The Skeptics

Foreign Influence in the News?

In my last post, I wrote about why United States’ new Virtual Embassy Tehran will fail to communicate persuasively with Iranian audiences. This post considers almost the complete opposite issue: the ability of foreign leaders to influence the American audience through the U.S. news media.

In a fascinating article published recently in the American Journal of Political Science, Danny Hayes and Matt Guardino identify a puzzle: a majority of the Democratic public opposed the Iraq war before the invasion despite an almost complete lack of cueing information from Democrat leaders in Congress. This, they rightly note, flies in the face of almost all we think we know about how political communication and public opinion formation work. As many studies have shown, the public takes it cues from elite leaders on public issues, particularly on those about which people are too ill informed to have opinions of their own.

To resolve the puzzle Hayes and Guardino propose a controversial argument: that American Democrats took cues about the war from foreign elites. Historically this possibility has been ruled out by decades of research arguing that Americans do not trust foreign elites enough to take their cues, that the news media does not cover foreign elites enough to matter or that foreign elites simply communicate in ways that appear irrelevant to U.S. policy debates.

Hayes and Guardino present persuasive evidence that these long-held beliefs are outdated and that the process of foreign-elite influence depended on three main factors:

First, rank-and-file Democrats were predisposed to oppose unilateral military intervention, making them receptive to elite cues critical of the war.

Second, Democrats in Congress failed to articulate an oppositional position in the mass media, leaving a rhetorical vacuum that foreign elites later filled. Had Democrats in Congress offered vocal opposition, Guardino and Hayes argue, foreign elites would likely have played a far smaller role, given Americans’ preference for adopting an American position to a foreign position, other things being equal.

Third, the news media gave considerable attention to foreign elites. Hayes and Guardino found that one-third of all reported statements on U.S. nightly network television news came from foreign elites. Almost all of that commentary was critical of the war and thus often resonated with Democratic predispositions.

The result, Hayes and Guardino estimate, was a decrease of .09 in the probability that a survey respondent favored military action, or about a nine-percentage-point drop in support for the war.

What should we take away from this fascinating study? Should we be concerned about foreign influence on American political debate on foreign policy? Or should we embrace a more internationally diverse debate in a globalizing world? And how often should we expect situations like this to arise?

I believe that the implications are fairly limited for three reasons. First, the prerequisites for foreign-elite influence are unlikely to hold very often. Simply put, U.S. elites are usually quite vocal in their opposition to one another, even in the realm of foreign policy. Though the president certainly has some control over the timing and nature of debate over foreign policy and war, Bush wielded an unusually high degree of “rhetorical coercion” over Democrats in Congress in the wake of 9/11 by bringing the debate to a boil just before a Congressional midterm election. In general, however, the vigorous debate in Congress before the first Gulf War represents a more likely scenario. Even the debate about U.S. intervention in Libya this past year reflected both the pro- and anti-intervention positions.

Second, I think that foreign-elite influence is likely to be a unidirectional phenomenon. Democrats may indeed be open to foreign-elite opinions, especially from liberal European leaders, thanks to their greater openness to multilateralism. Republicans, however, seem to me highly predisposed to reject foreign-elite cues, in part due to their higher ethnocentrism and in part due to the long pattern of Republican bashing of the United Nations and other foreign influences on U.S. foreign policy. Whether you see this as a good thing or not, it cuts roughly in half the theoretical number of people who can be influenced by foreign elite cues.

Finally, in the case of the Iraq war, foreign elites may have been the more vocal carriers of the antiwar position, but in reality they were only making arguments that U.S. Democrats in Congress were too afraid to make in public. Rather than relying on un-American logic or rationales, foreign elites in the news essentially represented the basic Democratic position. Thus, though the news media probably helped tilt the information playing field back towards the Democrats a bit, they did not change the nature of the information environment in a radical way.