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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 1998

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Dr. Thomas Goodnight

G. Thomas Goodnight has taught in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University since 1975. In the research field of argumentation his interests include foreign policy issues, rhetoric, criticism, and social theory. He earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Kansas. The author of many scholarly essays, he is at work on two book-length manuscripts, one on the theory of controversy and the other dealing with the relationship between controversy, memory, and critical imagination.

Triangle Institute for Security Studies



“Public Opinion and Foreign Policy:
Bridging the Gap”

T.I.S.S. Conference Report

Editor's Note: Continuing its report on the conference sponsored by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies on January 10, 1998, at Chapel Hill, NC, American Diplomacy sets forth below an account of the discussion following a presentation by Professor Thomas Goodnight of Northwestern University on the field of public argument in communication studies (see the journal’s Summer 1998 issue). Further segments of the conference report will appear in future issues of American Diplomacy.

(Note that in the interest of relative brevity, some queries, especially by speakers from the floor, have been slightly abridged and therefore, while reflecting the sense of the remark, in some instances may not constitute the precise words spoken.)


Roundtable 2: Public Argument and the Study of Foreign Policy

CAROL WINKLER, Ga. St. U.: We’ll move to the questioning at this point. The first two questioners are from the University of North Carolina, Michael Hunt and Timothy McKeown.

MICHAEL HUNT, UNC-Chapel Hill: Your comments are as thought provoking as the articles that you've circulated. Maybe the way I can be most useful here is to promote talk across disciplinary divides and to do that by assuming the role of the student who has listened to a lecture. Now we all know that in the process of taking notes students often become puzzled. When they have the temerity to reveal their puzzlement, they help us clarify the matter at hand. So as a student let me admit to a mix of curiosity and confusion. Let me lay out three points with the hope that your response will help me better understand what argumentation studies has to bring to the study of international relations.

First, I notice a preoccupation with "prudent" decision-making and "wise" decisions. I'm wondering to what extent this evaluative concern is generally central to your field. I'm also wondering why it's come to play such a seemingly important role in your thinking about international relations. To push the issue a bit, let me also ask: is there a historically-grounded basis for thinking that we can come up with standards for prudent or rational or wise decision-making, or are you embarked on a utopian project?

The second question has to do with the meaning of the term "argumentation field." You seem to use that phrase when you're talking about the exchange of views or opinion between two or more parties as in a speech, a meeting, or a memo. How useful is this notion? Take for example the relationship between public opinion and the makers of foreign policy. How do we define or find an argumentation field in an area such as this one noted for its slipperiness? Think about the concrete case of Lyndon Johnson's commitment to Vietnam in 1965. He and his advisers gave serious thought to public opinion—above all how it might evolve in response to particular presidential decisions or to developments on the battlefield. In contrast to the decision-makers' fairly elaborate and future oriented considerations, the public responded to opinion polls at that time that asked simple questions about immediate issues. Did the Johnson administration and the public together form an "argumentation field"? (Or am I misconstruing the term?) If together they do constitute such a field, how does using that interpretive framework help us understand a major policy decision such as the fateful U.S. commitment in 1965?

Finally, I'm hearing from you that Cold War and post-Cold War
"argumentation fields" are different. Is that true? We tend to look back
on the Cold War as an era of simplicities during which an American
consensus reduced the world to Munich's and dominoes. But close historical examination reveals a somewhat different picture. The Cold War in fact helped generate serious domestic controversy and division. Problems
emerged very early (in the late 1940s) over what kinds of resources to
apply against the communist menace and where to apply them. The limited
war in Korea kept the pot of controversy boiling. Nuclear weapons began to create fissures at home by the late 1950s. Vietnam introduced another
source of division. Americans looking out on the post-Cold War world may
be fractured by controversies. But is that state of contention or at least disagreement really so new? Is there a historically valid distinction to be made between Cold War and post-Cold War fields of argumentation? In what areas are we searching for distinctions—for example, in patterns of disagreement, depth of differences, range of participants, or nature and persistence of the issues?

I hope these naive questions coming from your dutiful if puzzled student will lead to some clarifying discussion.

G.THOMAS GOODNIGHT, Northwestern U.: The questions go right to the heart of the matter. Let me address them in reverse order.

The Cold War was a controversy propelled by sustained ideological divisions—east versus west, left versus right. As you point out, within these divisions there were many disagreements. Issues of nationalism, multilateralism, foreign aid were hotly debated.

My point is not that the Cold War did not have its own register of differences, but that we are now moving into a time which features a set of controversies so distinctive as to invite new ways of understanding public opinion and foreign affairs. The issues of the Cold War were contested within the broad frames of nuclear deterrence. A system of rationally constrained security polices was institutionalized (sometimes tacitly, sometimes openly) to put a break on goads of ideological provocation. These parameters on policy influenced how we viewed opinion formation. For example, the Executive branch became increasingly influential because of its capacity for secrecy, speed, gaming in the nuclear context. So, we tended to address public opinion as a product of predisposition, events and persuasion influenced by a single source or speaker—the administration.

Post-Cold War controversies seem to have a different, radically chaotic quality to them. The stark ideological frame no longer dictates debates; some conflicts arise from disputes that were suspended by the Cold War, such as those over national claims and ethnic populations. Others appear to be the result of a push and pull between the global systemic institutions—which appear to follow logics spun off from regimes of nuclear weapons control—and local customs and practices. Jurgen Habermas points out that controversies emerge from this gap between the life world and the systems world. For example, peacekeeping manuals that guide to military conduct in an intervention encourage legal, logistical, and professional thinking. However, the perceptions of the meaning of an intervention from a local perspective can embrace the volatile, contested, blurred issues of race, gender, class and history. Controversy is almost guaranteed when there are incommensurable points of view. I think rhetorical inquiry which is sensitive to contextual differences can help us understand the kind of conflicted, unstable but powerful end-of-the century opinion formations that erupt where "opinion" cannot be defined easily from the point of view of a single actor-audience model.

Second, scholars often think of public opinion as an indexed, measured aggregate of population belief. Controversy expands this view event to include moments where public opinion gets initiated in private, expert discussions. The decision of the General Advisory Committee on the hydrogen bomb was the product of experts conversing in secret, but reasons spoken in the name of various constituencies gradually drew public involvement. Rhetorical inquiry shifts the angle of public opinion study—from analysis of the techniques of influence or measurements of approval to examining deliberations that become repeated, contested, developed and spread over time. These deliberations form vocabularies of motives.

Finally, prudence changes, I think. Lines of reasonability are always (in principle at least) subject to contest. So the parameters and value of prudence is varied and renewed by each generation. In that sense, my project is more critical than Utopian; but the critical and Utopian perspective may be opposite sides of the same coin. Controversy study places the issue of what constitutes "prudent conduct" as an open-ended question which can best be answered from a situated perspective. Rhetorical inquiry is inherently evaluative. Ideally, its scholars are always mindful that they, too, are engaged in the practice of argument or advocacy. So, at the present juncture, I would argue that for the post Cold War world, it is prudent to release our disciplinary push for prediction, control, and abstract explanation and to subject our own categories and definitions of opinion formation to reflection. A new era asks for novel ways of thinking about public discussion. This summons does not require that we discard the previous thinking on opinion formation, but rather that we reengage "theory" in the interests of addressing the altered social and political arrangements of our own times.

TIMOTHY MCKEOWN, UNC-Chapel Hill: [Professor McKeown raised questions about gaming strategy and nuclear deterrence, and expressed concern about standards of evidence and logic in Professor Goodnight’s field.] How in this literature do you evaluate truth and what counts as evidence? I was struck particularly by the reference to modernists’ evidence-gathering strategy. I think about being systematic, about being careful and detailed, about being somewhat deliberately artificial, and if we’re not going to be modernists any more, then what kind of evidence-gathering strategy do we have from modernists? That would be the first thing I want you to talk about.

GOODNIGHT: The controversy over nuclear weapons is the dispute of the twentieth century. The outcome of this debate remains highly problematic. I agree with you here. I just wanted to say that the type of modeling and gaming that inspired deterrence seems to have encouraged systems theory in modern institutions. The nuclear regime helped legitimize systems thinking as a kind of policy argument held to be independent of and superior to public discourse. Public discourse is sometimes not careful or systematic, but it has value, I think, in shaping institutional standards of reasoning.

Im not here to glorify nuclear deterrents and certainly it is problematic. . . .

MCKEOWN: Can I just interrupt? I guess I’m confused on that point because my sense would be that game theory and nuclear deterrents are really a fairly enclosed and narrow field. My feeling would be that public policy makers have relatively little impact.

GOODNIGHT: The area of policy I am talking about are those that are influenced by academic disciplines or professional decision makers. Systems thinking conceives of publics as clients and reasons are validated by statistical evidence in the interests of optimizing benefits. This perspective defines the public fairly narrowly in a language not readily accessible to public actors or audiences. It's not so much the nuclear issue itself was always preeminent as it was the use of scientific styles of reasoning were given impetus by the "success" of the nuclear regime.


MCKEOWN: Well, I think we are in disagreement. My impression is that kind of thinking is very limited. When politicians, for example, face a problem, they would take decisions not from scientific data—certainly not from academic writings —- but would, in fact, turn to a kind of gut instinct and say, well, I think the public, on the basis of my thirty years of experience, is going to do this or that. Okay, I’ve got these polls and I’ve talked to some people, and so. . . .

GOODNIGHT: Politicians are influenced by a variety of sources of influence in making decisions. If you study congressional debates, it seems that the aim of Congress is not always to influence opinion on a speech-by-speech basis as it is to announce a shared framework of interpretation—should things go wrong. For example, in the debate over the recent intervention in Haiti, senators spoke of all kinds of imagined threats to U.S. soldiers, including Voodoo. The threshold that many in Congress articulated for policy failure was the death of one American. Public debates like the Haiti discussion popularize policy definitions, thereby leading public opinion, which in turn moves or sets parameters on institutions. Debates in public fora put decision-makers under the light of publicity and open a space for party, ideological, institutional and personal contest. The interplay between these facets makes each discussion somewhat unique and invites case study of changing communication norms.

Decision makers' views undoubtedly are formed by a confluence of opinions that could be called "gut instinct." But, strategic rationales for action emerge in discussion and debate, as views become interrelated and tested among supporters and opponents. What counts as proof in this controversial world? All sorts of things, but when it comes down to a given decision one has to invent a way to weave together pieces of information that do not have co-equivalent validity standards. A popular way of aligning, prioritizing, and reconciling different types of evidence may become strategic thinking and be distilled as policy doctrine. For example,"selective engagement" and "democratic enlargement" are notions that borrow and modify some concepts from Cold War debates. As doctrine, each allows the decision maker latitude to do the "right thing" based on success estimates—without a commitment to idealism or realism but combining the two. This strategy justifies policy on the grounds of case-by-case adaptation. But note that any doctrine carries an invitation for controversy, too. For Clinton critics, any particular "selective engagement" was either too idealistic or too crassly political, depending on which side of the aisle you were on.

What counts as evidence from a rhetorical vantage? Steven Toulmin wrote a book on casuistic thinking which recovers a notion of evidence in the context of diagnostic reasoning. Evidence is the product of a search for the factors that are involved pertinent to a particular decision. Evidence is secured by acquired "rules of thumb," nowadays called social knowledge. In the world of controversy, such social knowledge is important to guide everyday reasoning, but the consequences of actions by semi-autonomous systems confound the prudence of publics. John Dewey first pointed this out by showing how market access in the First World War made it prudent for Midwest farmers to maximize wheat production locally, but the end of that war brought about a significant recession because of conditions outside of the effected community. The increasingly speedy and numerous interactions among global systems and local communities has given rise to a foreign policy condition that generates controversies at an accelerating rate.

Within these controversies standards of valid evidence are put at issue.

COMMENTATOR: This question is related to the first one. When you look at an argument, it seems to me there are some obvious possibilities. Since you do this for a living, obviously they occurred to you long before they occurred to me. One possibility seems to me is that people are just simply being hypocritical, that everyone has an agenda and that arguments are engaged in as a sort of social custom, or perhaps as a means to try to placate relatively minor members of an audience. Or they fulfill some ceremonial ritual role. But they don’t really have any kind of impact—substantive independent impact—on the decisions that people reach.

I’m curious how you can go about assessing arguments in terms of them having real consequences, how you can decide that arguing tests the real consequences, that people take it seriously, that it’s about what it seems to be about, and that there’s really something worth paying attention to here. How can you make those kinds of judgments?

Continue reading TISS Conference Report,
“Public Opinion and Foreign Policy” (Part II)


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