Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

Mini Teaser: Why policymaking elites and foreigners alike distrust the judgment of Americans.

by Author(s): Daniel W. Drezner

When it comes to American foreign policy, U.S. policymakers and citizens from the rest of the world would not be expected to see eye to eye. They do, however, agree on one thing-they both mistrust how ordinary Americans think about international relations.[1]

Elite wariness of American attitudes towards foreign policy has been around since the days of Walter Lippmann. In The Public Philosophy, he warned, "The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials. . . .Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this country. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death." When American troops were deployed to Somalia, George Kennan lamented in The New York Times that American foreign policy was "controlled by popular emotional impulses, and particularly ones provoked by the commercial television industry."

The rest of the world is equally wary of American public opinion. Resentment of American power has been longstanding, but in this decade it has metastasized into something worse. Foreigners have seen President Bush articulate a doctrine of unilateral, preventive war in the name of democratic regime change, invade Iraq in support of that doctrine and get re-elected for his troubles. Since 2002, Pew polls in 16 countries spanning the globe show support for the United States declining in every country except Pakistan, Lebanon and India. To understand the depth of the problem, consider that in 2005 every country in Western Europe had a more favorable opinion of the People's Republic of China than of the United States. This could be written off as hostility to the Bush Administration's foreign policy, except for one problem-the same polls also show increased hostility to the American people.

There are two sources of concern about how ordinary Americans think about the world. First, Americans are believed to hold inconstant, inattentive, irrational and ill-considered opinions about how foreign policy should be conducted. Because Americans are so uninformed about foreign affairs, scholars and policymakers have historically argued that the public reacts to current events based on emotion rather than reason. This leads to a public with erratic mood swings about the foreign policy issues of the day. Policymakers in all countries fear the unpredictability of an electorate that can switch from "stay the course" to "cut and run" in response to a compelling news story. Ted Sorensen epitomized this belief when he said in 1963, "Public opinion is often erratic, inconsistent, arbitrary, and unreasonable-with a compulsion to make mistakes." Discussions of the "CNN effect" are merely the most recent manifestation of this concern.

The second-and somewhat contradictory-source of concern is that Americans hold naive and idealistic convictions about how U.S. foreign policy should operate, and that those beliefs make many people uncomfortable. In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau fretted that, "The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil." Because Americans operate on a moralistic system of beliefs, they are judged to be incapable of grasping the concept of a dispassionate, hard-headed national interest.

This moralistic portrait of American beliefs fits with foreign concerns about the rampant religiosity of Americans. To put it bluntly, the growth of evangelical beliefs in America has put the fear of God into non-Americans. Foreigners are concerned that Americans share a proselytizing instinct to spread American values across the globe. George W. Bush's phraseology in his second inaugural address, with its mix of righteous imagery and democratic idealism, epitomizes these fears:

From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. . . .

Are these fears about the American public grounded in fact? That is the question that two recent books endeavor to answer, each in slightly different ways. In America Against the World, polling guru Andrew Kohut and National Journal columnist Bruce Stokes compare and contrast American attitudes with those of twenty other countries that have been polled in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Their book is not only about questions of foreign policy-they want to know if Americans hold views on God and man that put them out of step with the rest of the world. In The Foreign Policy Disconnect, Northwestern professor Benjamin Page looks at whether Americans disagree with their political leaders about international relations. Page is assisted by Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which has polled Americans about their foreign policy beliefs every four years for the past three decades.

In detailing the patterns and gaps between the American public and others, these books nicely complement and occasionally contradict each other. Both The Foreign Policy Disconnect and America Against the World will add grist to the mill for those who profess faith in the wisdom of crowds and doubts about the judgment of foreign policy experts. After cogitating on both books, it would be difficult for the informed reader to believe that Americans hold irrational or flighty views about foreign policy. Most Americans, on most issues, articulate what George W. Bush characterized as a "humble" foreign policy during the 2000 campaign. They want a prudent foreign policy based on security against attacks and threats to domestic well-being-though American attitudes about multilateralism remain an open question. The gaps between American attitudes and the rest of the world are overstated; the gaps between Americans and their policymakers might be understated. The biggest question-which neither of these books answers satisfactorily-is to what extent these views, and gaps between views, matter.

Where Americans Agree

There are a number of areas where Page-Bouton and Kohut-Stokes find agreement. Perhaps the most important is that there is such a thing as an American public opinion. This is something of a surprise-the tendency in polling studies is to break down samples by various demographic factors such as race, education or income. In the process, it is often assumed that summary statistics about public opinion mask deep ideological, racial or socioeconomic splits among different sub-groups.

In contrast, both of these books conclude that what unites American attitudes is far stronger than what divides them. Demographics occasionally matter on the margins-Jews are more likely to support pro-Israeli policies, and highly-educated citizens are more likely to support aid to Africa, for example. In the main, however, Page and Bouton find that "on most issues, majorities of Americans of all sorts, from all walks of life, hold rather similar opinions." In their analysis, demographic factors account for less than 5 percent of the variation in individual attitudes.

Similarly, Kohut and Stokes look to see if "blue staters" in the United States have a greater ideological affinity with Europeans than red-state Americans. They do find a greater affinity between Democrats and Europeans on some national security issues-Democrats are closer to European attitudes about the United Nations, for example. However, Kohut and Stokes also find that the similarities outweigh the differences: "the data simply do not support the notion that members of the Democratic Party or residents of the coastal regions of the country would feel more at home on the other side of the Atlantic."

If Americans speak with a single voice, what is that voice saying? For one thing, Americans are not nearly as enthusiastic about exporting American values abroad as many of their current leaders. Both studies, relying on different survey instruments, reveal that when Americans are asked to prioritize their foreign policy goals, issues like promoting human rights and democracy elsewhere rank near the bottom. Indeed, in 2004 only 14 percent of Americans said "bringing democratic government" to others should be a very important goal. (This is not to say that Americans do not want these things. Indeed, Kohut and Stokes find that 79 percent of Americans believe the spread of American ideas and customs to be a good thing-it is simply that Americans consider other foreign policy priorities to be more important.)

Page and Bouton do a particularly thorough job of emphasizing this point. They divide foreign policy goals into security against attack, security of domestic well-being and international justice. Security against attack includes preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and combating international terrorism. Security of domestic well-being includes goals like securing adequate energy supplies and halting the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. These goal categories are the ones that generate the strongest support from Americans. More than twice as many Americans rank combating terrorism or protecting the jobs of American workers as very important as compared to the promotion of human rights abroad. Regardless of race, color, creed or gender, both books find that Americans value their security over promoting American values abroad.

Essay Types: Essay