Le’ Notes #50: Public opinion and foreign policy

In the previous Note, I covered how foreign policy is constructed at the domestic elite level. There was one thing that I addressed tangentially: the influence of public opinion on the Vietnam War. In this Note, we’ll explore the following question: Can foreign policy be influenced by public opinion?

What is public opinion?

Before we actually get into exploring how public opinion may influence foreign policy, we do need to understand what “public opinion” is. It’s hard, however, to pinpoint a specific definition of public opinion that satisfies everyone.

For many of us living in democracies, public opinion is often used as a broad term to describe how the general public perceives a certain issue and where they stand on it. When we say a statement like “Public opinion of the war in Iraq has been at an all-time low”, what this means is that “a representative sample of the population has a generally negative opinion of the war in Iraq”. The term, then, captures the general mood of the public towards a certain issue, often expressed in opinion polls such as the Gallup poll or YouGov surveys. From these surveys, we can get statements like “Many Indonesians prefer more assertive action in dealing with China”, which indicates a preference of one decision over the other.

Does public opinion matter?

The next question to ask is whether these moods or preferences actually matter in policymaking. If the public views a decision to go to war negatively, does this view even matter to the policymaker? By the logic of democracy, where the elites have to listen to the demands of the people who elected them, it seems simple: those in power have to follow public opinion. However, it’s not as clear-cut as it seems.

The Almond-Lipmann Consensus

There is the pessimistic notion that public opinion does not matter. Foreign policy decisions will always remain the domain of the powerful political elite, and there’s simply nothing your average citizen can do to affect government decisions. In fact, what is called “public opinion” might as well be called “elite opinion”. This view is represented by the “Almond-Lippmann consensus”, which rests on three propositions:

  1. Public opinion is volatile and is thus a dubious foundation for foreign policy.
  2. Public attitudes on foreign affairs lack structure and coherence.
  3. Public opinion has a very limited impact on foreign policy.

This pessimistic view emerged out of disillusionment in the idea that citizens of democracies would be informed and interested enough to care about foreign affairs. Even if they were interested and informed enough, their moods would change so much to the point that maintaining focus on priority issues would be difficult. So, why trust what the citizens had to say? In the words of Gabriel Almond,

For persons responsible for the making of security policy, these mood impacts of the public have a highly irrational effect. Often the public is apathetic when it should be concerned, and panicky when it should be calm. (Almond, 1956, cited in Holsti, 1992: 442-443 [paywall])

One variant of this is the idea of manufactured consent (initially proposed by Lippmann in 1922), which posits that mass media corporations (which are controlled by elites) have significant power to mould public opinion based on the preferences of the elite. The elites are the ones with full access to the “truth” in the form of classified documents and a steady stream of intelligence reports, along with the analyzing power needed to comprehend those reports. In short, they already have a plan in mind, but by the principles of democracy, they cannot carry out their preferred decisions unless the public is on board. So, the mass media are directed to publish the ruling elite’s “preferred reality”, framing issues depending on how they want the public to react to it. The layperson, as the Almond-Lippmann consensus holds, are susceptible to manipulation as they lack interest in foreign affairs, and even if they held opinions, they would be easily swayed by the sheer torrent of information presented by the mass media.  

At a glance, we might think that leaders would have to account for public opinion when making foreign policy decisions. After all, it was the people who put them in office in the first place and these officials need to be responsive to the people’s demands or preferences. This, however, is not always true. As Risse-Kappen (1991) [paywall] notes, there have been several instances, such as U.S. activism in international affairs after World War 2, where leaders evidently made decisions without strong public consensus. Jacobs and Page (2005) [paywall] provide a strong rebuttal of the influence of public opinion on foreign policy. They note the public “does not appear to exert substantial, consistent influence on the makers of foreign policy… [government] officials tend perversely to move away from public opinion” when it comes to deciding foreign policy (emphasis in original).

The Consensus, challenged?

Subsequent research on public opinion, mostly after the 1970s, sought to challenge the Almond-Lippmann consensus, especially the premise that public opinion lacks structure. For a brief summary of this research, see Eichenberg’s entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. In contrast to the Almond-Lippmann consensus, the public isn’t as unopinionated and volatile as initially assumed. This body of research can perhaps be grouped under the umbrella of the “bottom-up model of public opinion”. One important contribution to this discussion is the work of Shapiro and Page (1988) [paywall]. By compiling an extensive database on public opinion changes in the US from the 1930s to the 1980s, they assert “the notion of a capricious public is a myth”, thus challenging the Almond-Lippman consensus’ premise of a volatile public.

While public opinion may be stable, its influence on foreign policy remains difficult to determine. However, perhaps it is not public opinion in itself that matters. The public opinion may be volatile, swinging between preferences for hard action and passivity, but remember it is the policymakers who eventually have to make decisions. We can reasonably expect they will consider the opinion of the public in deciding what to do. In this sense, the perception of public opinion may matter more than public opinion in itself. Kull and Ramsay (2016, p. 200), based on interviews with US foreign policy elites on the issue of international use of force, try to break the myth of a “reactive public”, which can colloquially be described as faltering trust in government decisions, particularly the use of force, when citizens see images of dead American soldiers abroad. Policymakers believe these images may spur public opinion, demanding withdrawal or a cessation on the use of force. In exploring the use of US force in humanitarian operations, they found that policymakers held these beliefs of the public:

  1. Elites believe that seeing or knowing of US troop deaths will result in public opinion favoring retreat or withdrawal. This is a belief that is strongly held by members of Congress, which was reflected in reporting across major US dailies during the Somalian intervention of 1993.
  2. Elites believe that without proper framing of an intervention as being directly linked to national interests, the public would favor withdrawal as American casualties would be considered pointless.
  3. Elites believe public opinion may have detrimental effects on foreign policy, as they perceive the public to prefer casualty-free wars, which then translate into pressure to generate a strategy which minimises casualties (often at the price of effectiveness).

These beliefs, however, are myths. It turns out the American public can accept casualties and are not as reactive as initially imagined. In the case of Somalia, the public favored withdrawal not directly due to seeing images of American casualties on screen, but rather because the public believed the Somalis wanted the UN and US to leave (p. 208). In the case of the first Iraq War, the American public had a more positive outlook of the war when it was framed as a protective act (protecting Kuwait from Iraq) rather than when it was framed as necessary to protect US national interests. The conclusion drawn by Kull and Ramsay is clear: “Americans do not and are not likely to respond reflexively to losses by wanting to withdraw from a military operation” (p. 217).


So, does public opinion matter in foreign policy? As this short review has shown, there is no clear-cut answer. The pessimism of the Almond-Lippmann consensus remains, especially considering the manufacturing of consent, coupled with mass disinformation campaigns, remains. It’s pointless then to trust the public with what they want, making public opinion an unreliable guide to foreign policy. However, the challengers to the Almond-Lippman consensus also have some convincing arguments. While politicians may take into consideration public opinion in making decisions since they do not want to be kicked out of office, they often filter public opinion through myths they hold. The public may be not as volatile as initially considered.

Header image: Photo by George Milton from Pexels

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