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Triangle Institute for Security Studies

T.I.S.S. Conference Report

Public Opinion and Foreign Policy:
Bridging the Gap

(Part II)

COMMENTATOR: 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?

GOODNIGHT: In communication studies, there are well-established measures for assessing opinion and outcomes. Scholars work in persuasion, conflict resolution, and attitude change. From a rhetorical position, though, a noteworthy public "opinion" is formed in policy address. Sometimes, a telling rhetorical moment will involve a great speech, at others an influential strategy doctrine. These opinion statements are analyzed as paradigms of public thinking. They leave a mark on social reasoning that outlasts its time. In analyzing Achilles grumbling, I tried to recover a paradigm that would help us understand policy action differently from a classical "realist" model. So a rhetorical perspective invites critical re-reading of paradigmatic statements of opinion in the records of practice.

Every argument is a performance of communicative reasoning. Is a given speaker being genuine? Sincere? Does a message have significant effects? These questions require that one interprets and read subsequent actions in order to see how a context develops that enables and constrains future discourse and conduct. In critical reading, the inquirer does not so much stand outside a delivered opinion and measure its effects on a public as to situate a reading inside the argument and ask: What must a public be to participate in this action?

The most popular rhetorical model for some time has been symbolic interaction, most particularly the work of Kenneth Burke. His method, dramatism, conceives all language use to be a kind of action that engenders cooperation and division, orderly hierarchy and unruly antagonism. My own reading of foreign policy is directed to the drama of the unfolding senses of American identity, institutions, and critical imagination in the contexts of addressing national and international audiences. The questions posed are basic: Who gets to form and interpret strategic discourses and public events? How is public and private interest or risk defined? How do major debates reshape America's own articulations of purpose and mission? Rhetorical analysis can enable us to compare and learn from the enactment of policy debates across time, sometimes in unexpected ways.

For instance, it is clear that the Cold War gave rise to a chilly style of foreign policy negotiation, particularly in the early 1950s. That war is now over. However, the practice of a style rarely ends with the passing of its more dramatic moments. Presently, Congress seems locked in the grip of a "Cold War" that engulfs our increasingly icy and partisan Congressional relations. True, this is an imaginative view, a metaphor; but the benefit such a rhetorical perspective brings to the study of public opinion formation is that it allows us to see the field of invention, the shifting forms, within which public discourse becomes articulated.

WINKLER: Probably at this point we need to open it up for the audience.

PETER FEAVER - Duke U.: I want to talk about three ways that political scientists understand the public and see which one is the closest to your discipline. One is that the public is an audience that claps or boos the activities of the policy makers and then every two or four years decides whether they want to pay to see it again.

The second way that political science understands the public is that the public is the subject and the subject acts by answering a survey or acts by voting, and that political science is about trying to predict their actions either in the future or predict it backwards by explaining why they gave the answer on the survey that they gave and why they gave the vote that they did.

And the third way is more from the decision making school and that would say that the public is the price tag on policy and public opinion is the price. When public opinion really supports the policy then that policy is relatively cheap for the policy makers to pursue, but when the public opinion is strongly opposed to that policy then that policy’s expensive. Then leaders decide, based on their own personality traits, based on their risk acceptance, proclivity based on their courage, whatever you want to say, they decide whether they are going to pursue the expensive policy and do something even though the public doesn’t want them to do it, or whether they will buy the cheap policy and do what the public wants them to do. Public opinion then influences policy making by affecting the price or the cost that the policy maker receives for a course of action.

Those are the three different ways that political scientists view the public. I’m wondering if any of those resonate with your school.

GOODNIGHT: When you read across academic areas, you find that communication studies and political science, with many other modern disciplines, share similar concepts. Disciplines have conducted quite similar debates over the course of the twentieth century. So, the definitions of the public you articulated—the public as audience to be influenced, as subject with a common will or view, as a quality of respondents' outcomes in a policy process—are all alive and well in my home field, too. These distinct understandings are often roped into common contest when politicians argue about public opinion and policy support. This is where rhetorical analysis goes to work.

What I am asking is that you think about public opinion from the inside of a controversy, as it were, where definitions of legitimate consensus and dissent become contested. Here prudent rules of thumb or expert knowledge will not tell you what to do. How are political choices invented, evaluated, connected? Each controversy presents new answers to this question. As I mentioned previously, it is not a straight line inference from the position that "public opinion polls say the public believes X" to the conclusion that a given policy ought to be advocated. Different actors and constituencies bring to the table competing motivations and these perspectives generate views of public opinion with alternative historical and institutional grounds and norms. Sometimes, the arguments settle into well known communication forms and are relatively stable—even if highly contested—like the speech making of hawks and doves during the Vietnam war. At other times, constituencies ban together on a given issue or event, only temporarily, to serve special interests. In the former case, a rhetorical style provides a vocabulary about how to think as a member of a given public. In the latter case, it allows us to act in the face of irresolutions about our temporary allies.

I would also note that the term "public" here should not be equated only with the struggle to articulate mainstream interests. Counter publics sometimes find foreign policy issues central to their concern. Such publics may provide arguments, or a style of address, that influences political practice. The Anita Hill testimony, for example, became a threshold for many issues circulated largely within a feminist counter public to cross influential into more mainstream discussion. Rhetorical studies looks for the development of such paradigmatic moments in public practice.

WARREN STROBEL - The Washington Times: I was fascinated by your brief discourse on peacekeeping operations and how they differ from traditional military operations, how what happens at the tactical level can influence the public very quickly. I think that’s quite true. I’m curious, given all of that, have you done any work on how policy—makers can determine what strategies are best in trying to mobilize public support for these operations, especially in the aftermath of Somalia?

GOODNIGHT: That was a very brief discussion. I think it anticipates the afternoon panel and the answer is part of the puzzle I’m working with is it’s clear that pictures can be arguments in the right context. The question is what happens when pictures are presented in a certain way and we go through images of genocide year after year. We don’t really have yet a very good public sense of what the American obligations are in situations of genocide or what our capabilities are. Controversy of perspectives is virtually a brand new area in the controversial way of peacekeeping.

Where I was reading from the awareness of the tactical to the global is in the Army manual; people are trained to be aware of that peacekeeping is no longer a battle per se of force, but rather a symbolic situation where interruptions of events are as important as the events themselves. And so studying how controversies evolve or erupt globally, how they are directed, how they change our understanding of what peacekeeping means, is not one, but diverse things. It seems to me to be an important area opened up to our own fields to which we haven’t, to my knowledge, gone into yet, but it’s the next thing for me and hopefully for us to do.

RICHARD KOHN - UNC - Chapel Hill: Tom, could you give us a name of a short text or an article or two that would lay out the methods of communication studies that historians and political scientists who are working in any field could use to try to apply these techniques and modes of analysis to their own work? I ask that question as one who has tried on two different occasions, in two different areas in which I know some of the history, to use the work of Gary Wills—and have been unsuccessful.

GOODNIGHT: I would be happy to provide a short bibliography. [See below - Ed.] One of the limits of case studies is that it rarely builds an overall method. Nevertheless, there has been a long-standing concern in foreign policy practice in our discipline.

KOHN: You don’t mention Marshall McLuhan?

GOODNIGHT: Marshall McLuhan is an interesting figure. McLuhan developed his understanding of the media, in great part, from encounters with classical rhetoric. He founded his "new" paradigm, a way of refreshing our view of public opinion, by going back to the Sophists speaking. For the Sophists rhetoric was all dazzle, style, impression, show. By reading the Sophistic rhetoric as insights into present practice, he was able to shift, or at least widen, our understanding of the public sphere. So, McLuhan is a good example of the kind of critical practice I have been discussing.

MARK PADGETT - Duke University: I want to add to Mr. Strobel’s comments on peacekeeping. F1OO-5, Army Operations. Chapter 13, is devoted to operations other than war, which has become basically the focus of the military today. This was a carryover from normal war times through the peace enforcement operations. But they break it down between peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and peacemaking, and in the civilian sectors all you hear is peacekeeping. The reason for that is that it sounds better—realistically Haiti was not a peacekeeping operation. Haiti was a peace-making operation. We went in and brought about how we thought things should be.

It’s the same thing when we talk about peace—enforcement—that is what Somalia was. There had been a negotiated settlement and we went in and we were enforcing the settlement. Bosnia really is a peacekeeping mission, and is really not so much armed force or violence involved at this time.

If you think about it, they want us to get actively involved in apprehending war criminals, reparations, free travel of personnel. You’re looking more at moving from the peacekeeping to
peace—enforcement. The question is, are they going to change how it’s framed to the public or they are going to actually identify what it is?

GOODNIGHT: The role of the military in the post Cold War world is not fully defined. We can draw on experiences with Cold War peace operations for some guidance. The historical example of the Congo intervention seems to be more instructive and relevant now to setting definitions of military operations than it was in the context of global struggle. Public actors and audiences can and do develop definitions, orientations, goals from translating past successes and failures into norms for operations that should have public support. But policy is always vulnerable to objections, old and new.

Public controversy, especially in foreign policy, seizes on key analogies. What intervention has not been "a new Vietnam"? The analogy has become attenuated and thread bare. Nevertheless, to name Haiti the "new Somalia" does denote risks and options defined as a post Cold War intervention. Naming has considerable rhetorical force. But analogy also creates problems. Analogies cannot long keep united technical explanations and political discourse. The basic difficulty becomes just this. On the one hand, institutionally defined distinctions between peacekeeping, peace-enforcement and humanitarian intervention are legally useful and communicate precise standards of military conduct. On the other, the distinctions are not well understood publicly and do not fit easily within traditional modes of justification for putting American citizens "in harms way." To the extent foreign policy is tethered to public support, and the language of public debate proceeds from analogy, public opinion is vulnerable to great shifts.

COMMENTATOR: I think the question was, are they downplaying the implications and use of force and the possible casualties that result? Somalia was cited as a peacekeeping humanitarian service mission, which in fact was peace enforcement and a very real recognition of the use of force and the rules of engagements that the soldiers never actually carried out. They made a deliberate decision that we’re going to avoid making this look like an escalation by not sending armored vehicles over when they were asked for ahead of time. As a result, soldiers were killed.

My question is: are they going to downplay the cost? In other words, avoid another Vietnam in the rhetoric involved, or are they going to actually acknowledge that, yes, you probably are going to be involved over a long period of time. Bosnia has been extended about three times now, so it is going to be a long and involved process. Is the American public going to agree?

GOODNIGHT: Policy makers do anticipate "perceptions" of particular actions. Anticipating media reaction does have consequences for policy, as you point out in Somalia. The "self-persuasion" among institutional actors is important to study. How does the anticipation of public reaction itself enable and constrain policy? Institutional actors modify public communication practices as the military, the press, and politicians alter what images are produced, when, and with what captions or explanations after each foreign policy action. This is an important area for historical research and rhetorical analysis.

COMMENTATOR: A book I read last year called The New Public [Leon H. Mayhew, Cambridge Press, 1997] is essentially about the idea that any notion of public opinion, particularly in wartime situations in the U.S., is highly constructed and controlled from within. So public opinion actually is very closely manipulated. The public is told what its opinion will be, and that is tested, and then—surprise, surprise—we know what the results. It actually creates, probably in this decade from Reagan on, a very serious question about whether or not there’s some very large bridge between traditional notions of public opinion, war and policy, and the manipulation of that convergence of issues.

GOODNIGHT: Can one reasonably extrapolate from the control of public opinion in the Gulf War? The press was closely monitored and regulated then. But tight state regulation of opinion often results in countervailing movements to widen the public domain by—if nothing else—making such regulation a subject of discussion. The Gulf War has given rise to a long debate on a host of first amendment issues. The result is that the press enjoys fewer restraints while the military now anticipates media presence as part of its operations. Hegemonic theories of public opinion are problematic at base, I feel. If all opinions were the same, how could you know? Rather than uniformity, it is more likely the case that differences among competing publics are not well attended. The debate over Central America put the relationship between federal branches of government in jeopardy throughout the 1980s. The rancor of that debate far exceeded its policy consequences, but relative to its institutional importance it did not receive major coverage—until the Iran/Contra hearings.

COMMENTATOR: How many people are with C-Span and how many people watch NBC, ABC, CBS and the nightly news? Those which are the manipulators in the spectrum, that’s where the new public would likely come from, as opposed to C-Span, to which more rational people like those of us in this room pay attention.

GOODNIGHT: Let's think of a "public" as a creature of plurality. Seylia Benhabib believes there to be as many publics as controversies. Each generates interest by people who have a stake, real or imagined, in the outcome of a discussion. Public deliberations have a certain integrity of style and range of issues. However, how we enter into them—through "rational," "sensational" or a combination of means—varies widely. Which are going to be important controversies cannot be known fully before hand. Sometimes the eruption of a controversy will unexpectedly define a new media in relation to public opinion formation. The Swiss bank/Nazi gold controversy comprises a significant dispute in part because a bank guard contested orders to dispose of some old records. In addition to becoming one of many ongoing debates about reconciliation and public memory, the resulting diplomatic exchange on the WEB also contributed to the emergence of an international public sphere in simulated space. Many of the arguments were conducted through postings at diplomatic sights. As the means of persuasion changes and as new controversies emerge (or old ones reappear), opportunities to learn about public opinion formation are created.

RICHARD SOBEL - Harvard U.: You just mentioned this briefly—about the Central America controversy. Professor Goodnight has written a very interesting article about Vietnam and Central America which he sent to me. Your presentation was largely general, Dr. Goodnight. Could you address Reagan’s rhetoric and the outcome of policy in public opinion?

GOODNIGHT: I have written an article for the Quarterly Journal of Speech about Reagan's speeches on INF, Star Wars, and the Evil Empire. I tried to show how the administration dealt with the nuclear freeze, which at the time was a very popular grass roots movement. The speeches worked in such a way as to take advantage of a key ambiguity: if you were a true believer and staunch anti-communist, you could see Reagan's discourse as an extension of proper American sentiments; if you were not, Reagan's discourse could be characterized as a bluff, a strategy, made necessary by the times. Either way, he and his advisors were able to work coverage of his speeches to his advantage. Typically, Reagan rhetoric both agreed with select goals of his challengers and challenged its means or motives. The peace movement developed potent anti-nuclear symbol: the image of the earth as a beautiful, blue ball hanging in space. In effect, Reagan's discourse, which was echoed in the Senate and House, co-opted the symbol and said: see this is what we want to protect. My essay on Reagan, like critical rhetorical studies generally, explores how public speech moves audiences of a time and how strategic discourse develops and contends among institutions. The study involves reading the speeches in the context of power relationships as both become formed into positions that struggle to change and affirm specialized, common, and enclaved practices of communication. At the center of our inquiry is the pursuit of the ever-evolving inventive resources of rhetoric. Through the study of controversy one learns about the strengths and limits of prudence among nations.

WINKLER: I think that’s all the time we have before lunch.

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Professor Thomas Goodnight

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