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The Impact Of Public Opinion: Foreign Policy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3024 words Published: 18th Apr 2017

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The question about the relation between foreign policy and public opinion is far from clear. However, according to Holsti and Sobel there is some evidence that public opinion constrains foreign policy decisions and that there is a general correspondence between public opinion and policy decisions. It is certainly clear that public opinion provides an important input to policy decisions. Despite some early scepticism about the rationality of public opinion regarding the foreign policy, most studies show that public opinion on foreign policy issues is relatively stable, driven by specific events, generally anti isolationist, and strongly multilateral (Holsti 1996; Kull and Destler 1999; Page and Shapiro 1992) .

Although there is a reasonable understanding of the nature of public opinion about foreign affairs, there is much less known about the sources of this opinion.

Many studies have revealed that mass media content is the most likely source of over-time changes in individuals’ foreign policy preferences. The mass media are the primary connection between the public and policymakers. Policymakers follow media reports on public opinion, and the media are the public’s chief source of information on what policymakers are doing. According to Soroka the media are the principal means by which the vast majority of individuals receive information about foreign affairs, an issue for which personal experience is unlikely to provide much useful information.

My intention is to see how these 3 variables are interrelated nowadays. Therefore, the central aims of this essay are to: 1) Present the principle of tipping point and the most sensible issues provoking the U.S. public opinion. an overview of the evolution of the public opinion.

2) Present the risk of misperception of public opinion 3) Analyze how does the traditional and “new” media affect the public opinion and through it the foreign policy.

(Holsti 1996; Sobel 2001)

The principle of the tipping point and the main issues provoking the U.S. public opinion

As already discussed in the essay the question of how much influence public opinion has on foreign policy has long been a matter of controversy. Two pieces of empirical data seem to point in opposite directions. On the one hand, most political scientists have found that Americans let the executive branch conduct the country’s foreign business generally unconstrained, allowing the White House far more latitude on foreign policy than on domestic matters. This is partly because they regard foreign policy as an area of special expertise. On the other hand, secretaries of state such as Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance have testified that it is not possible to conduct successful foreign policy without the support of American public opinion.

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In my opinion this inconsistency disappears, and both statements are valid in the light of the principle of the tipping point, advocated by Daniel Yankelovich. In the center of this principle rests the idea that until the public’s opinion on an important foreign policy issue reaches such a point, it does not really influence the formulation of policy in Washington.

According to Yankelovich, the emergence of the tipping point can arrive by the combination of three factors, all measurable through surveys: the size of the public majority in favour of or opposed to a particular policy, the intensity and urgency of its opinions, and whether it believes that the government is responsible for addressing them.

The oil-dependency issue now meets all the criteria for having reached the tipping point: an overwhelming majority expresses concern about the issue, the intensity of the public’s unease has reached significant levels, and the public believes the government is capable of addressing the issue far more effectively than it has until now. Should the price of gasoline drop over the coming months, this issue may temporarily lose some of its political weight. But with supplies of oil tight and geopolitical tensions high, public pressure is likely to grow.

The only other issue that has reached the tipping point is the war in Iraq. According to Public Agenda Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index it continues to be the foreign policy issue foremost in the public’s mind, and respondents consistently deem the war (along with the threat of terrorism) to be the most important problem facing the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world. Concern about mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq is particularly widespread. According to the same agency although the level and intensity of concern about Iraq has remained fairly stable, the public’s appraisal of how well the United States is meeting its objectives there has eroded slightly. One reason for the downward trend is scepticism about how truthful Washington has been about the reasons for invading Iraq. Fifty percent of respondents said they feel that they were misled – the highest level of mistrust measured in the survey. Another source of scepticism may be more troublesome for the government: only 22 percent of Americans surveyed said they feel that their government has the ability to create a democracy in Iraq.(The public Agenda, 2010)

Interestingly, the public’s feelings on a third issue have moved in the opposite direction. This issue is the intangible but important question of U.S. relations with the rest of the world, and specifically with Muslim countries. During the period between the two surveys, the U.S. public grew marginally less worried about anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The number of respondents who said they “worry a lot” about growing hatred of the United States in the Muslim world decreased from 40 percent to 34 percent, and the share of those who were deeply concerned about losing the trust of people in other countries declined from 40 percent to 29 percent, one of the larger changes in the survey. (Public Agenda, 2010)The reasons for these changes are not self-evident. The sense of shame about the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, so strong in 2005, seems to have receded with the passage of time.

The responsiveness to the public opinion

Having discussed on the public opinion and its main drivers at the moment, it is of a crucial importance to know how the policymakers perceive and respond to it.

It should be emphasized that there exist differences among groups in their influence. It wouldn’t be very realistic to believe that the opinions of relatively uninformed citizens have as much impact on government as the beliefs of CEOs of large corporations. In a tentative to make a rough division of the public opinion, the informed public category would represent the people who do not hold institutional leadership positions but who are the kind of people with whom political leaders have the most contact between elections. When politicians want to check their popularity this is the group they revolve to. Generally speaking the informed public is assumed to have a medium influence on government, less than the elite groups but considerably more that other parts of the general public. The importance of the views of the other category, the relatively uninformed public is quite high when a foreign policy becomes an important election issue such as the Iraq case, but on other more specific cases it is safe to suppose that this category is not perceived as a pressure from the government. According Laulicht, however, there is no reason to believe that a single hierarchy of influence exists for all the foreign policy issues. Overall, it is certainly clear that public opinion provides an important input to policy decisions.

In cases such as the current political context, when the popular support for the president and its party is eroding the public opinion is in a very good position to shape the foreign policymaking. Low standing in the polls has encouraged the current American administration to speed up the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and lately considerably cut the Pentagon’s budget which are two points strongly emphasized in recent polls.

The military spending is historically associated with the public opinion (Hartley and Russet 1992; Shapiro and Page 1994; Wlezien 1995, 1996). For example Jencks (1985) found that the correlation between public opinion and military spending and annual changes in spending between 1973 and 1980 was exceptionally high.

Although the above empirical and theoretical arguments clearly show the policymakers’ responsiveness to public opinion there is no shortage of analysts who are sceptical about these conclusions.

The range of such appraisals stretches from those who dismiss the possibility of coherent public views, and that there is little direct connection between what the public thinks and what policymakers do.

Politicians may prefer to please activists – who provide important sources of money – over general voters who may be viewed as routinely voting for one party or the other and can largely be taken for granted (Wright 1989; Aldrich 1995). Politicians and policymakers may have their own (and often strongly held) policy preferences and these too may come into conflict with public opinion, thereby prompting non-responsiveness (Cohen 1997; Jacobs and Shapiro 2000, p. 19).

Powlick (1995) and Kull and Destler (1999, pp. 219-21) report evidence from separate studies of the impact of public opinion on foreign policymaking that the primary sources drawn upon by government officials (Powlick) and members of Congress (Kull and Destler) are the media and the current state of Congressional opinion. To the extent that such sources of public opinion are biased, they may lead political elites to policies not desired by the mass public.

Another set of mechanisms differentiating responsiveness in policy domains is the overall structure of the domain (cf. Laumann and Knoke, 1987 and Burstein, 1991). Some foreign policy domains are influenced by powerful interest groups and/or have long-established policies in place that are more difficult (or costly) to alter. In such cases, (such as oil-dependent energy) responsiveness is likely to be low. In other domains, especially those with new or emerging issue controversies and devoid of well-organized interest organizations, responsiveness is likely to be greater.

Finally, a number of scholars have developed a version of the pessimistic thesis that asserts that responsiveness has declined over time. For example, Monroe (1998) and Jacobs and Shapiro (1997) report evidence that suggests declining overall responsiveness in recent years.


If foreign policymakers respond to a certain degree the public and the public responds to the media, studying the nature and degree of media influence on public opinion is crucial. Page et al. (1987) note, “It would be premature to celebrate the triumph of democracy before knowing how and by whom the public is itself influenced”.

The majority of citizens particularly lack, or lack access to, information and understanding of international events, which by their very nature are more complex (Graubatz 1995; Holsti 1996; Nelson 2001; Page and Shapiro 1992; Paletz 2002; Sobel 2001). The media play a key role in reporting and interpreting such events for the broader public (Beaudoin and Thorson 2002; Boettcher 2001; Isaacs 1998; Powlick and Katz 1998).

In general, most scholars perceive the media system as a channel or mechanism linking the public to policymakers (Bloch and Lehman-Wilzig 2002; Ruddock 2001). Grosswiler (1996) claimed that the media affect the way in which the public perceives information about political matters.

Examining the relationship in the post-cold war period, Bennett et al. (1997) concluded that media coverage of events affected public opinion on foreign policy issues. Entman (2004) argued that when the media’s independence increased after the cold war, filling a vacuum in policy definitions, the influence of decision makers on public opinion diminished; in contrast, Shapiro and Jacobs (2000) suggested that the complexity of the new world order increased the opportunities of decision makers to lead the media and public opinion.

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Although some scholars suggest that the impact of the media on the government reflects public opinion (Brown 2001), most claim that these two actors mutually influence each other. Iyengar and Kinder (1987) suggested that one of the most important effects of the media is in setting priorities for the public, which, in turn, can have an impact on government. Overall, however, there is a lack of consensus as to the nature and extent of mutual influence between the media and government policy and on how public opinion fits into this relationship.

Although many scholars agree that the media’s influence on the public has increased during the past two decades (Mowlana 1996), the implications of this influence in state-society relations and the connections between foreign policy and public opinion (Holsti 1996; Seaver 1997) are not widely understood. Some claim that the media shape public opinion considerably (Naveh 2002; Paletz 2002), with the thought that politicians assume that the degree of media attention to a specific issue expresses its importance to the public (Linsky et al. 1986).

The media thus act as a selection device for the public’s and government’s agendas. At the same time, the influence of public opinion on policy depends on several factors: the type of political decision being made (e.g., security/economics), the specific stage in the political process, the existence of an external threat, the media goals or philosophies prevalent at the time (e.g., “watchdog” or government mouthpiece), the context of the decision (e.g., during crises), and perceived relevance of public opinion (Seaver 1997).

The failure to consider all sides of this media, public opinion, and foreign policy triangle leaves fundamental questions inadequately answered.

In the post-cold war era, understanding the interrelations of these elements has become even more important (Entman 2000; Nacos et al. 2000).

The end of the cold war influenced key perspectives on public opinion with regard to international relations and the role of the media (Bissell 2002; Holsti 1996). It appears that the media have attempted to fill the vacuum by searching for a suitable new framework in which to report events (Entman 2004; Kuypers 1997) and foreign policy issues-making foreign policy an even more complex matter to comprehend (Shapiro and Jacobs 2000). It is possible that the stability and the rationality that had formerly characterized public opinion corresponded to the existence of a stable international system and clear definitions of war and peace.

Perhaps public opinion underwent change in light of uncertainty in the new international reality (Entman 2004; Everts 2000).


The views of policy responsiveness to public opinion in the United States outlined in this paper reach different conclusions which cannot be easily reconciled. For some analysts, the relationship between citizen’s opinions and the policy output of governments is strong. Global studies of the opinion-policy link, which have included public opinion as an explanatory variable, usually report significant effects. These findings suggest that a pluralist model of American government may still have life.

Some other analysts contest claims that there is a systematic association between public opinion and policymaking. They think that the public opinion can be influenced by political elites, either through the strategic use of polling and political rhetoric to change the salience of issues in the public mind or outright changing opinion on a particular issue.

At this point, I think several conclusions can reasonably be drawn. Where measured public opinion expresses a coherent view on a particular policy question in a way that is recognizable by political elites, it is more likely that the movement of policy will be in the direction of public opinion. However, within the broad parameters established by public opinion, politicians and policy entrepreneurs often have substantial room to maneuver policy in detailed ways that are not visible to the public. For example, there are many different ways to reform welfare, combat the spread of communism in less developed countries, fight crime, reduce unemployment, or address energy shortages.

Also, while public opinion clearly sets important parameters on policymaking, the combination of contradictory public views on many key foreign policy issues and the capacity of political elites to shape or direct citizens’ views significantly reduces the independent impact of public opinion.

The changing institutional vortex – including the rise of the mass media and the growing importance of money in the political system – has simultaneously increased our capacity to understand public opinion and made it easier for elites to manipulate or work around it. The vexing question of how much influence citizens have over democratic governments, frequently asked and answered in the past, remains frustratingly indefinable.

There are two distinct components at work here. Policy questions are inherently multi-sided, and it is frequently the case that policy and political entrepreneurs can draw upon particular issue framings and broad ideological underpinnings that have popular support to promote a particular policy agenda (cf. Benford and Snow 2000). In this sense, the flow of causality is reversed: elites can “use” public opinion as a weapon of political struggle, instead of merely responding to it.


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