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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

Concluding Summary Report —

“Public Opinion and Foreign Policy:
Bridging the Gap”

T.I.S.S. Conference Report


Editor's Note: In its two previous quarterly issues (Summer and Autumn 1998), American Diplomacy brought to its readership full reportage on the first two roundtable presentations at the subject conference, organized by Dr. Cori Dauber of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and held at the nearby Aqueduct Conference Center on January 10, 1998. The following account of the last two roundtable discussions, drawn from a summary prepared by Dr. Carolyn Pumphrey of TISS, rounds out that coverage.

Roundtable 3: Methodological Implications in the Debate over the “CNN Effect”

Warren Strobel of the Washington Times led off as speaker in the third roundtable discussion chaired by Dick Kohn (UNC-Chapel Hill). After drawing attention to some of the differences between the methodological approaches of scholars and journalists (the latter rely heavily on interviews), he set forth his basic assumptions. First, he explained how he thought policy makers use the term “public.” Most commonly what they really mean when they speak of public opinion is the public opinion that it is prudent to heed. Sometimes, when trying to win support for a policy, they see the public as a kind of “issue public.” Sometimes, but rarely, they think in terms of a mass public.

The purpose of his recently published book [Late Breaking Foreign Policy: The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations (1997) ], he continued, was to show that there is no meaningful “CNN effect.” The notion that global real-time television has a profound and growing influence on American foreign policy, and on American public opinion toward that foreign policy, has been grossly exaggerated. Ironically, he argued, belief in the CNN effect itself poses a potential threat in that it is linked to mistrust of the public and a belief that foreign policy should not be based on public opinion.

He conceded that while smart officials do spend a lot of time selling policy and preparing policy for public consumption, Strobel held that the connection between policy making, public opinion, and the news media often plays itself out in surprising ways. He used intervention in Bosnia as one example to illustrate his point: Though at first sight it might look as if, fired by television imagery, the public forced the government’s hand, closer analysis makes it clear that the Clinton Administration had long been moving in the direction of intervention for a host of unrelated reasons. A similar circumstance occurred in Somalia. Well before the public saw pictures of the dead U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, polling data shows that support for Somalia was already dropping.

Strobel concluded by making two further observations about the media’s power to persuade. He noted that not all television images seem equally able to move the public. Images of starving innocents, for example, seem to prompt public opinion to pressure policy makers to “do something,” whereas pictures of civil war, of butchery, of ethnic fighting, do not. He also commented that the media often does not directly influence the policy makers; rather, mid-level officials try to use the media to influence the American public. He again offered the example of Somalia, where officials at the State Department, USAID, members of Congress interested in Africa, and voluntary humanitarian groups used the media to heighten public awareness of the plight of the Somalis and thus influence President George Bush to intervene.

Peter Feaver (Duke University) was Strobel’s first questioner. His main point of contention was that Warren Strobel exaggerated his case. Strobel, Feaver suggested, was at times in danger of creating one caricature while in the midst of debunking another. For example, he came close to implying that the media was little more than the parrot of government. In fact, the media itself provides the opportunities that reduce the control of policy makers. Feaver elaborated on this theme, drawing attention to media coverage of opinions of many people besides the policy makers; media bias against positive news, which makes it difficult for politicians to make their successes known; the media’s ability to give a twist to presidential actions; its role in increasing the cost of obtaining congressional support for policy; and finally the speed of news cycles which, by getting ahead of a cumbersome interagency coordination process, sometimes creates a false impression of leadership vacillation.

Feaver concluded by complimenting Strobel’s book and suggesting four possible avenues for future research: first, the relationship between policy and public affairs; second, the significance of the growing reliance of foreign governments on Western media; third, the role played by the media in inter- governmental disputes; and fourth, government leaks.

Richard Sobel (Harvard University) then took the floor. After a brief tribute to the works of Holsti and Strobel, Sobel provided the audience with a list of other classics in the field, noting especially the review article of Holsti, “Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Challenges to the Almond-Lippmann Consensus,” in International Studies Quarterly, 36; Ralph Levering’s book, The Public and Foreign Policy, and his own work, America’s Role in a Changing WorId: A Public Perspective. Commenting on Strobel’s work, he stressed the importance of the journalist’s thesis, agreeing that the “CNN effect” has been overstated. It is, he said, much more contextual and much more nuanced than many suggest.

Sobel then offered criticism of some of the assumptions in Strobel’s book. First, public opinion is not to be confused with the views reported by the media. The media almost systematically mis-portray public opinion. To prove this point he cited examples of media misrepresentation of public responses to the situation in Bosnia and to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Second, he argued that it is wrong to assume that the public read the polls and that this affects policy.

Professor Sobel further discussed what he saw as the essentially limited ability of leaders to shape public attitudes. In Bosnia, for example, despite a widespread willingness on the part of publics to intervene, few leaders recognized this factor or responded to it. When President Clinton eventually did send American troops in 1995, his view of why they should intervene (to take a leadership role) was not echoed by the public in the polls.

In the discussion period that followed, the question of influence was one that emerged frequently. Were policy makers influenced by public opinion? Or were they more interested in the views of lobbyists? Did the ability of the public to influence policy makers vary depending upon how involved they became in issues? Did the media influence public opinion? The prominent role played by columnists and pundits in focusing and shaping opinions and raising questions was commented on — not always favorably.

This, in turn, led to the issue of media responsibility. In response to an inquiry by Ted Triebel (U.S. Navy, retired), Strobel agreed that the media did have a responsibility to inform the public about foreign affairs and policy options, but drew attention to the difficulties of doing so without alienating the public and facing low ratings.

On a different note, questioners raised interesting methodological questions. On request, Strobel further clarified his interview techniques. He also explained to Carol Winkler (Georgia State University) why he concludes that upper administration officials and policy makers are not simply face saving when they say they are not influenced by television images. The cumulative impact of numerous interviews persuaded him they are telling the truth.

The group also noted some of the ways in which people respond to the media and the effect this has on the accuracy of information. Professor Sobel noted the phenomenon called the “Hawthorne effect” whereby, when attention is directed toward someone, their behavior and answers change. Feaver drew attention to the tendency for persons to blame circumstances for bad outcomes and attribute good outcomes to their good dispositions. The withering of modern attention spans was also addressed. Strobel and Eric Doxtader (UNC-Chapel Hill) both identified this as a problem which limits public ability to understand what is going on in foreign affairs.

Finally, the role of the media in wartime was addressed. Was the public misled by the media during Vietnam into believing it was losing a war that could have been won? Or did TV images merely confirm to the people that the government was lying to them when it insisted that the war was drawing near to a conclusion? And why was the media kept in chains by the military during the Gulf War? Was it a misguided suspicion on the part of the Army (not the Marines) or a ploy to focus Saddam Hussein’s attention away from the crucial missions? Or did a very real need for operational security exist? Opinions in the audience varied.

Roundtable 4
Bridging Gaps: Do We Really Have Something to Say to One Another?

The final group of speakers, a discussion panel, consisted of Henry Mattox (U.S. Foreign Service, retired, and North Carolina State University), Catherine Lutz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Clifford Griffin (North Carolina State University). They had been asked to bring to the conference some insights from their real life experience as practitioners of foreign policy and field workers. Ole Holsti (Duke University) joined the group.

Henry Mattox noted that professionals in the foreign affairs field are far from equally interested in public opinion. Foreign policy officials, he said, come in different categories: elected and senior appointed officials, senior and middle level careerists, and diplomats abroad. Of these, Mattox said, the first group, subject to the electoral process, does react to public opinion regarding foreign policy initiatives. The other two groups do so much less; middle level professionals have little time amidst the red tape and paper work to worry about public opinion, and diplomats abroad of all but the highest rank are only infrequently exposed to the crafting of foreign policy; diplomats serving abroad typically implement rather than make policy. A personal anecdote on the reinstitution of U.S.-Egyptian relations in the mid-1960s, one suggesting the arbitrary, off-the-cuff fashion in which foreign policy is in fact often made, concluded his talk.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist, spoke next. As introduction, she said that her main aim was to suggest some of the ways in which ethnographic research might contribute to solving the problems shared across the disciplines. The methodology used by persons in her field could be used to help students of foreign policy and public opinion monitor the process of opinion formation. It would provide insights not so readily available from the archives alone. Ethnographers might also help somewhat to repair the split between disciplines; they pay close attention to what people mean when they use a word or exactly how people interpret others’ words. Ethnographers are well aware that different people construe words and expressions in very different ways.

Dr. Lutz described her own research. One project involves the examination of five sites in North Carolina. Five researchers (herself included) spent a year engaged in the study of local publics. They listened to local talk radio, talked to local residents in the barber shops, and read local newspapers. They watched the evolution of highly contentious issues, paying attention to who became involved and who did not, and to how public opinions were formed and used. Dr. Lutz noted that she herself had never really seen a moment when opinion, as pollsters put it, “crystallized.”

Another work Lutz is engaged in is a look at the National Geographic Magazine. Her interest here is in how people came to formulate their views, particularly views of the Third World. She determined that readers, as an example, consider any article about peoples with dark skins to be about Africa. She also commented on how readers put interpretations on features in the magazine not necessarily intended. Thus, the juxtaposition of, say, a bridge and an African dugout canoe, included only to achieve visual interest, led readers to believe in the advance from primitive to more advanced cultures.

Professor Lutz raised several points that had attracted her attention in the course of the earlier discussions. She noted that those at the conference seemed, in effect, to equate public opinion with white opinion. Yet Black opinion was often different, Somalia being a case in point. Lutz then suggested that ethnography, with its focus on understanding cultural discourse, might help shed light on why responses to television images were so different. Picking up on a theme from Warren Strobel’s presentation, she noted that the fact that our compassion is more aroused by pictures of refugees than corpses is linked to the fact that women and children represent innocence to Americans.

Clifford Griffin, a political scientist and the third panelist to speak, offered a series of personal insights into the nature of the public and how the public formed its opinions. He focused, in particular, on American Intervention in the Caribbean. He stressed the importance of involving the public in foreign policy decisions. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that it might, on occasion, be a good thing for policy makers to consider not only American public opinion, but also the opinion of those publics affected by U.S. policies. This has its drawbacks, he conceded, given the ability of people to muddle and confuse events. He cited an amusing, if disturbing, incident when he overheard a young man justify the invasion of Grenada on the grounds that our Marine barracks there had been bombed! At the same time, Professor Griffin stressed that framers of policy clearly did not always speak for the people.

Dr. Griffin devoted attention briefly to the issue of how public opinion is influenced by the media. He stressed the importance of context. Just after the invasion of Haiti he was asked in an interview about potential casualties. This interview later was aired in a time slot between human interest stories dealing with servicemen getting ready to deploy. Such a striking juxtaposition clearly must have affected the public’s reaction to the intervention, he said.

Griffin next discussed how to determine public opinion. He emphasized that scientific polling is not the only way to get a sense of how the public feels. In Jamaica, for example, “rum-shop politics,” which entails listening to what ordinary people are saying in a setting where they feel comfortable, can pay real dividends. To conclude his talk, Griffin returned to the nature of the “public.” In his view, the American public is so diverse that the word has little real meaning.

Ole Holsti was the final panelist. Summing up after reaffirming his faith in inter-disciplinary dialogue, he selected a few points for special comment. He had been struck, he said, by the reminder that democratic leaders use public opinion as leverage in dealing with other countries. He noted again the importance of looking at how public opinion is formed. He observed that Black opinion is now beginning to make a difference. His concluding remarks concerned the important role played by pollsters in helping policy makers anticipate changes in public opinion — the impending shift from interventionism to isolationism after World War II being a case in point.

During the following discussion period, commentators from the audience raised many of the same issues. Thomas Hynes (State University of Georgia) suggested that thinking about “positions” might provide a good way to approach the study of public opinion. Positions are loosely connected facts, opinions, and values, as well as a series of heuristics. When persons are asked questions about public policy, they will muster these resources more or less carefully, depending upon how carefully they think their views are being examined.

The degree to which policy making should or does rely on public opinion was again aired. Curt Jones (U.S. Foreign Service, retired) and Holsti agreed that the American government has an obligation to inform the public and the public has an obligation to guide the government. Jones, however, criticized American foreign policy and attributed its failures to the lack of a healthy relationship between government and the public. Holsti expressed a much more positive assessment of American foreign policy in the post-war years.

As to the degree of public influence, here too there was divergence of opinion. On the one hand, Robert Miller (UNC-Chapel Hill) expressed the view that, at least when it came to making war, Presidents called the shots. Bill Dale (U.S. Foreign Service, retired) noted that, as a junior staff officer at the National Security Council in 1951-52, he was told that in the realm of policy making, he should leave the consideration of public opinion to the political level of government. Both Holsti and Griffin had occasion to assure Alicia Ward (Shaw University) of the growing influence of Hispanics, notably Cuban-Americans, in policy formation.

Commentators voiced skepticism as to whether we could ever really answer all questions on the interaction of public opinion and foreign policy. Dick Kohn doubted it was possible to isolate any one critical influence affecting our decision making. Given how many factors may be at work — our personal priorities, timing, our relationship with our boss, and countless others — to try to do this may be to chase the unattainable Holy Grail. Political scientists at the conference in general took a more optimistic about our ability to come to grips with the decision-making process. Richard Sobel suggested that one way to do this might be to form an interdisciplinary team to observe and analyze an NSC meeting. Holsti drew attention to the existence of fairly extensive documentation on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could be used to understand decision making. He further insisted that, if studies are properly done and take into consideration the fact that the problem is variable, interactive, and complex, some generalizations can be formulated. The effort has to be made, he said, if we are not to end up viewing foreign policy as hunting tigers in a dark jungle.

The conference closed with a discussion about public apathy. Tom Goodnight (Northwestern University) made the suggestion, seconded by Holsti, that, appearances to the contrary, foreign policy does continue to matter to the general public. The end of the Cold War, he said, brought about a blurring of domestic and foreign issues. Interest in foreign policy is now linked to such issues as technology, trade, and human rights, but there is interest.

At this point, after a general expression of thanks to the organizers of the conference, the meeting was adjourned.

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