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Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs

How Public Opinion Affects Presidential Decision Making

Thomas Knecht


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Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs

How Public Opinion Affects Presidential Decision Making

Thomas Knecht

“This important study focuses on the most difficult and least studied aspect of public opinion—its impact on American foreign policy. Thomas Knecht develops a model linking types of decisions and the stages of the decision-making process with the likely impact of public opinion. The fine case studies of the Gulf War and the response to the Ethiopian famine draw on both archival research and interviews. This is a major addition to the growing literature on public opinion and foreign policy.”


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Do American presidents consider public opinion when making foreign policy decisions? In a democracy, it is generally assumed that citizen preferences inform public policy. For a variety of reasons, however, foreign policy has always posed a difficult challenge for democratic governance. In Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs, Thomas Knecht offers new insights into the relationship between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. He does so by shifting our focus away from the opinions that Americans hold and toward the issues that grab the public’s attention. Policy making under the glare of public scrutiny differs from policy making when no one is looking. As public interest in foreign policy increases, the political stakes also rise. A highly attentive public can then force presidents to choose foreign policies that are less politically risky but usually less effective. By tracking the ebb and flow of public attention to foreign policy, this book offers a method of predicting when presidents are likely to lead, follow, or simply ignore the American public.
“This important study focuses on the most difficult and least studied aspect of public opinion—its impact on American foreign policy. Thomas Knecht develops a model linking types of decisions and the stages of the decision-making process with the likely impact of public opinion. The fine case studies of the Gulf War and the response to the Ethiopian famine draw on both archival research and interviews. This is a major addition to the growing literature on public opinion and foreign policy.”

Thomas Knecht is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Westmont College.


List of Figures and Tables

Preface and Acknowledgments

A Note on the Surveys


1. Foreign Policy in the Shadows and the Spotlight

2. The Five Stages of Decision Making

3. Patterns of Public Attention

4. The Persian Gulf Crisis: Problem Definition and Option Generation

5. Operation Desert Storm: Decision, Implementation, and Review

6. The Ethiopian Famine: Problem Definition and Option Generation

7. The Ethiopian Famine: Decision, Implementation, and Review


Appendix A: Quantitative Methods

Appendix B: Case Study Methods




Does public opinion influence U.S. foreign policy? The prevailing wisdom in the foreign policy literature is that public opinion can, at times, influence presidential decision making. Two examples in particular serve to illustrate the potential effect of the public on presidents’ policy choices. In March 1999, NATO warplanes bombed Serbian targets in an effort to end the violence against ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo region. In the prelude to conflict, only a plurality (46 percent) of Americans approved of using U.S. military force to protect Kosovars from Serbian ethnic cleansing. Despite such minimal public support for intervention, President Clinton believed that the situation in the Balkans justified U.S. military involvement. After committing U.S. forces to Kosovo without the backing of a majority of the American public, President Clinton opted for a low-risk military strategy specifically designed to minimize U.S. casualties in hopes of increasing domestic support for intervention. This strategy was largely a political success: no U.S. military personnel lost their lives in the Kosovo intervention, and public approval of Clinton’s decision to use force jumped to 68 percent by the end of the conflict.

While campaigning for office in 1988, George H. W. Bush promised, if elected, to address the issue of global warming during his presidency. Despite this pledge, and despite the public’s concern with climate change (63 percent), little effort was made to tackle global warming until late in Bush’s presidency. In June 1992, a framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was introduced at the Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro. Over 60 percent of the public believed that the United States should commit to the Rio Treaty, even at a potential cost of billions of dollars to the American taxpayer. This high degree of public support influenced the Bush administration’s decision to sign the treaty, even though the administration believed it to be fundamentally flawed and detrimental to U.S. interests. Two years after Rio, however, emission of greenhouse gases in the United States not only had failed to decline but had actually increased.

These two examples demonstrate that public opinion can affect foreign policy making, and also that the public sometimes exerts influence at different points in the decision-making process. In the case of Kosovo, the public appeared influential in shaping how the United States would carry out its military intervention, but not in the actual decision to intervene. Conversely, the public influenced the George H. W. Bush administration’s decision to sign the Rio Treaty but seemed to play little role in subsequent enforcement of emission standards. Additionally, the point at which public opinion entered the decision-making process shaped policy outcomes in both cases. In Kosovo, a zero-casualty military strategy was effective in increasing public support for intervention, yet it proved strategically flawed when the United States made a number of military blunders, not the least of which was bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In the global warming case, the decision to sign the Rio Treaty enjoyed strong popular support, yet lax enforcement of the treaty later undermined the public’s mandate to “do something” about global climate change.

The purpose of this book is to develop and test a theory on the relationship between American public opinion and presidential foreign policy making. The argument is one of conditional responsiveness, where presidents sometimes lead, sometimes follow, and sometimes ignore the American public. In a sense, then, the American public loosely holds the reins of U.S. foreign policy, periodically giving them a tug but all too often just going along for the ride. To better understand the role of public opinion in U.S. foreign policy, it is useful to first review the current literature. This will set the stage for a brief overview of the conditional theory of political responsiveness and the tenuous relationship between the American public and U.S. foreign policy.

The American Public–Foreign Policy Connection

We assume in a democracy that mass opinion is eventually translated into public policy, either by citizens electing leaders who closely match their own opinions and/or by rational politicians who are clever enough to discern and meet their constituents’ preferences between elections. Political representation is especially important when it comes to foreign policy. After all, a decision for war means that American soldiers might die; a free trade agreement can mean that your job will soon be outsourced; and international environmental agreements entail the difficult choice between a sustainable future and current economic growth. In short, the foreign policy choices made in Washington, D.C., affect us all, whether we recognize it or not. Unfortunately, the relationship between public opinion and American foreign policy is only poorly understood. We do know that a strong correlation exists between the preferences of Americans and the foreign policy choices that leaders make. However, how to explain this relationship has given rise to considerable debate about three possible causal pathways: political leadership, political representation, and political responsiveness (see figure 1).

The first explanation for the correlation between opinion and foreign policy is political leadership, which means that politicians lead the American public to hold certain views. The first wave of public opinion research in the 1950s and 1960s found most Americans to be ill-informed and ambivalent about foreign affairs, and as a result, it was thought that leaders generally ignored mass preferences when making their foreign policy choices. More recent studies also contend that public opinion plays little role in the actual formulation of policy, but with the caveat that policy makers work hard to convince the public to support the decisions they have already made. For instance, presidents can utilize the “bully pulpit” of the White House and extensive opinion polling to manipulate American opinion by framing an issue in a certain way and engaging in “crafted talk.” The ability of decision makers to lead public opinion is especially pronounced in foreign policy; most Americans hold weaker opinions and have less knowledge about international affairs than they do on bread-and-butter domestic issues. The executive branch can also shape public opinion through its considerable control over and selective dissemination of information. The mass media are often seen as complicit in this political arrangement by faithfully reporting, and rarely challenging, the White House position. While decision makers may not be responsive to public opinion overall, this view contends that politicians are quite clearly sensitive to the needs of influential political interest groups, international business leaders, and/or partisan activists.

The public opinion–foreign policy correlation might also be explained by political representation, in which decision makers and the American public, independent of any reciprocal influence, just so happen to hold the same view of an issue. This account seems plausible since citizens will presumably send to Washington the candidate who most closely mirrors their own policy preferences. Additionally, both policy makers and the public react to the same foreign policy events. For instance, there is little reason to expect that 9/11 affected Washington politicians any differently than it did the average American; after all, politicians are Americans too. When the American public and elected politicians hold similar opinions on foreign policy issues, there is no political leadership or political responsiveness. Instead, political representation occurs as elections work as they were arguably designed to work. However, the empirical evidence on the congruence of opinion between leaders and the masses is somewhat mixed. Although decision makers and the public do share a number of foreign policy preferences, there remain considerable gaps on certain important issues. For instance, the public tends to be more concerned than its leaders about foreign economic competition and globalization, less concerned about security policy, and less willing to deploy U.S. troops abroad.

In the final explanation for the correlation between mass opinion and foreign policy, political responsiveness, rational politicians set aside their own beliefs and dutifully follow public opinion. In contrast to the first wave of opinion research, recent studies have shown that the American public both cares about foreign affairs and holds foreign policy opinions that are “rational,” “prudent,” and “stable.” Indeed, Americans often base their voting decision on foreign policy issues, giving presidents an electoral incentive to do the public’s bidding. Additionally, the need for presidents to maintain or increase political capital can influence the foreign policy decisions of first- and second-term presidents alike. Unpopular foreign policies can quickly erode approval ratings, damaging a president’s prospects for a successful, and possibly more important, domestic agenda. Public opinion may also influence lame-duck presidents as they attempt to set the electoral stage for their heir apparent. Finally, while presidents may desire to lead the American public, they often find that their ability to do so is surprisingly limited. Rather than attempt to lead a reluctant and sometimes inattentive electorate, therefore, it is often easier for the savvy politician to simply cave in to public demands.

We are thus left with three very different causal pathways, each of which seems plausible and is backed by a wealth of evidence. Before we discuss which perspective is “correct,” it is important to make a simple clarification. Political leadership is fairly easy to understand, but representation and responsiveness are sometimes confused. Representation is distinguished from responsiveness in that the former tells us only that politicians and constituents hold the same opinion while the latter describes a more active relationship in which the public influences politicians. This book is interested in finding evidence of political responsiveness and identifying the process that produces it. After all, political responsiveness is really what is explored in the question “Does public opinion influence U.S. foreign policy?” The word influence signifies a power relationship—making someone act in a way that he or she would not have otherwise acted. We can then rephrase the central question of this book to make it even clearer: “When are presidents likely to abandon their preferred foreign policy for one favored by the public?”

Uncovering evidence of political responsiveness is a difficult task. Two key observations are necessary to determine whether responsiveness has or has not occurred. First, there must be some evidence that a decision maker’s choice differed from what he or she would have otherwise preferred. This means that the researcher must have considerable insights into the policy-making process and, more interestingly, into the mindset of the leaders who make these decisions. Second, if a policy choice is found to be different from the decision maker’s true preference, there must be some evidence that public opinion caused that deviation and not some other factor. In other words, we must rule out all the other pressures that can lead presidents to have a change of heart, such as demands from international allies, interests groups, bureaucrats, or Congress. Although finding evidence of responsiveness is a challenging task, uncovering what role, if any, the American public plays in U.S. foreign policy decisions is important enough to warrant the effort.

Why Focus on the White House?

This book focuses on presidential foreign policy making. Included in the analysis are the president, vice president, political advisors in the Executive Office of the President and the White House Office, and political appointees in the executive branch. There are several reasons to focus exclusively on the White House rather than broadening the analysis to include Congress or other political elites. First, presidents are uniquely positioned to play the most dominant role in U.S. foreign policy making. It is, of course, inaccurate to say that presidents have an unchallenged authority in foreign policy, but usually they have significantly more influence in international affairs than do other domestic political actors.

Second, presidents are more likely than other domestic political actors to feel the dual pressures of international and domestic politics. As the only nationally elected public official, the president has a strong incentive to represent the American public. At the same time, presidents are charged with advancing U.S. interests in world affairs. When these pressures conflict, as they often do, presidents are forced into a difficult political trade-off between domestic and international goals. By contrast, voters usually evaluate members of Congress on how well they respond to domestic policy and local issues. That presidents must reconcile conflicting demands from the international and the domestic levels makes the Oval Office a more theoretically interesting unit of analysis than Congress.

A Conditional Theory of Political Responsiveness

From a conceptual or theoretical standpoint, it would be fairly easy to understand the role of the American public in U.S. foreign policy if presidents always led or always followed mass opinion. However, the truth of political life is far too complicated to be captured by such simple, absolute statements. Rather than adopting an all-or-nothing approach, the emerging consensus in the literature is that political responsiveness is conditional. As Paul Burstein writes, “No one believes that public opinion always determines public policy; few believe it never does.” The task, then, taken up by a number of foreign and domestic policy scholars, is to identify the factors that can increase or decrease politicians’ sensitivity to public opinion.

The literature on conditional political responsiveness is vast and growing. For instance, Douglas Foyle, in Counting the Public In, examines how presidents’ normative and practical beliefs about the role that public opinion should play in foreign policy affect the role that it does play. Motivators for responsiveness can come from political factors, such as temporal proximity to the next election, or the level of presidential approval. Responsiveness can also vary according to the quality of information that presidents possess about mass opinion, or the degree to which citizens’ views seriously constrain a president’s freedom of action. In a sense, then, a conditional approach to political responsiveness suggests that all three causal explanations of the correlation between opinion and policy can be correct. Presidents can lead, follow, or ignore public opinion depending on the details of the situation.

This book presents and tests a theory of conditional responsiveness, integrating three concepts found in the conditional responsiveness literature—decision stages, public preferences, and issue salience—into a single model of the public opinion–foreign policy link. The theoretical model rests on five simple propositions outlined in chapter 1, which allow us to precisely identify when the American public might have a greater or lesser influence on foreign policy. As a starting point, I conceptualize presidential foreign policy making as a five-stage sequence consisting of problem definition, option generation, policy decision, implementation, and policy review (also detailed in chapter 1). The relative importance of public opinion as a presidential decision premise will be assessed at each of these five decision stages.

The theory then explores two mechanisms that can influence presidential responsiveness to public opinion: issue salience and public preferences. Presidents are likely to feel increased pressure to respond to public opinion when a large percentage of Americans are attentive to an issue (i.e., high issue salience). Likewise, presidents will likely feel increased pressure to respond when a significant majority of Americans hold the same preference on an issue. Therefore, it stands to reason that presidential sensitivity to public opinion reaches its apex when an issue is highly salient and enjoys widespread support. When public attention is focused elsewhere, or when Americans are divided in their preferences, political responsiveness is likely to decrease accordingly.

The analytical task then becomes to predict which of the five decision stages will see a convergence of high issue salience with a large majority preference. To do this, I compare the nature of public preferences and issue salience in foreign policy crises and noncrises. Although foreign policy crises usually produce a highly attentive public throughout the stages of the decision-making process, interest tends to peak during the implementation of a policy decision. Americans typically agree about what should take place at this stage of crises, particularly if the implementation of crisis policy means military conflict, which it often does. This confluence of high issue salience and unified public preferences offers presidents a strong incentive to be responsive during implementation. Noncrises are a different story. While certain types of noncrises can stimulate a high degree of public interest, that interest generally focuses on the government’s most visible policy decision and little else. Further, while the American public often demands that something be done about noncrisis problems, it usually offers little guidance on the precise solutions. Therefore, political responsiveness should be most evident at the policy decision stage of noncrises.

Implications of the Theory

This conditional theory of political responsiveness offers us several insights into the relationship between public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. First, by conceptualizing a single foreign policy case as a sequence of choices, we can examine the possibility that the causal direction between opinion and policy can change over the life of the event. Put differently, presidents can lead, follow, and ignore the American public, all within the same foreign policy case. As such, the model offers an improvement over theories that attribute unidirectional causality to the public opinion–foreign policy relationship.

Second, the book demonstrates that public opinion can indeed influence U.S. foreign policy—just not at the stages where we might expect, or hope, that it naturally would. For instance, one of the central conclusions of the analysis is that while mass opinion may have little influence on a president’s decision to go to war, the American public plays a surprisingly large role in shaping what the subsequent battle will look like. Perhaps the greatest revolution in military and strategic affairs since Vietnam has not been advances in weaponry or the end of the cold war, but rather the pervasive belief among political leaders that the American public is casualty phobic. This belief has impacted the ways that wars are fought and the steps that presidents now take to initiate military conflict. From a normative perspective, however, we might wish that the situation were reversed—that citizens would enjoy greater say in the crucial decision for war or peace, and that wars, if they must be fought, be conducted in a manner that is strategically effective and militarily efficient (within reason, of course). Yet it seems that presidents usually lead reluctant Americans into battle, only to turn around and follow the public once the decision for war has been made.

Third, our analysis shows that what the public does or does not pay attention to matters in foreign policy. Consider, for instance, the public’s interest in noncrisis foreign policies. A large percentage of Americans are attentive when a president signs an arms control treaty, agrees to limit global warming, or pledges U.S. aid to foreign nations ravaged by natural disasters. But how many people pay attention to whether the weapons are actually dismantled, whether corporations are taking advantage of undue loopholes in the implementation of a global warming accord, or whether U.S. aid actually reaches those in dire need? The answer: not too many. Instead, the public usually assumes that the policy decided on will be the policy implemented. We also assume that someone must be paying attention to ensure that everything is going according to plan. And we assume that someone will notify us if and when the plans go awry. These assumptions, while often justified, are sometimes misplaced. When the public turns its attention away from what is going on in Washington, D.C., U.S. foreign policy can veer dramatically off its original course, no matter what Americans prefer. After all, there are no political costs for the president who deviates from popular opinion when no one is looking.

Plan of the Book

The remainder of the book is organized as follows. Chapter 1 puts forth a theory of the policy-opinion link. The key aspect of the model is an examination of the interplay of public preferences and issue salience throughout the foreign policy process. Chapter 2 offers expectations of presidential sensitivity to public opinion at each decision-making stage—problem definition, option generation, policy decision, implementation, and policy review—for crises and noncrises. Chapter 3 empirically tests the expectation that issue salience moves in predictable ways. These data include some of the most important events in American foreign policy over the past forty years and bring breadth to the analysis. Having examined the fluctuation of issue salience in a large number of cases, the analysis then turns to two in-depth case studies—one crisis and one noncrisis—to assess the actual role of public opinion in presidential decision making. Chapters 4 and 5 examine presidential decision making in the 1990–91 Persian Gulf crisis. The Persian Gulf case is indicative of most crises in that the public remained highly attentive for the duration of the conflict, with interest being most intense during the actual conduct of the war. Although President George H. W. Bush attempted to lead the American public throughout most of the case, the influence of mass opinion became stronger during the implementation of policy. Chapters 6 and 7 assess a noncrisis case—the U.S. response to famine in Ethiopia during the mid-1980s. Although the Ethiopian famine lasted more than four years, the American public was only attentive for a period of roughly three months. Given a selectively attentive public, a close congruence between mass preference and U.S. food aid policy existed for only one brief decision-making stage. The book concludes with a discussion of the major findings of the analysis and their implications for American foreign policy, democratic theory, and political representation.