.

This new “homeland security” project is latest in the administration’s campaign to impose a politics of fear in the United States that keeps voters supporting militarism and nationalism as the best guarantors of U.S. welfare and security. In this case, the signing of the border security bill in the advent of mid-term elections was in effect a political advertisement designed to convince voters that their security is best left in the hands of tough-minded Republicans.

The politics of fear and hate have long unified the U.S. electorate. For four decades the Cold War created bipartisan support for a military-industrial complex at home and for U.S.-supported “national security states” in Latin America and elsewhere in the third world. The “global war on terrorism” and the post-Sept. 11 attention to homeland security largely revived public support for a foreign policy whose two pillars are fear and power.

Fortunately there are signs that the politics of fear and loathing in the United States are no longer winning the hearts and minds of voters. As evident in the declining popularity of the president and the Republican Congress, the public is losing faith that a foreign policy that asserts global dominance and disdains diplomacy is making the world a safer place.

Three recent polls in the United States show a U.S. electorate that favors a new approach to international relations.

In a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, three out of four interviewed expressed concern that the U.S. government was too inclined to play the role of a “world policeman.” Another poll released last week by Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, found that 80% of those polled believed that the world was becoming a more dangerous place and nearly 90% considered rising anti-U.S. sentiment worldwide to constitute a national security threat.

Another poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes similarly underscored the swelling dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of the Bush administration’s foreign policy while also finding that a large majority of respondents preferred a radically different approach to international relations, favoring cooperation over unilateralism and U.S. military dominance.

“What kind of foreign policy does the American public want?” That was the central question posed by a new PIPA poll. Among the main findings of this polling of 1,058 Americans were that “the United States would best serve the national interests by thinking in terms of being a good neighbor'” and that the U.S. government “plays too much on the public’s fear to justify its foreign policies.”

Seventy-nine percent of those polled believed that “the United States should think in terms of being a good neighbor with other countries because cooperative relationships are ultimately in the best interests of the United States.” That same broad majority opted for the view that the “U.S. should coordinate its power together with other countries according to shared ideas of what is best for the world as a whole.”

Sixty-five percent agreed with the statement: “When the U.S. government justifies its foreign policies to the American people, it plays on people’s fears too much.”

The new poll, completed Oct. 15, gives good reason to believe that there is a large sector of the U.S. public that would support a foreign policy that reflects the good neighbor principles of mutual respect and cooperation. It also pointed to the underlying need for a foreign policy based on hope and determination rather than on fear.

Indicators that there will soon be a shift in political power in Congress from the Republicans to the Democrats and new polling evidence of the deep dissatisfaction with current U.S. foreign policy offer some hope that the politics of reason and cooperation are ascending in the United States as the politics of fear and loathing lose their hold.

TOM BARRY is policy director of the International Relations Center.



Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program

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