The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don't Get / Edition 1

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With world affairs so troubled, what kind of foreign policy should the United States pursue? Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton look for answers in a surprising place: among the American people. Drawing on a series of national surveys conducted between 1974 and 2004, Page and Bouton reveal that—contrary to conventional wisdom—Americans generally hold durable, coherent, and sensible opinions about foreign policy. Nonetheless, their opinions often stand in opposition to those of policymakers, usually because of different interests and values, rather than superior wisdom among the elite. The Foreign Policy Disconnect argues that these gaps between leaders and the public are harmful, and that by using public opinion as a guideline policymakers could craft a more effective, sustainable, and democratic foreign policy. 

Page and Bouton support this argument by painting a uniquely comprehensive portrait of the military, diplomatic, and economic foreign policies Americans favor. They show, for example, that protecting American jobs is just as important to the public as security from attack, a goal the current administration seems to pursue single-mindedly. And contrary to some officials’ unilateral tendencies, the public consistently and overwhelmingly favors cooperative multilateral policy and participation in international treaties. Moreover, Americans’ foreign policy opinions are seldom divided along the usual lines: majorities of virtually all social, ideological, and partisan groups seek a policy that pursues the goals of security and justice through cooperative means. Written in a clear and engaging style, The Foreign Policy Disconnect calls, in an original voice, for a more democratic approach to creating such a policy.

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Editorial Reviews

Perspectives on Politics
How can a U.S. president sustain a deeply unpopular foreign policy, seemingly uninfluenced by electoral setbacks or popular disapproval? Should the president be more responsive to public preferences? In [this] important and ambitious new book, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton bring to bear an impressive array of survey data in order to answer these and other questions central to the study of public opinion and U.S. foreign policy.

— Matthew Baum

Joseph S. Nye Jr.
“Experts are often skeptical of public views on foreign policy, but this fascinating book challenges that conventional wisdom. Page and Bouton show that the experts are wrong and American collective public opinion on foreign policy is generally coherent, consistent, and sensible. Anyone who wants to understand American foreign policy should read this book.”
Ole Holsti
“This work will become a classic. Certainly no specialist on public opinion and foreign policy could afford to overlook it. Beyond that, it should be required reading for anyone who cares about American foreign policy, especially those who may be somewhat disturbed by recent trends toward unilateralism.”<Ole Holsti, Duke University>
Paul Sniderman
“In its scope and detail, its array of levels of analysis, and above all, its engagement with politics itself, this study of public opinion has no equal.”
Perspectives on Politics - Matthew Baum
"How can a U.S. president sustain a deeply unpopular foreign policy, seemingly uninfluenced by electoral setbacks or popular disapproval? Should the president be more responsive to public preferences? In [this] important and ambitious new book, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton bring to bear an impressive array of survey data in order to answer these and other questions central to the study of public opinion and U.S. foreign policy."
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. He is the author or coauthor of, among other books, The Rational Public, Who Deliberates? and What Government Can Do.

Marshall M. Bouton has been president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations since 2001. He is the author of Agrarian Radicalism in South India and Korea at the Crossroads.

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Read an Excerpt

The Foreign Policy Disconnect What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don't Get
By Benjamin I. Page Marshall M. Bouton
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-64462-2

Chapter One Taking Public Opinion Seriously

In the following chapters we will show that large majorities of Americans favor a number of foreign policies designed to achieve security at home-security of domestic well-being-as well as security from attack and justice abroad, and that the public mostly favors cooperative, multilateral policies. We will also show that the actual foreign policies of the United States have often differed markedly from the policies that most Americans want. We will then argue that U.S. foreign policy would be more effective, and democracy in the United States healthier, if our government paid more attention to the views of its citizens.

But first we need to confront the objection that no one should care what sort of foreign policy the American public wants, because public opinion in general-and especially public opinion about foreign policy-is ephemeral and not worthy of serious attention. How can we assert the opposite?

Many American elites, including many foreign policy decision makers, scholars, and commentators, believe that the expressed opinions of the citizenry do not deserve much respect. Most ordinary people, their argument goes, do not devote serious time or attention to world affairs. Most do not have sufficient knowledge or skills to figure out how to protect U.S. national interests in a complex and rapidly changing world. Indeed-according to some skeptics-most people hold no real opinions at all about foreign policy: any responses they give to pollsters' questions are facile, thoughtless, top-of-the-head reactions, subject to drastic change the next time the same question is asked. Built on such shaky foundations, critics say, collective public opinion is unstable, unable to take the long view, and subject to emotional swings.

We disagree, for both theoretical and empirical reasons. Empirically, one of the main themes to unfold in this book is that the collective foreign policy preferences of the American public are in fact generally coherent, consistent, and stable and that-for the most part-they make a good deal of sense. The public's preferences regarding foreign policy tend to reflect widely shared historical experiences and shared goals and values, together with reasonable beliefs about other countries, reasonable perceptions of what threats and problems face the United States, and reasonable ideas about what kinds of policies work best.

Much of the book is devoted to analyzing what majorities of Americans want to do about a wide range of foreign policy issues, military, diplomatic, and economic. We put this portrait of current public opinion into the context of what the public has favored in the past, using three decades' worth of survey data. We also explore why Americans favor or oppose various policies, focusing on the goals they seek, the threats they perceive, their ideological and partisan commitments, and their feelings about specific countries. Within individuals' minds, these goals, perceptions, feelings, and basic attitudes tend to fit together into logically coherent patterns that we call "purposive belief systems."

As we describe the foreign policies favored by majorities of Americans, a second major empirical theme will begin to emerge: that the foreign policy the U.S. public wants is not always the foreign policy it gets. Again and again we will note cases in which the goals of ordinary Americans, and the specific means they favor for pursuing those goals (especially cooperative, multinational means), have differed markedly from actual U.S. foreign policy. In chapter 7 we will present systematic evidence of wide, persistent gaps-perhaps amounting to a "disconnect"-between the views of foreign policy decision makers and those of ordinary Americans. The authors believe that democratic theory and practical considerations both point toward the desirability of greater responsiveness by decision makers to the public.

Before we begin our empirical examination of U.S. public opinion on foreign policy and the connections or nonconnections between public opinion and policy makers, however, we need to explain, in general theoretical terms, why the critics are wrong and how it is possible that public opinion should be taken seriously. In this chapter we will also describe the data and methods used in the rest of the book.


Elected political leaders and the officials they appoint usually claim to serve the public. They mostly avoid saying unkind things about the voters who put them into office. Nonetheless, officials are often dismissive of "public opinion," especially as measured by opinion polls or surveys.

Skepticism about public opinion goes back at least to the founders of the United States, who feared the "passions" of ordinary citizens and tried to hedge them about with institutions designed to resist any hasty responsiveness to the public: an indirectly elected Senate, an indirectly elected president, and an appointed Supreme Court, each wielding separate powers, exerting checks and balances against each other and restraining the more popularly oriented House of Representatives. In Federalist Paper number 63, for example, James Madison argued that an institution such as the proposed Senate (whose members were originally to be selected by state legislatures rather than the voters) "may sometimes be necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions." Similarly Alexander Hamilton, in defending an independent and energetic executive authority, declared that the republican principle "does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests." Had the founders lived to see two centuries of expansion in the meaning of "the people"-to include not only relatively affluent white, male property owners but also laborers, women, and even former slaves-they might have been still more disturbed by the idea of direct popular rule. (Then again, they might have modified their views, as they saw the results of widespread public education and property holding.)

One might expect democratic theorists to disagree with the founders, to call for elected officials to heed the wishes of their citizens and respond to ordinary people's policy preferences. Some democratic theorists like Robert Dahl-with whom we largely concur-do in fact advocate substantial government responsiveness to deliberative public opinion. But many others, including Edmund Burke, Joseph Schumpeter, and Giovanni Sartori, have argued that officials should act as trustees for, rather than delegates of, the citizens, and that democratic norms are satisfied if officials are chosen by and accountable to the citizenry, even if they act against the public's currently expressed wishes.

Opposition to the idea of officials heeding public opinion has been particularly strong in the area of foreign policy. It has been expressed in stark terms by "realist" theorists of international relations (particularly classical realists), who advocate vigorous pursuit of "the national interest"-which they presume to be objectively ascertainable-no matter what the public may think. Hans Morgenthau, for example, argued that there is an "unavoidable gap" between the kind of thinking required for the successful conduct of foreign policy-an ability to take the long view and see the series of coordinated steps needed to achieve it, to accept small losses for great future advantage, to rationally evaluate constraints-and the "simple and moralistic" thinking of the general public, marred by erratically shifting "moods" and a hunger for quick results that sacrifices tomorrow's benefits. Morgenthau urged officeholders to shield U.S. foreign policy from the distorting influence of public thinking even "at the risk of their own [political] futures." He declared that government "is the leader and not the slave of public opinion."

Similarly, George Kennan spoke of the "erratic and subjective" nature of public reaction to foreign policy questions; he asserted that "public opinion ... can be easily led astray into areas of emotionalism and subjectivity which make it a poor and inadequate guide for national action." Walter Lippmann, who had, before the advent of survey research, authored two books on the alleged deficiencies of public opinion, later (in a Cold War essay) warned that the "public opinion of the masses cannot be counted upon to apprehend regularly and promptly the reality of things"; the public lacks cognitive capacity, knowledge, experience, and seasoned judgment. He went so far as to assert that public opinion had "shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death" and was "deadly to the very survival of the state as a free society."

Contemporary pundits and foreign policy decision makers are usually more cautious in their language, but they, too, often say that policy makers should ignore public opinion. Officials and commentators frequently insist that politicians should not "pander" to the opinions of the public, at least as manifested in polls. Even when debating such central domestic issues as Social Security or welfare reform, elected officials seldom discuss with any precision what the public wants; they rarely mention specific poll or survey results, and when they do cite public opinion they rather often get it wrong.

Critics of public opinion have received some support from systematic surveys of the attitudes and behavior of individual Americans, particularly in the early years of survey research. In the 1940s, the Columbia school of sociologists found evidence that few citizens paid much attention to politics, even during a presidential election campaign; that many people were confused about candidates' stands on major issues; and that demographic characteristics and personal influences seemed to have more impact than policy issues upon voting decisions. In the 1950s, University of Michigan scholars confirmed that most citizens were poorly informed about politics and found that identification with a political party, rather than deliberation about policy issues, dominated political thinking and voting choices. Around the same time, Gabriel Almond cited fluctuating responses to "most important problem" survey questions as evidence for a "mood theory" of vacillating public opinion about foreign policy, and James Rosenau argued that only a small fraction of Americans (perhaps fewer than 10 percent) met the criteria of an "attentive public" with regard to foreign policy.

A particularly telling blow against any idea of a real or stable public opinion seemed to be landed by Phillip Converse, who analyzed individuals' responses to policy preference questions that were repeated from one survey to the next in a University of Michigan panel study. Converse found that (on certain issues, at least) there was not much relation at all between what individuals said they favored in one survey and what the same people said two years or four years later. Their answers changed in ways that looked random, suggesting that they had no real opinions at all: only what he called "non-attitudes."

Subsequent research has modified some of these findings. Christopher Achen and others have pointed out that some of the instability in individuals' recorded responses may result from errors in survey measurement, not the absence of opinions. William Caspary showed that the proportion of Americans saying they wanted to take an active part in world affairs remained quite stable over time, contrary to the mood theory. Citizens' confusion about candidates' stands on issues has varied from one election to another and seems to result partly from ambiguities in candidates' stands. And voting based on foreign policy and other issues began to look more prevalent once the sleepiness of the 1950s was replaced by the political tumult of the 1960s.

Still, several of the conclusions of the early research have been con- firmed. Many individual Americans do in fact give different answers at different times to the same survey question; whatever causes this, whether measurement error, respondents' uncertainty, or some mixture of the two, it casts doubt on the extent to which surveys produce reliable assessments of individuals' political opinions. Moreover, researchers have repeatedly found that the average American, who is often busy with work, family, and other concerns, does not know or care a great deal about politics. Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter's exhaustive study-while questioning whether the average person actually needs to know political trivia, and while emphasizing the possibility of achieving an informed citizenry-also concluded that in many instances levels of political knowledge are "depressingly low." Fewer than half of Americans in their study correctly answered questions about certain apparently critical aspects of political institutions and processes: what percentage of Congress it takes to override a presidential veto (only 44 percent answered correctly), who sets interest rates (42 percent), what the electoral college is (35 percent), and how long terms of office are in the House (30 percent) and Senate (just 25 percent). Fewer than half of Americans correctly identified a number of prominent political figures, and only 35 percent were able to name both their U.S. senators. Fewer than half knew certain basic facts relevant to foreign or domestic policy, including the rough proportions of the federal budget that go to the military (21 percent correct), health care (17 percent), or Social Security (a minuscule 8 percent correct). In 1991, only 8 percent of Americans could name the United States' largest trading partner (it was Canada).

When highly educated observers encounter such figures for the first time they tend to be appalled at the ignorance of the masses. Basic political facts-let alone the acronyms and buzzwords that are commonplace inside the Beltway and among readers of the New York Times-are beyond the ken of most ordinary people. But it turns out that a high level of political knowledge among individual citizens is not necessarily critical for the existence of a coherent, well-informed collective public opinion.


In recent years an increasing body of evidence has indicated that aggregate or collective public opinion has characteristics quite different from the characteristics of most individual citizens' opinions. Collective opinion (as indicated, for example, by what percentage of the public favors a certain policy) tends to be rather stable over time. As a collectivity the public makes sharp distinctions among specific policies and does so in ways that are generally coherent and mutually consistent, apparently reflecting underlying beliefs and values. When collective public opinion changes, it usually does so in predictable and reasonable ways, in reaction to new information or to changes in the political world.

In The Rational Public, Benjamin Page and Robert Y. Shapiro examined more than one thousand survey questions about foreign and domestic policy that had been asked at least twice (with identical wording) between the 1930s and the 1980s. They found that collective opinion-in contrast to the vacillating opinions often expressed by individuals-seldom changed quickly by large amounts. More than half (58 percent) of the 1,128 repeated questions showed no significant change at all, and nearly half of the significant changes were smaller than ten percentage points. Public opinion more often changed abruptly on foreign than on domestic issues (generally in response to major international events), but it seldom fluctuated back and forth. Moreover, they found that the public makes distinctions; levels of public support varied markedly depending on the specifics of policies: to which countries arms should be sold, under what circumstances abortions should be permitted, where U.S. troops should be used, what kind of gun control should be adopted, what types of military or economic aid should be given to particular countries, which desegregation measures should be enacted, and the like. Conventional wisdom holds that public opinion is inconsistent (for example, the public is alleged to support both lower taxes and higher spending of virtually every kind); Page and Shapiro found little or no actual evidence of inconsistencies. They also found that nearly all significant changes in collective public opinion could be accounted for in terms of long-term population shifts or reasonable responses to world events and newly available information.

How can this "rationality" of collective public opinion (as Page and Shapiro loosely called it) be reconciled with the evidence that many individuals know little about politics and do not express firm views about it? The answer comes in two parts.


Excerpted from The Foreign Policy Disconnect by Benjamin I. Page Marshall M. Bouton Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Contents Illustrations....................vii
Introduction: What Sort of Foreign Policy?....................1
1. Taking Public Opinion Seriously....................17
2. The Goals of Security and Justice....................38
3. Friends and Foes in the World....................74
4. Military Strength and the Use of Force....................100
5. Political Cooperation....................139
6. Economic Well-Being and Economic Justice....................174
7. A Disconnect between Policy Makers and the Public?....................201
8. Conclusion: Foreign Policy and Democracy....................227
Appendix: How Goals Cluster....................247
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