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Pollsters find no evidence of 'neo-isolationism' in US

Americans expect 1982 to prove a troubled year internationally. But there are few signs they are shying from what they see as US responsibilities abroad - of turning inward, or succumbing to the ''neo-isolationism'' some Washington officials claim to see.

The issue is considered crucial. The Reagan administration is trying to preserve massive defense outlays in its deficit-squeezed new budget. And it seeks leverage to persuade European allies - chiefly West Germany - to conform to Washington's arms-for-Europe and sanctions-on-Poland wishes.

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Warnings of renewed isolationism - or a go-it-alone attitude among Americans - have been voiced in recent weeks by Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee and House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) Illinois.

Richard N. Perle, Reagan's assistant secretary of defense for international policy, said recently: ''I think there is an inchoate isolationist tendency. I think it's real. It's something the administration is not happy about.''

However, none of a half dozen leading US public-opinion experts surveyed by the Monitor sights an isolationist trend on his opinion scope. All discount isolationist tendencies much as they did President Carter's 1979 claim that Americans were beset by malaise.

''I see no inward-turning among Americans,'' says Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization.

''There is no evidence of neo-isolationism,'' says Burns Roper, president of the Roper Organization, after reviewing his firm's findings on American attitudes toward trade, arms sales, and defense spending.

''It's not isolationism,'' says Robert Teeter, Republican pollster and strategist for a large number of GOP Senate and House officeholders. ''It's a return to normalcy. From World War II the prevailing view was that it was in America's interest to have a strong national defense and involvement in world affairs. Vietnam interrupted that. The return to normalcy after Vietnam was accelerated by Afghanistan and Iran. There is still no stomach for sending troops anywhere. And there is a strong nationalist feeling - that American interests should be pressed. But that's not isolationism.''

The overriding US public impulse continues - with qualifications - along what Norman Podhoretz calls the ''strain of internationalist idealism in the American character. . . .''

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This internationalist leaning was underscored in a Roper Organization poll last November. The survey found 81 percent of the public agreeing that ''the US has a special role to play in the world today.'' An ABC-Washington Post survey last spring found Americans disagreeing by a 2-to-1 margin with the statement that ''the United States should keep to itself and stay out of world affairs.'' This reflected a nine-point gain for the internationalist outlook on that question from two years earlier.

But a wariness about involvement abroad, stemming from the US experience in Vietnam, still tempers American attitudes.

''In the strong current support for defense spending, something can be described as a 'fortress America' outlook,'' says Gallup's Kohut. ''But other opinion indicators - the willingness to use those arms or troops - went the other way in 1981. There is less support for the draft. Reagan got low support from the public for arms for El Salvador, terrible ratings on El Salvador when his ratings for everything else were terrific. It's almost as if Americans think they can buy themselves world strength.''

Michael Barone, a Democratic pollster and strategist, sees an ambivalence in American attitudes that will continue to perplex the nation's leaders.

''The public is writing two contrary prescriptions,'' he says. ''They want an assertive, aggressive-sounding foreign policy. But they don't want to risk American involvement. It's the opposite of 'speak softly, but carry a big stick.' ''

''The public doesn't think this through,'' Mr. Barone continues. ''It caused problems for Carter. It'll cause problems for Reagan and whoever follows him. . . .''

The broader trends of US contacts abroad continue toward more involvement, the experts observe. Since 1960, the number of Americans going abroad for business or pleasure has risen by 7 to 8 percent a year, leveling only temporarily during economic downturns. In 1981, 8 million Americans went abroad, almost half to Europe.

''The fact that sales of Japanese cars are running at a fourth of the US market shows a high receptivity to foreign markets, not a new American jingoism, '' observes one opinion analyst. ''Indeed, a large segment of the US public now seems to prefer foreign products.''

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