The Common Sense

The Common Sense

Mini Teaser: A policy consensus is emerging that stresses economic enrichment through open markets, allows for the inclusion of less developed countries with their acts together and seeks to alleviate or at least contain troubles in other parts of the world at

by Author(s): John Mueller

A few years ago international politics experienced the functional equivalent of World War III, only without the bloodshed. In a remarkably short time, virtually all the major problems that haunted international affairs for a half century were solved. The Cold War evaporated, the attendant arms race was reversed, intense disagreement over Eastern Europe and the division of Germany was resolved, and the threat of expansionist international communism simply withered away. In the wake of this quiet cataclysm, we have entered an extraordinary new era: If we apply conventional standards, the leading countries are today presented at the international level with minor, immediate problems and major long-range ones--but no major immediate problems or threats.

Some international relations scholars and writers have been trying, at times a trifle desperately, to refashion constructs and theories originally designed for an era with compelling threats to fit one that lacks them. Despite their efforts, however, a policy consensus seems to be emerging among those who actually carry out international affairs in the leading countries. It stresses as a primary goal economic enrichment through open markets and freer trade (rather than through empire or triumph in war as in days of old); it allows for the inclusion into the club of those less developed countries that are able to get their acts together; and it seeks cooperatively to alleviate troubles in other parts of the world if this can be done at low cost (particularly in lives), and to isolate and contain those troubles that cannot be so alleviated.

In this new world dominated by unthreatened wealth seekers, public opinion will play its role in U.S. foreign policy, and as always it will be an important one. Many have rued this condition, George Kennan famously among them, but looked at over time, the general sense of the American public on core issues of foreign policy has often been rather coherent and reasonable--sometimes more so than that shown by the country's elites.

There is a considerable cache of good data about public opinion on foreign policy, some of it sufficiently consistent in design over time to show reliable patterns. Such data do not, of course, announce their own interpretations, but their meaning can be teased out. Based on extensive analysis of this data--but without drowning the narrative in a half ton of documentary footnotes--I offer here ten propositions about American public opinion that bear important implications for the practice of foreign policy in our new era. Some of these propositions will strike many readers as obvious, others may seem counterintuitive--but not necessarily to the same readers.

Two facts are central: The public pays little attention to international affairs, and nothing much can be done about it; this, however, does not mean that Americans have become, or are becoming, isolationist.

Even in an age in which international interdependence is supposedly increasing by the minute, Americans principally focus on domestic matters. From time to time their attention can be diverted by major threats, or by explicit, specific, and dramatic dangers to American lives. But once these troubles vanish from the scene, the public returns to domestic concerns with considerable alacrity. So strong is the evidence on this score that it must be accepted as a fact of life that no amount of elite cajoling or uses of the bully pulpit will ever change.

According to the data, over the last sixty years the few events that have notably caused the public to divert its attention from domestic matters include the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and certain Cold War crises before 1963. Also included in this list, fleetingly at least, were the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80, perhaps embellished by concern over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the apparent prospect in the early to mid-1980s of nuclear war; and the Gulf War. That's about it; at no time since the 1968 Tet Offensive have foreign policy concerns outweighed domestic ones in the public eye--even in the midst of the Gulf War.

Nevertheless, the data suggest that the public has not become newly isolationist--it is about as accepting of involvement in foreign affairs as ever. That the American public has been able to contain its enthusiasm for sending American troops to police such trouble spots as Bosnia and Haiti does not mean that it has turned isolationist. Americans were willing, at least at the outset, to send troops to die in Korea and Vietnam because they subscribed to the view that communism was a genuine and serious threat to the United States that needed to be stopped wherever it was advancing. But polls from the time make clear that they had little interest in risking American lives simply to help out beleaguered South Koreans or South Vietnamese. Moreover, poll questions designed directly to measure isolationism find little change in the wake of the Cold War. In other words, the public does not pay much attention to foreign affairs most of the time, but it seems ready to care about foreign affairs if there is a clear, obvious reason to do so. This trait has been fairly consistent over many years.

2The public undertakes a fairly sensible cost-benefit accounting when evaluating foreign affairs and, not unreasonably, the key to its definition of cost is the high value it places on American lives.

Public opinion analysis generally supports the proposition that the American people will tolerate a substantial loss of American lives if the enemy is seen to be powerful and set on jeopardizing vital American interests. But the notion that Americans should die to police a small, distant, perennially troubled, and unthreatening place has always proved difficult to sell. Nor has it been possible to generate much support for the notion that American lives should be put at risk in order to encourage democracy abroad.

After Pearl Harbor the American public had no difficulty accepting the necessity, and the human costs, of confronting the threats posed by Germany and Japan. And after the war, it came to accept international communism as a similar source of threat and was willing to support military action to combat it. However, as the Cold War's hot wars progressed in Korea and Vietnam, the data show clearly that the public undertook a continuing reevaluation of these premises, and, as it did, misgivings mounted. The data also suggest that these misgivings were primarily a function of cumulating American casualties, not of television coverage and, in the case of Vietnam, definitely not of antiwar protest.

Policy in the Gulf War was subject to a similar calculus. Many Americans bought George Bush's notion that it was worth some American lives--perhaps one or two thousand, far lower than in Korea or Vietnam--to turn back Saddam Hussein's aggression in Kuwait. But it is clear from poll data that support for the effort would have eroded quickly if significant casualties had been suffered.

While the public's concern about American lives often seems nuanced, there are times when it becomes so obsessive, so unreasonable by some standards, that policy may suffer in consequence. In the case of Vietnam, public opinion essentially supported the war until American prisoners-of-war held by Hanoi were returned; after that burden was eased, the weight of growing misgivings overtook any inclination to press on. Although some might question the wisdom of continuing a war costing thousands of lives to gain the return of a few hundred prisoners, it would be difficult to exaggerate the political potency of this issue. In a May 1971 poll, 68 percent agreed that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of the year. However, when asked if they approved of withdrawal "even if it threatened [not cost] the lives or safety of United States POWs held by North Vietnam", support for withdrawal plummeted to 11 percent.

The emotional attachment to prisoners-of-war has been a recurring theme in the politics of U.S. military interventions. It was central to the lengthy and acrimonious peace talks in Korea, and outrage at the fate of American POWs on Bataan probably generated as much hatred for the Japanese during the Second World War as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Saddam Hussein's decision to parade captured American pilots on television early in the Gulf War ranks among his many major blunders. The preoccupation with hostages held by Iran during the crisis of 1979-81, and after that the fate of a few abducted Americans in Lebanon--a concern that helped to generate the Iran-Contra scandal--are also cases in point.

On the other hand, Americans seem quite insensitive to casualties suffered by foreigners, including foreign civilians. During the Gulf War Americans displayed little animosity toward the Iraqi people. However, the available data show that this view did not translate into sympathy for Iraqi casualties. Extensive coverage of civilian deaths in an attack on a Baghdad bomb shelter had no effect on attitudes toward U.S. bombing policy. Similarly, images of the "highway of death", and early postwar reports that 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had died in the war (a figure too high probably by a factor of more than ten), scarcely dampened the enthusiasm of the various "victory" parades and celebrations.

These basic characteristics of American opinion are also illustrated by the public response to the international mission to Somalia in 1992-93. American policy there has been labeled a "failure" because, although tens and probably hundreds of thousands of foreign lives were saved, a few Americans were killed in the process. In essence, when Americans asked themselves how many American lives peace in Somalia was worth, the answer was rather close to zero.

3The public's attitudes on foreign affairs are set much more by the objective content of the issue and by the position of major policymakers (including the political opposition) than by the media.

The media are not so much agenda setters as purveyors and entrepreneurs of tantalizing information and, like any other entrepreneur, they are susceptible to market forces. If they give an issue big play, it may arrest attention for a while, but this is no guarantee the issue will "take." As with any business enterprise, media moguls follow up on those proffered items that stimulate their customers' interest. In that very important sense, the media does not set the agenda, the public does.

Concern about the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, for example, is often taken to have been media-generated since it was only after the problem received prominent play that it entered the public's agenda. However, the media were at first reluctant to cover the issue because they saw African famine as a dog-bites-man story. Then NBC television decided to buck the consensus and do a three-day sequence on it, and this in turn inspired a huge public response, whereupon NBC gave the crisis extensive follow-up coverage while its television and print competitors scrambled to get on the bandwagon. There is a sense, of course, in which it could be said that NBC put the issue on the public's agenda. But the network is constantly doing three-day stories, and this one just happened to catch on, to strike a responsive chord. It seems more accurate, then, to say that NBC put the item on display--alongside a great many others--and that it was the public that found it there, picked it out, and took it home.

The "CNN effect" is vastly exaggerated. It follows from the above that the argument that television pictures set the public's agenda and policy mood--the so-called CNN effect--is hard to credit. This effect is usually taken to mean that televised images can cause intense interest where there might otherwise be none, and that such interest can have important effects on policy. Sometimes this might be the case, but, on balance, the CNN effect is exaggerated, and some interpretations of it seem well off the mark.

Essentially, believers in the CNN effect contend that people are so unimaginative that they react only when they see something visualized. However, Americans were outraged and quickly mobilized over the Pearl Harbor attack months before they saw any pictures of the event. Less obvious but more important, the Vietnam War was not noticeably more unpopular than the Korean War for the period in which the wars produced comparable American casualties, despite the fact that the later war was a "television war", while the earlier one was fought during that medium's infancy.

The conventional wisdom about the CNN effect amounts to a triumph of myth over matter. After all, for years we were deluged by pictures of horrors in Bosnia and, while these pictures may have influenced the opinion of some editorial writers and columnists, there was remarkably little public demand to send American troops over to fix the problem. Nor did poignant and memorable pictures inspire a surging public demand to do much of anything about Rwanda or Haiti. The reason, it would seem from the data, is disarmingly simple: Whatever the pictures showed, the public saw no serious threat to American security in either of these cases that could justify risking American lives.

On those rare occasions when pictures have--or seem to have--an impact, as over Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, observers eagerly note the fact. But when pictures fail to have an impact, the same observers fail to notice that fact--or come up with tortured accountings to explain the media's lack of impact. This slippery process is nicely illustrated by the case of the journalist Jack Germond.

As the Haitian crisis was heating up in 1994, Germond pointedly noted that "We're seeing the coverage of children starving and ill and so forth." When it was pointed out to him that the polls were suggesting that most Americans did not want troops in Haiti because it was not in the country's vital national interest, Germond responded, "The numbers might change if we keep getting all this film about the starving kids there." However, when the numbers didn't change, he later mused, "It's interesting that three or four years ago in Somalia, for example, television film of starving children was enough to make the country act. Now, television film of starving children in Haiti and atrocities is not enough." Groping for an explanation, Germond philosophized, "No one wants to say so, but there's a race factor here. There's no question about that." That the starving children in Haiti happened to be of the same race as those in Somalia did not dampen his punditry in the slightest.

Another example: One explanation offered for the unwillingness of the American public to send troops to Bosnia is that the constant suffering shown on television happened not to "sensitize" the public but rather "inured" it. We are supposed to believe that whether the public, in its collective wisdom, concludes that troops should or should not be sent, television is always somehow the cause. It isn't.
5Foreign policy has become less important in judging the performance of the president and of presidential contenders.

During the Cold War, foreign policy was often important in presidential elections, but in its wake the general tendency of the American public to ignore foreign policy in national elections has been given free reign. Banking on his Gulf War success and on his opponent's lack of experience in foreign policy, George Bush tried hard to make foreign affairs a central issue in the 1992 campaign, but failed. His ratings for handling the economy plummeted within days of the end of the war as the public quickly refocussed its attention on domestic matters. And when candidate Bill Clinton went out of his way to deliver a few serious foreign policy speeches, he found them generating little public or press attention. As suggested by the 1996 campaign, this phenomenon is likely to continue.

6The advantage to a president of a success in a minor foreign policy venture is marginal; the disadvantage to a president of a failure in such a venture is more than marginal, but still far from devastating unless the failure becomes massively expensive.

If George Bush found little lasting electoral advantage in a large dramatic victory like the Gulf War, smaller accomplishments are likely to be even less rewarding in an era of great foreign policy inattention. America's recent venture into Haiti has been a success by most reasonable standards. Yet, while surely a feather in his cap, this venture has garnered Bill Clinton little credit--though it probably helped to diffuse his reputation for foreign policy ineptitude as a potential Republican campaign issue. Something similar could be said for his successes--possibly of historical importance--on the North American Free Trade Agreement and on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Although messing up marginal ventures can be politically damaging by contrast, particularly if seen to fall within a pattern of poor performance, the costs need not be high. This stems from the fact that the public has shown a willingness to abandon an overextended or untenable position after American lives have been lost: The deaths of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, for example, led to outraged demands for withdrawal, not for calls to revenge the humiliation.

This episode, as well as the withdrawal from Lebanon after a truck bomb killed 241 U.S. Marines in 1983, suggests that when peacekeeping leads to unacceptable deaths, peacekeepers can be readily removed with little concern for saving face. If a venture is seen to be of little importance in terms of serious American interests, a president can, precisely because of that, cut and run without fear of inordinate electoral costs--though it will hardly be something to brag about. U.S. military interventions, then, need not become "quagmires."

7If they are not being killed, American troops can remain in peacekeeping ventures virtually indefinitely with little public criticism; it is not important to have an "exit strategy", a "closed-end commitment", or "a time-certain for withdrawal" except for the purpose of selling an intervention in the first place.

Although there is an overwhelming political demand that casualties be extremely low in ventures deemed of minor importance, there seems to be little problem with keeping occupying forces in place as long as they are not being killed. After the deadly Somalia firefight, the Americans stayed on for several months and, since there were no further casualties, little attention was paid or concern voiced. Similarly, although there was scant public or political support for sending U.S. troops to Haiti, there has been almost no protest about keeping them there since none have been killed. And Americans have tolerated--indeed, hardly noticed--the stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in Europe, Japan, and South Korea for decades on end. If they are not being killed, it scarcely matters whether the troops are in Macedonia or in Kansas.

On the other hand, if American troops start to take casualties while on peacekeeping missions, there will be demands to get them out quickly, whatever "date-certain" for withdrawal had been previously arranged. Thus, despite calls for knowing in advance what the endgame will look like, the only real "exit strategy" required is the tactical flexibility to yank the troops abruptly from the scene if things go awry.

8A venture deemed of small importance is best sold not with cosmic internationalist hype, but rather as international social work that can be shrugged off if it goes wrong.

Most of the knotty and dramatic international problems that occupy the headlines are of remarkably little concern to the United States if one applies commonly accepted standards of what constitutes the national interest--and the public seems to be applying exactly those standards. Many problems are, in fact, mainly humanitarian in nature, exercises in what Michael Mandelbaum has called international "social work."

But the notion of the United States doing international social work is not necessarily a non-starter. There is, after all, adequate support for domestic social work. International social work might best be sold in the same way as the domestic variety--as a good faith effort that can be abandoned if the client proves untreatable, rather than wrapped in the false guise of strategic interest. By contrast, in 1995 President Clinton argued that, "If war reignites in Bosnia, it could spark a much wider conflagration. In 1914, a gunshot in Sarajevo launched the first of two world wars"--a historical parallel that was wildly overdrawn, as numerous commentators promptly pointed out. Despite Clinton's claim that a new war in Bosnia "could spread like a cancer throughout the region", the "conflagration" in Bosnia seems, if anything, to have been successfully contained.

In principle, grandiloquent rhetoric can restrict later policy flexibility: If the fate of Europe really does hinge on tiny Bosnia (Clinton: "Europe will not come together with a brutal conflict raging at its heart"), failure there would be disaster. Fortunately, however, the public often seems more sensible on such matters than its leaders. When he sent the Marines to help police Lebanon, Ronald Reagan declared that "in an age of nuclear challenge and economic interdependence, such conflicts are a threat to all the people of the world, not just to the Middle East itself." Despite such an overblown sales pitch, however, the public had no difficulty accepting Reagan's later decision to have the Marines "re-deployed to the sea" after 241 of them were killed by a truck bomb.

The American people clearly do not spend a lot of time musing over public policy issues, particularly international ones. But they are grown-ups and, generally, they react as such. Policymakers might do well occasionally to notice this elemental and important fact.

9A danger in peacekeeping missions is that Americans might be taken hostage, something that can suddenly and disproportionately magnify the perceived stakes.

Because of the overriding importance Americans place on American lives, policy in low-valued ventures remains vulnerable to hostage-taking. As noted, peacekeeping missions need not become quagmires because the president can still abruptly withdraw troops from an overextended position with little long-lasting political cost. However, this flexibility can be dramatically compromised if American troops are taken hostage.

This is illustrated by some evidence from the Somalia episode. In the debacle of October 1993, a Somali group captured one American soldier. Polls clearly demonstrated that the public was determined that U.S. forces remain until the prisoner was recovered and only then to withdraw. Some opposition to placing U.S. soldiers on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria has rested in part upon fear that U.S. personnel might be taken hostage by Syrian-supported Shi'a fundamentalists--and perhaps killed as well, as was the fate of Lt. Col. William Higgins in 1989. While such fears may be exaggerated, and sometimes pressed into political service for ulterior reasons, the concern is by no means baseless.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states and international terrorism remain potentially attention-arresting concerns.

In an era free of compelling threats, few concerns can turn the public's attention to foreign affairs. However, polls show that from time to time nuclear weapons do seem to retain some of their legendary attention-arresting aura, and the same may hold for biological and chemical weapons.

While it is not entirely clear what a country like North Korea, Iran, Iraq would actually do with a nuclear weapon or two--confronted as they are by countries that have thousands of them--alarm over such a possibility can rise to notable levels. In 1994, 82 percent of the public (up from 58 percent four years earlier) identified "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons" as a very important foreign policy goal--putting it in third place in the poll's sixteen-item list. (The top two goals were really more of domestic than of foreign policy concern: "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S." and "protecting the jobs of American workers.") The public also selected "the possibility of unfriendly countries becoming nuclear powers" as the top "critical threat" to the United States.

The public's fear of international terrorism is also quite robust. On average, international terrorism kills fewer Americans each year than lightning, or colliding with a deer. But though terrorism is rather unimportant in that literal sense, it generates fear and concern far out of proportion to its objective significance; it was almost as oft-cited a "critical threat" as nuclear proliferation in the 1994 poll.

In the end, it seems, misanthropes and curmudgeons are the only truly happy people: no matter how much things improve, there will always be something to complain about and to worry over. When one problem is solved, another is quickly promoted to take its place. Thus, now that life expectancy has increased to a level that would have tested the credulity of our ancestors a century ago, we, their progeny, worry about the huge budget deficit substantially caused by the fact that people now live so long. Most Americans believe that there has been an increase over the last twenty years in air pollution and in the number of elderly living in poverty, when the reverse is decidedly the case. "Status quo", as Ronald Reagan reportedly liked to put it, "is Latin for 'the mess we're in'", and there is, reliably, always some mess somewhere to be in.

This general phenomenon carries over to international affairs as well. When a peace mission helps peoples in the former Yugoslavia to stop killing each other, pundits are quick to find fault because it is unable to entice them to love each other as well. Thus there is a school of thought that contends that the post-Cold War era is just as dangerous as the one we have left behind, and it counsels keeping commitments and defense spending high, and tolerance for the mischief of others low. So, even in a state of considerable peace the catastrophe quota will always remain comfortably full. Although the chances of a global thermonuclear war--or indeed of any war among major developed countries--have diminished to the point where remarkably few even remember the terror it once inspired, one can concentrate on more vaporous enemies like insecurity, uncertainty, instability, and what one European foreign minister, the late Johan Jorgen Holst of Norway, darkly labeled "unspecified risks and dangers." Or one can declare our new era to be profoundly, even dangerously, "complex" by conveniently forgetting the difficult and painful choices of the Cold War: The United States once had to treat Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire as a dictator who brought his country to ruin, but who had been on the right side in the Cold War; today it can treat him merely as a dictator who has brought his country to ruin.

In any event, it is clear that alarums about uncertainty and complexity from academics and pensive foreign diplomats will not cure the attention deficit disorder that, as usual, characterizes the American public's approach to international affairs. In an era free of compelling threats, the public is likely to continue happily to focus its ennui and its Weltschmerz on parochial matters, not foreign ones--at least until there is good reason for them to do otherwise. Given the record of its generally good sense, that is perhaps not such a tragedy.

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