How The “Commander-in-Chief Test” Distorts the Politics of U.S. Foreign Policy

How The “Commander-in-Chief Test” Distorts the Politics of U.S. Foreign Policy

Presidential image-making has a tendency to take U.S. foreign policy in a hawkish direction.  


Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Professor Jeffrey A. Friedman’s forthcoming book, The Commander-in-Chief Test: Public Opinion and the Politics of Image-Making in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cornell University Press), reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

In his 1961 Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy called on his fellow citizens to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” These words capture the vigor and confidence of Kennedy’s leadership. They are a classic piece of political rhetoric, taught in countless public speaking classes, and carved in stone at Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps you, too, find something inspirational in Kennedy’s call to arms.


But do you agree with what Kennedy said? Should the United States pay any price to promote its foreign policy objectives? Do you think the United States should raise its spending on national defense at all? Today, most Americans say their government already spends enough, or too much, on its foreign policy agenda. And, when Kennedy ran for president in 1960, less than a quarter of Americans thought the defense budget was too small. Kennedy nevertheless believed that promising to raise military expenditures would help convince voters that he was a strong leader who would energetically promote U.S. interests around the world. This strategy was very successful, helping Kennedy to build an inspiring personal image that continues to resonate with the American public today.

Kennedy’s appeal to “pay any price, bear any burden” is an example of what I call an issue-image trade-off, a policy position that is not popular on its merits but that public officials nonetheless use to craft favorable impressions of their personal qualities. In my new book, The Commander-in-Chief Test, I demonstrate that this behavior is common in presidential politics, and that it consistently steers U.S. foreign policy in a direction that is more hawkish than what voters want. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, asked Congress to provide open-ended authorization for the use of force in Vietnam as a way to rebut charges that he was soft on communism, even though voters did not support escalating the war. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign manager advised him to “bomb Serbia to look strong,” even though a minority of voters supported military intervention in the Balkans. George W. Bush turned substantive criticisms of the Iraq War into a narrative that he was willing to “stick to his guns” in the face of political pressure, thereby translating public opposition to his policies into an indication of leadership strength. And, as I’ll describe in more detail below, Donald Trump publicly criticized allies to show that he was a hard-nosed bargainer who would prevent other countries from taking advantage of the United States, even though most voters disliked Trump’s abrasive posturing in its own right.

These examples involve Democrats and Republicans, incumbent presidents and presidential challengers, decisions made in and out of wartime, and policies developed in election and in non-election years. These cases show that, despite all the analysis that scholars, journalists, and pundits devote to understanding what voters think about foreign policy issues on their merits, leaders often pay more attention to determining how those issues shape perceptions of their fitness to serve as the country’s commander-in-chief.

Public Opinion and the Politics of Image-making in U.S. Foreign Policy

How does public opinion shape foreign policy? The standard answer to this question is that leaders build public support by making popular policy choices. This is a simple and intuitive idea of how democracy works. And, by this logic, U.S. foreign policy does not seem particularly democratic. Some of the most significant features of U.S. foreign policy – rising defense budgets, open-ended military interventions, and a tendency toward unilateralism – frequently conflict with voters’ policy preferences. A large volume of scholarship thus portrays U.S. foreign policy as being “disconnected” from public opinion, reflecting the attitudes of elites and special interests rather than the input of ordinary citizens.

This conventional wisdom underestimates the role that public opinion plays in shaping foreign policy. Though voters certainly prefer presidents who share their views on foreign policy issues, they place greater emphasis on selecting a commander-in-chief who seems like a strong leader who will vigorously promote America’s interests on the international stage. In attempting to satisfy these demands, presidents and presidential candidates often view hawkish foreign policies as useful tools for indicating that they are “standing up” to other countries in a manner that voters intuitively associate with leadership strength. This connection between hawkish behavior and perceptions of leadership strength encourages leaders to expand the scope U.S. foreign policy, to be more aggressive on the international stage, and to avoid making compromises that could be portrayed as backing down under pressure, even when voters do not agree with the substance of those choices.

Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology provides a good example of this phenomenon. Trump’s abrasive posture towards allies and international institutions was arguably the most distinctive element of his approach to global affairs. And voters did not appear to support that behavior on its merits. For instance, contemporary polls showed that sixty-four percent of Americans said that the United States should work more closely with the United Nations, even if that requires making policy compromises. Seventy-five percent of Americans supported maintaining or increasing America’s commitment to NATO. Eighty-eight percent of voters thought that it was important to be publicly supportive of allies. On their face, these data suggest that Trump’s aggressive unilateralism was a political anomaly: a pattern of behavior that was largely divorced from historical precedent or mass public opinion, and that is best explained by Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies, or by his attempts to energize his political base.

Trump’s behavior was nevertheless consistent with the way that other presidents and presidential candidates use controversial foreign policy stances as vehicles for crafting their personal images. And that is exactly how Trump portrayed his posture towards allies and international institutions. One of Trump’s core foreign policy messages while campaigning for president in 2016 was that prior administrations had made a series of poorly-negotiated deals that were unfair to the United States – and that, by contrast, Trump was a hard-nosed bargainer who could negotiate better deals on America’s behalf. Thus, when Trump announced the launch of his presidential campaign in June 2015, he argued that “This is going to be an election that’s based on competence, because people are tired of these nice people and they’re tired of being ripped off by everybody in the world.” In his own words, Trump’s political strategy revolved around showing that he would be a strong leader who would stick up for the United States in international negotiations.

Trump’s hostility towards allies and international institutions can thus be viewed as an issue-image tradeoff: a series of foreign policy positions that voters did not support on the merits but that nevertheless allowed Trump to craft an image of fighting hard to prevent other countries from exploiting the United States. And there are many reasons to think that this image resonated with voters. For example, a 2019 Center for American Progress study found that seventy-nine percent of voters thought that other countries should “pay more for their own security,” while sixty-five percent of Americans agree that “For too long, the U.S. has let other nations take advantage of us in terms of global trade and economic policies.” Thus, while voters may not have agreed with the specific ways in which Trump challenged allies and international institutions during his presidency, it is easy to see how they would have admired a leader who was willing to confront other countries in a manner that his predecessors had not. In that sense, the unprecedented nature of Trump’s hostility towards America’s traditional partners was exactly what made that behavior useful in the politics of image-making.

The Consequences of Image-making For U.S. Foreign Policy

Understanding how leaders use foreign policy issues to shape their personal images reveals that the role foreign policy positions play in American politics often resembles a “MacGuffin”: a literary object whose primary function is to advance a broader narrative. A classic example of a MacGuffin is how the title character in the 1941 film, Citizen Kane, utters the word, “Rosebud,” while dying. The rest of the film revolves around searching for what the word, Rosebud, means. Viewers eventually learn that Rosebud is the name of a sled, which itself represents the loss of childhood innocence. In some sense, Citizen Kane is thus a movie about a sled. But no one would gauge an audience’s response to Citizen Kane by asking viewers what they think about the sled. The sled is simply a device for conveying other elements of the story. Similarly, when leaders debate foreign policy issues, their stances often serve as devices for conveying other messages about their personal qualities. It is thus a mistake to gauge the public’s reaction to foreign policy debates by asking voters what they think about the issues – even though that is the focus of the vast majority of existing analysis on public opinion and foreign policy.