Foreign Policy

Don’t be so quick to place politicians’ views of “national interests” above the mood of the public

Sep 11 '13

In a news/opinion article entitled, “What Obama Really Thinks About Syria: The president’s TV interviews reveal the naked truths behind his posturing,” William Saletan writes:

Public opinion trumps national interests. When asked whether he would strike Syria without congressional support, Obama told ABC: “Strikes may be less effective if I don’t have congressional support and if the American people don’t recognize why we’re doing this. So I haven’t made a final determination in terms of what next steps would be.” On NBC, he said he would lobby Congress, deliver a TV address Tuesday night, and “I’ll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we’re willing to move forward. … I’ve made my decision about what I think is best for America’s national interests, but this is one where I think it’s important for me to pay close attention to what Congress and the American people say.” That sounds like a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests.

But we should be careful about so quickly opposing “public opinion” and “national interests.” As political scientist Benjamin Page wrote a few years ago, there are systematic differences between the attitudes of the public and of U.S. foreign policy elites:

Large majorities of Americans favor several specific steps to strengthen the UN, support Security Council intervention for peacekeeping and human rights, and favor working more within the UN even if it constrains U.S. actions. Large majorities also favor the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the new inspection agreement on biological weapons. Large majorities favor multilateral uses of U.S. troops for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes, but majorities oppose most major unilateral engagements. . . . Analysis of more than one thousand survey questions asked of both the public and foreign policy officials over a thirty year period by the CCGA (formerly CCFR) indicates that significant disagreements between officials and the public have been very frequent . . . Over the years, however, there have also been many disagreements over Defense issues (the public is more reluctant to use troops and more opposed to military aid and arms sales), and even more disagreement on international Economic issues: citizens are more worried about immigration and drugs, and much more concerned about the effects of trade on Americans’ jobs and wages.

Perhaps most relevant to Saletan’s discussion above, Page concludes that this is more of a problem with the experts than with the public, concluding:

Most gaps between citizens and officials appear to have more to do with differing values and interests than with differing levels of information and expertise. To the extent that this is true and that Americans’ collective policy preferences are coherent and reflective of the best available information, there would seem to be a strong argument, based on democratic theory, that policy makers should pay more heed to the public’s wishes.

An interesting insight in Page’s paper is that policymakers may prefer unilateralism because they can envision themselves making the policy and would like more freedom of action. In contrast, citizens in general have a more distant perspective that might actually be more realistic—given what we know from research in psychology about “the illusion of control.”

What Saletan calls “a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests” might better be characterized as a wise decision to go outside the unilateralist foreign policy consensus.