U.S. foreign policy has come under fire from all sides recently, but beyond mistakes and misadventures, not much has changed when it comes to underlying motivation.

Few presidential elections have been won on small foreign policy ideas. In fact, foreign policy rarely figures into the equation during any national campaign unless there's a war on or a geopolitical situation that features a direct link to consumer prices at home. As a result, the average American is relatively disconnected from the inner-workings of the country's international relations.

But today there are two wars on, in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Some argue that they're actually "battles" in the larger "War on Terrorism," but that reduction is fraught with political discord and voter angst. Add in the geopolitical implications of the "War on Drugs" and you have four wars to deal with—or two, depending on your point of view. Simultaneously, American wallets are riding a rollercoaster at the gas pump as leaders in Iran and Venezuela—two powerful members of OPEC—take jabs at the U.S. government.

All things considered, it seems like the American voter has plenty of reasons to pay attention to U.S. foreign policy. And to their credit, many Americans are taking notice. A raucous civic debate has boiled in the United States since 2001 about the best means to accomplish our national goals, be it through unilateralism or multilateralism, hard power or soft. It may sound like a new debate, but it's as old as the republic itself.

The informed few

Unlike domestic policies like Social Security and health care that citizens can relate to directly, foreign policy is a more elusive construct for citizens to grasp. That doesn't mean it's easy for U.S. policymakers: In one week in September, the Thai prime minister fell to a military coup, the President of Venezuela referred to his American counterpart as "the devil" at the UN and hundreds of Iraqis died in the escalating violence in Baghdad. And those are just the stories that made the news.

All this belies the importance of the media in shaping public opinion. Because of programming constraints and viewer's attention spans, the battle for time on the evening news is a zero-sum game. The best evidence came during the recent clash between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, which consumed airtime earlier allotted to the crisis in Gaza, which had taken its headline room from the Iraq war. When the Lebanese crisis calmed, Iraq moved back into the evening news spotlight.

"I think public opinion has a role in shaping foreign policy, but compared to other realms, foreign policy tends to be an elite-driven issue area," says Thaddeus Dunning, a professor of political science and research fellow at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. "On the other hand, there is some constraint placed on elected officials by the people in democracies."

That constraint is called an "audience cost," or the political cost to a politician who engages in unpopular foreign policy. Of course, unpopular domestic decisions can cause plenty of political fallout among the electorate as well. The difference with foreign policy is that the most drastic effects are usually felt by others, thousands of miles away. Nevertheless, with the death toll in Iraq climbing higher and no end in sight, many Americans are feeling nostalgic for earlier days. But were the "salad days" of American foreign policy really that much different?

An age old debate

The current tenor of the American foreign policy debate is contentious and historically skewed. While many individual Americans long for a return to our embrace of multilateral coalitions and international law, others—like noted international relations scholar Robert Kagan—argue that these devices are merely strategies of the weak to constrain the powerful. Indeed, in Kagan's 2003 literary missive on EU/U.S. relations, he argued that the founding fathers rejection of power politics stemmed from their relative weakness, not from their utopian worldview. They were therefore more willing to engage superior geopolitical powers by means of international law.

Kagan may be correct in his characterization of multilateral actions and international law. Yet although U.S. foreign policy has changed with respect to its military, political and economic strength, it retains several distinctly American characteristics. In fact, what many call "unilateralism" is actually just a new spin on a fundamental piece of U.S. political doctrine: isolationism.

"I think that the distinction to be drawn is not between unilateralism and multilateralism, but between isolationism and unilateralism," says Dunning. "There is a strong isolationist strand in our foreign policy that is almost Jeffersonian, and when the United States withdraws from multilateral treaty obligations and chooses to act under its own auspices, it's reflecting that old isolationist tendency."

So, what's the difference between "isolationism" and "unilateralism" if they're both on the flipside of multilateralism? The short answer is "power," and it's one thing that has changed since the 18th century. Now, unlike then, the United States enjoys the capacity to project power across the globe. And without a geopolitical counterweight like the Soviet Union to check that power, the opportunities for action—both intelligent and ill-advised—are greater. So, too, are the consequences.

About Frank Holland

Frank Holland is Policy Today's managing editor.