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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

For faster downloading, Part I of this conference report is divided into the following linked sections:

·  Background & Introduction:
  Prof. Richard Kohn

·  Roundtable I: Presentation
  by Prof. Ole Holsti

·  Panelists:  Profs.
  David Cheshier and
  Erik Doxtader

·  Questions from the Floor

·  About TISS

Part II of the report will appear in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy

You may send comments or questions by e-mail in care of the Editor,
American Diplomacy

(click here).

TISS Conference Report: Bridging Gaps In the Study of
Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy



The Social Science Study of the
Public Role in American Foreign Policy

Ole Holsti's Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), may be the single most comprehensive analysis and assessment of the impact foreign policy has had on public opinion, and vice versa. At this roundtable, moderated by Professor Thomas Hynes, Professor Holsti reviewed the conclusions and the conceptual underpinnings of his work.

~ Ed.

  Timothy Hynes, State University of West Georgia
  Ole Holsti, Duke University

Thomas J. Hynes introduced Professor Holsti.

Ole Holsti: First, I would like to thank Dick and especially Cori Dauber for putting this on. It's certainly a very interesting occasion for me. I would like to make the point that the multidisciplinary makeup of this conference, including people not only within but outside academia, is highly appropriate. If we look back at how this topic developed, certainly political scientists have been interested in this topic for a long, long time, but just to give some examples of people who have contributed a lot, they go well beyond political scientists. A recent dissertation done at the University of Maryland argued that the work of Walter Lippmann, the journalist, is essentially the base from which both people who deal with public opinion and those who deal with the media have started. However, I believe we can find three different Lippmanns.

  •  The Walter Lippmann of the 1920s argued that the liberal model of the democratic citizen is unrealistic. The democratic citizen is simply too busy to be either interested or informed on foreign affairs.

  •  The Walter Lippmann of the 1950s saw the public as a real danger to democratic governance; his solution was to give more power to the executive, rather than to the public, interest groups, or Congress.

  •  And then there was the Lippmann in the twilight of his life who came to see that the public was closer to having it right than Lyndon Johnson on issues like Vietnam.

    So if you live long enough you're probably bound to have various viewpoints, but the main point is this is a person who is not a political scientist and yet had a lot of impact.

    But to give some other examples, almost everybody knows of Gabriel Almond's work in the early 1950s, but actually historian Thomas Bailey of Stanford University beat Almond to the punch with a book that came out two years earlier, a book called The Man in the Street. Hadley Cantril, who was a psychologist and President Roosevelt's secret and private pollster during World War II, would be another example, and then finally, George Gallup, who was not trained as a political scientist, whose call of the 1936 election really made public opinion and polling appear to be a scientific kind of undertaking.

    Today, as I'm going to argue and as I argue in the book, there's really been a renaissance of interest in public opinion and foreign policy and that renaissance is certainly built on more than the work of political scientists; it's the work of people in many disciplines, and also by those outside academia.

    What I want to do is to pick up on several themes from the book briefly and then move on to questions and discussion.   

    The first theme is that the whole issue of the role of public opinion and foreign policy is at the core of the long-standing debate between realists' perspectives on foreign affairs and liberal perspectives.   

    The second thing I want to talk about briefly is what I would call the Almond-Lippmann consensus which emerged in the two decades after World War II.   

    Third, the kind of challenges that have been made to the Almond-Lippmann consensus through research in the last couple of decades.   

    And then finally to discuss some thoughts about an agenda for future research.

    First, let me turn to the realist-liberal debate. While the realists' perspective is a fairly large tent, there are a variety of self-proclaimed realists. I think that one of the things that brings them together is the notion that public opinion can play a very small constructive role in the conduct of foreign affairs — that is, at best, from the realists' perspective, one might view the public as passive, uninterested, and essentially willing to leave it to the professionals, who are better informed about national interests and how to pursue them. The worst realist nightmare is that of a relatively uninformed public emotionally aroused about some issue — it might be the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor or it might be the pictures of great human rights violations in Somalia — and that these emotions will drive governments into ill-fated crusades to try to make the world over in the American image, attempt to reform the world, and prevent governments from undertaking things that they know better about.

    This was the view of many of the Founding Fathers. It's not an accident that in much of foreign affairs the Senate, which was the appointed body at that time, was given a much greater role than the House, which was intended to represent the people more directly. Scholars representative of this realist view include Hans Morgenthau, E.H. Carr, Gabriel Almond, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan, who continues at the age ninety-four, to write — often with a very critical view — of the role of the public and its representatives in Congress in foreign affairs.

    In contrast, we have the liberal perspective, which is that the average citizen, whether terribly well-informed or not, can make sensible judgments on issues of war and peace and can act as an important brake on the ambitions of overly ambitious leaders. We see this in the thesis of "no annihilation without representation," a slogan during the 50s and 60s. This is also an old tradition, including figures such as Immanuel Kant, Woodrow Wilson, and many others.

    One of the most articulate statements of the liberal perspective comes from one of the most conservative of American political leaders. A man of great distinction, Elihu Root, won a Nobel Peace Prize, served in the Senate, as Secretary of War, and as Secretary of State. In the first article in the first issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, he wrote a piece on popular diplomacy in the period after World War I. I'll briefly read from this because I haven't been able to find quite as concise a statement, even the works of Woodrow Wilson, of this liberal perspective. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent the people from having erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as part of their ordinary education with correct information about their relations to other people, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, and about what has happened and is happening in international affairs and about the effects on national life are the things that are done or refused as between nations; so the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice, and passion based upon error. That pretty much summarizes the liberal perspective — that through better international education and similar measures, the public can, in fact, play a constructive role.

    On the Almond-Lippmann consensus, one of the arguments I make in the book is that World War I and the necessity of mobilizing publics for that dreadful four-year long war really put the issue of public opinion in foreign policy on the agenda. It was no longer, as in the writings of Immanuel Kant, just purely a theoretical issue. This led Root to write the article from which I just quoted, and so it became part of the agenda; it was about this issue that Lippmann was writing in his two books of the 1920s.

    World War II coincided with the beginnings of both scientific polling and the work of George Gallup and others. The work on public opinion and foreign policy, particularly in this country, was largely driven by the questions about what the United States was going to do after World War II. Would the country follow the path that it pursued after World War I, essentially of turning its back on international organizations? Thus much of this research was essentially driven by the question whether the U.S. public would turn isolationist after the euphoria of winning the war, as in the past.

    This flurry of research after World War II came to three fundamental conclusions:

      First, public opinion is highly volatile and emotion driven, and therefore provides very weak foundations for effective foreign affairs. This point emerged from Gabriel Almond's book on the American people in foreign policy, the writings of Walter Lippmann, and many others.

      Second, public opinion lacks structure. That is, people may have isolated bits of information in their heads, but it doesn't come together in any kind of coherent view of the world.

      Third, Lippmann's fears to the contrary, public opinion basically has little, if any, impact on foreign affairs. Bernard Cohen's book published in the early 1970s, based on the work he had done in the 1960s, essentially argued that point. He used a wonderful quotation from a Foreign Service officer: "The hell with public opinion. We should lead and not follow." One of the limitations of the book is that at the time he was unable to interview people other than the bureaucrats; that is, the elected officials were not a part of his sample, and so it probably presented a little bit of a skewed view of the public's impact.

    Let me turn now to the challenges to the Almond- Lippmann consensus. I've argued that World War I put the issue on the agenda and World War II brought forth a great flurry of research interested largely in what the U.S. was going to do after the war. The Vietnam War brought about a kind of reexamination of this Almond-Lippmann consensus. You had lots of research now that went beyond the Gallup, Harris, and other polls. A study that was initiated by Sidney Verba of Stanford tried to do a more focused kind of research on the war in Vietnam. This led to a lot of other projects that were concerned more specifically with foreign affairs than the usual Gallup poll. One of the questions that drove this research was that, if the public is essentially uninterested, uninformed, and irrelevant, and the leaders are so wise, how is it that we got ourselves into the Vietnam quagmire?

    Essentially what has come out of this research are a lot of questions raised about the three major components of the Almond-Lippmann consensus.

  • One finding that has emerged fairly consistently is that, in fact, public opinion is not volatile and tends to be relatively stable. When it changes. those changes are often easily explained by changes in the real world. For example, in the assessment of the level of threats posed to the United States by the middle 1980s, the Soviet threat was seen as down there about eighth place, along with the greenhouse effect. Long before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the public had changed its views on the level of threat from the Soviet Union. But that's not necessarily an example of volatility — it's an example of recognizing that the world was indeed changing.

  • The second challenge is on the question of structure. Survey after survey shows the American public is not well informed. Indeed, studies that have compared the American public with those in Canada and Western Europe, typically find that Americans are less well informed about the world than their counterparts in other Western countries. So the question is, how is it that a relatively poorly informed public can in fact make judgments about the world? One of the terms that a political scientist by the name of Sam Popkin used is an effective way of trying to summarize this; it is what he calls "low information rationality." There is a great deal of research which now tries to get at how is it that people who don't have a wealth of information about the world are able, in fact, to make reasonable judgments about the world.

    And there are a variety of approaches and hypotheses that have been put forth, but essentially most of them have a common denominator of the use of cognitive short cuts or rules of thumb. For example, as a rule of thumb, jungle warfare against third world guerrillas is not a good idea. Or conflicts in which there are likely to be high casualties against poorly defined enemies are not a good idea. It ought to be pointed out that, while a lot of these may look like they are simple and maybe even simplistic, élites also use cognitive shortcuts. That is, we all use them. For example, the lessons of Munich would be a kind of cognitive shortcut to dealing with aggressive powers. Or the domino theory would be another one. Or one of the classic principles of realism, "my enemy's enemy is my friend," something that has driven much of our policy in the Middle East area. Our love affair for a while with Saddam Hussein was largely driven by precisely that: our enemy was Iran and Saddam Hussein was also Iran's enemy, and thus we supported Iraq. So we all use cognitive shortcuts at various times.

  • The third of the challenges was on the question of public opinion being irrelevant. A good deal of research has shown that, in fact, if it were irrelevant, why do presidents spend so much time trying to deal with it? We have an increasing amount of evidence from archival research, interview research, and firsthand accounts about the impact of public opinion. Ronald Hinckley, a public opinion specialist in the Reagan Administration, has written about his experiences. It suggests that policy making really begins with public opinion.

    We know that Roosevelt used a secret pollster because he did not think it was a good idea to be perceived as having a pollster feeding him information. Now we just take it for granted; virtually every public official in Washington has access to polling data, and we hardly take notice of them because it has become commonplace.

    In the post-Cold War environment public opinion is likely to become more important for a variety of reasons. It's not that the security issues are going to disappear. We've certainly seen enough of the post-Cold War environment to know that's not the case, but issues like trade and protectionism, immigration, environment, and the financial crisis in South Asia are also going to be on the foreign policy agenda. It's much harder for an administration to make the argument that because they can work on the basis of classified information, they should have a freer hand. For better or worse, on issues like this, public opinion is likely to play a more important, rather than less important role.

    Let me just turn to some things that we ought to be concerned about in terms of a research agenda.

    One of the real weaknesses in the research that has been done is the lack of accumulation. We just don't have lots of good standard questions that everybody uses. In the electoral politics arena we have now some forty or fifty years of questions which have asked about the level of assessments of presidential performance or presidential popularity. There's a real accumulation of literature if someone wants to trace that back. We don't have much in that respect with foreign policy.

    I attended a conference a year and a half ago in San Diego and a number of people who are interested in public opinion and foreign policy made a pledge that we would keep in touch with each other by surveys that we do and share common questions and try to build greater accumulation. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of evidence that that has happened. Richard Sobel has made an effort to develop some common questions that we ought to use. This is an encouraging sign, but we've got a long way to go. One of the things that a researcher knows is that responses to questions are sensitive to the way the questions are worded, and if the questions from Study A about Topic X are not worded like questions in Study B, it's very hard to compare. Are the differences the result of different opinions or are they responses to different questions?

    A second item on the agenda is to do more comparative analyses, particularly with the growth of democracies of the world, as the ability to do polling has certainly increased now that there is a huge industry of surveys on the Soviet Union. My guess is the National Science Foundation probably could use its entire political science or social science budget just for people who want to do such polling. This is all to the good, and again, it would be helpful if all the questions were being used in this so that more valid comparisons could be made.

    The third item that ought to be on the agenda is more archival kind of work on impact. One of the things that I got in an E-mail from Cori Dauber during the last week or ten days was, what about different definitions of public opinion? One that I particularly like feeds directly into this last item is V.O. Key's definition, which is that public opinion is "those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed." The point of that is that public opinion then is not just what Gallup reports on a given issue at a given time, but rather, what is it that the policy makers believe public opinion to be? It's fair to say that every president since Roosevelt and maybe before have been very interested in public opinion, but they don't necessarily even agree on what are the indicators of public opinion. Roosevelt was fascinated by polling data. Other presidents didn't care much about polling data, but relied on newspaper editorials or letters coming into the White House or other information. Eisenhower felt that his frequent dinners with friends or golf partners gave him some contact with people, giving him some sense of what public opinion was about. The way that we are going to be able to get at this, particularly with administrations well in the past, is largely archival research.

    I would like to make a point for a book that will come out this year from Columbia University Press by Douglas Foyle. This is a marvelous book of the kind of archival work that can be done for case studies from the Eisenhower administration, but he has many case studies on a number of others in that book. With this we can begin to get some sense of what it is that's going on with policy makers: What do they believe to be the public opinion that they need that's prudent to keep? What are the indicators of it? When do they believe that they need to respond to limit certain actions? When do they believe that they need to act contrary to what the public may believe? There's a lot of work that can be done in this area and certainly this is not the private problem of the political scientists. There are historians, for example, among others who can be of tremendous help in this kind of work.

    To conclude, it is safe to say that by late 1960s this area had become pretty much a dead area. There wasn't much interest in research because most people really tended to agree with Bernard Cohen that it didn't have much impact and therefore, if it doesn't, why even do research unless it's just a sort of interesting intellectual puzzle. We have seen that in recent decades this has become a growth industry. There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered. The kind of answers we are looking for are likely to be enriched if we can draw people from various disciplinary perspectives into the undertaking. My hope is that when we get to the final session this afternoon we will have a lot to talk about across disciplinary lines.

    Continue reading TISS Conference Report: Panel Discussion

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