Home Communication Public Opinion, Transatlantic Relations and the Use of Force
Public opinion, democracy and transatlantic relations
In recent decades, major changes have occurred in the appreciation of the nature of public opinion and its actual or potential influence, as well as in the assessment of the performances of democratic regimes in foreign policy. The views on the compatibility between democracy and foreign policy and of the role the public plays in it have changed, and dramatically so, as a consequence of a growing body of empirical research. The Liberal revisionist turn in the study of both the nature and content of public opinion in foreign policy, and of the impact of democratic regimes on foreign policy, systematically converges in making the public's role more important and its effects more benign than Realism was ready to concede. This shift is also coming about, in part, as a consequence of a related strand of research, the theory of the Democratic Peace - centered on the findings that democracies do not fight one another (the dyadic version) or do fight less frequently than nondemocratic and autocratic political regimes (the monadic version). This has made the role of public opinion an important element of the explanation of the (superior) foreign policy performance of democratic regimes.
First, we briefly review this debate to see how it can contribute to understanding the relevance of public opinion on support for the use of force and to frame this literature in a wider theoretical framework.5 We then suggest why public opinion plays a crucial role in Transatlantic relations.
We can distinguish at least four different positions on the nature of public opinion in foreign policy, our main concern in this book. The first is the famous Kantian argument about the public's inherent peacefulness.
If (as must inevitably be the case, given this form of constitution) the consent of the citizenry is required in order to determine whether or not there will be a war, it is natural that they consider all its calamities before committing themselves to so risky a game. (Among these are doing the fighting themselves, paying the costs of the war from their own resources, having to repair at great sacrifice the war's devastation, and, finally, the ultimate evil that would make peace itself better, never being able - because of new and constant wars - to expunge the burden of debt). (Kant, 1795: 113, quoted in Ray, 1995: 1-2)6
While this reasoning, it should be stressed, is perfectly compatible with the monadic version of the democratic peace, it might raise a problem with the dyadic versions. The inherently peaceful nature of the public is problematic in the dyadic explanation, because, as Doyle pointed out in his discussion of Kant's three 'Definitive articles', 'If representation alone were peace-inducing, Liberal states would not be warlike or given to imprudent vehemence, as is far from the case' (Doyle, 1996: 281). And Layne (1994: 12) forcefully turned the empirical superiority of the dyadic explanation against the presumptive peacefulness of public opinion: 'If democratic public opinion really had the effect ascribed to it, democracies would be peaceful in their relations with all states, whether democratic or not. If citizens and policymakers of a democracy were especially sensitive to the human and material costs of war, that sensitivity should be evident whenever their state is on the verge of war, regardless of whether the adversary is democratic: the lives lost and money spent will be the same.' If democracies do not fight systematically less, but only refrain from attacking other democracies, what then moves the public orientation either way? Leaving this issue aside for a moment, it could be countered in defense of Kant, that he did not intend, in his often quoted assertion, that the public is always peaceful - or better, pacifistic - but only that people will always be more prudent than the elites. The public will 'consider all its calamities before committing themselves to so risky a game' since people have to bear upon themselves the costs of war. Therefore, the public will only more carefully ponder the costs and benefits of waging war before supporting it. The point Kant makes is about prudence and rationality, and not about the inherent peacefulness of the public.
A second position argues, all the way in the opposite direction, that public opinion can, in some circumstances, be quite bellicose, independently of what elites do. Reversing the causal argument, according to this view 'the masses are too easily mollified by foreign adventures and democratic politicians too quick to pander to these mob instincts' (Gaubatz, 1999: 11). This view of the public has, for centuries, nurtured an authoritative strand of scholars, of different ideological bents, who argue that democracy should suspend its functioning in foreign policy. The idea that 'the ideals of democracy are incompatible with the realities of international politics' (Goldmann et al., 1986: 3) enlists saviors and political thinkers back to Thucydides and Plato, through Locke and de Tocqueville up to, more recently, Lippmann and Morgenthau. And they all share a quite dismissive view of the public. It was de Tocqueville who elegantly summarized the nature of the problem, in an oft-quoted passage of his book Democracy in America:
Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient. Democracy is favorable to the increase in the internal resources of the state; it diffuses the respect for law in all classes of society: all these are advantages which have only an indirect influence over the relations which one people bears to another. But a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience. (de Tocqueville, 1945: 235)7
And it was Thucydides, referring in his book on the Peloponnesian War to the views of Pericles many centuries earlier, to lay out the main reason why democracy is so inept in foreign policy, making a point of exalting Pericles' ability
'to exercise an independent control over the multitude - in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; . .. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence.'
When, on the contrary, political leaders commit
'the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude. This, as might have been expected in a great and sovereign state, produced a host of blunders.'8
Thucydides was only the first of a long list of thinkers to warn democratic leaders about the need to steer a middle ground between the opposite tendencies of 'imprudent vehemence' and 'supine complaisance' that swing public opinion (Hume, 'Of the Balance of Power,' pp. 197-201). Leaders must be able to 'restore them [i.e., the public] to confidence', to avoid foreign policy becoming too adventurous (as in the Sicilian blunder that Thucydides interpreted as a direct consequence of the inability of Pericles' followers to manage public mood) and, alternatively, 'to reduce them to alarm' not to let foreign policy to be supinely complaisant. This tendency of the public to shift among opposite tendencies is a drumbeat of the critics of the role of public opinion in foreign policy.
As Walter Lippmann said in caustic terms:
'the public has been 'destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials. They have compelled the governments which usually knew what would have been wiser, or was necessary, or was more expedient, to be too late with too little, or too long with too much, too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiation or too intransigent.' (Lippmann, 2009: 20)9
Together, these authors point to a causal chain through which the public negatively affects foreign policy that runs, in a somehow simplified form, as follows: On issues such as foreign policy, which the public follows only irregularly and on which it lacks information, knowledge and motivation, opinions are driven by passions rather than by cool reasoning, resulting in an elastic and intemperate public mood. People are, most of the time, indifferent and ignorant about foreign affairs and only interested and involved when threat-pitched apathy quickly turns into franticness. Democratic institutions have a hard time in shielding political leaders from either public's intemperance or impatience. This makes foreign policy of democracies less coherent, attentive, flexible, rational, cohesive and far-sighted than the international system demands of them. As a consequence, in a world of countries following the Hobbesian prescription of homo homini lupus, democracies are quite inept at survival and are severely harmed in their competition with other countries.
The only way to overcome these shortcomings, according to Realists, is, using the words of John Locke, the 'aristocratic management' of foreign policy. As Locke argued: 'what is to be done in reference to foreigners, depending much upon their actions, and the variations of designs and interests, must be left in great part to the prudence of those who have this power committed to them, to be managed to the best of their skill for the advantage of the commonwealth.' (Locke, 1947: 195-196)10
Of course, such a prescription was much easier to follow when democracy was a business for the few. 'As the societal impact of foreign policy was, during many recent centuries, quite modest ... the issue of societal participation in, or control over, its making did not arise. The classical theorists of democracy usually segregated the foreign and domestic realms, feeling that they had no necessary bearing on each other' (Nincic, 1998: 2).
Three hundred years after Locke, once politicians came to realize that 'Democracy is of a massive nature. Therefore, it cannot function without masses' (Michels, 1927: 762), the recommendations by Thucydides, Hume and Locke are harder to defend persuasively and even harder to follow. How to reconcile the needs imposed by the anarchic nature of the international system with the requirements of a democratic domestic life has been the challenge of the last century. Moreover, the empirical evidence for this argument is relatively thin. It rests on two sets of evidence. First, instances in which democratic public opinion has been clearly bellicose vis-a-vis non-democracies, and possibly even democracies.
The cases usually mentioned are quite few and they all refer to the pre-World War I period. The most often quoted (and studied) examples of a bellicose public driving elites toward war are the United States in the War of 1812, the US together with Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and Britain and France in the Crimean War (Levy, 1988; Ray, 1993). The extent to which these cases are still relevant today, and it can be generalized from them, is, at the very least, debatable. A second piece of evidence in support of the public's willingness to consent to the use of force is the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon (Muller, 1973; Russett, 1990). However, in this case too, it is debatable whether the public is really the first mover or rather, that people reflect the elites' debate and, more importantly, the degree of consensus among the elites (Brody, 1991).
Between the Scylla of pacifism and the Charybdis of belligerence, a third position suggest that the public is malleable, and its peacefulness or bellicosity contextually driven, if not frankly manipulable. Two sets of arguments have been used to criticize the Kantian argument and to support a more contingent nature of public support for the use of force. A first reason why Kant's argument is 'not persuasive' (Ray, 1995: 2) is because 'The general public has little at stake in most wars and those most likely to suffer the costs of war have few incentives to organize dissent' (Rosato, 2003: 593). Contrary to Kant's claims, modern war (and even more the use of force short of war) is a policy whose costs are concentrated. Only a tiny proportion of the population bears the brunt of war and an even smaller one pays the actual costs in terms of human life. The public is indifferent rather than peaceful (or cost-benefit calculating) in its attitudes toward war and peace.
A second argument, related to the first, is that elites have powerful instruments to counter whatever peacefulness the public has, swaying it toward a belligerent foreign policy. Two of the most frequently cited tools are nationalism and the use (or manipulation) of external threats. Nationalism lowers the perceived costs of war, imbuing into the public's mind 'a powerful spirit of self-sacrifice' able to overcome the reluctance to personally incur the costs of war. The use of external threats, and especially of those coming from non-democratic regimes, raises the costs of inactivity, helping to transform an indifferent public into a passionate one. In this connection, authoritarian and non-democratic regimes make it easier for elites of democratic countries to agitate external threats, and for this very reason, they become the preferred target of democracies. As Doyle (1983a) suggests, non-democracies generate an 'atmosphere of suspicion' due in part to the 'the pervasive secrecy these societies establish' and in part 'to the perception by liberal states that non-liberal states are in a permanent state of aggression against their own people' (Doyle, 1983a: 325). This perception makes the democratic public easily receptive to threat-mongering and, as a consequence, to vehemence and over-reaction. Reiter and Stam (2002: 148-149) add a third element that may move people's minds on the use of force: a proper 'definition of the national interest'. 'A very narrow definition of the national interest will imply a short list of circumstances under which a public will consent to initiating a war. A more expansive definition of the national interest will imply a longer list of such circumstances' (Reiter and Stam, 2002: 148). Three factors, in turn, affect what definition of national interests will be prevalent, according to Reiter and Stam: 'national power', the 'level of external threat' and the 'state's past history'. The public of Great powers (e.g., the US), of countries under severe threat (e.g., Israel) and with a long history of internationalism (e.g., the Netherlands) are thus more ready to concede support for the use of force than the public of other democratic countries.
A fourth position, finally, considers the impact of the public on foreign policy orthogonal to any assumption about the nature of the public itself. No matter whether belligerent or peaceful, public opinion could still be a powerful political constraint if political leaders saw in it a (potential) threat to their power, should the country be defeated in war (Mor, 1997: 200). This constraining role of the public rests on two auxiliary hypotheses, unrelated to the alleged bellicose or rather pacifist nature of the public. The first ancillary hypothesis is that public opinion plays a role only when, and to the extent to which, political elites perceive that the public is (un)willing to incur the costs of war. In this view, the role of public opinion is very much a matter of perception and make-believe; in this specific case in the eyes of the elites and whether they perceive it to be peaceful or belligerent (rather than because it is so in reality). If it is true, as some scholars claim (Kull and Destler, 1999), that leaders tend to systematically misperceive public attitudes, what elites perceive becomes by far more important than what people actually think - and whether there is a gap between the two, and why, become the most important theoretical questions (see Page and Bouton, 2006).
As this review shows, to establish whether the public is pacifist, belligerent or malleable turns upon empirical and theoretical issues related to the nature and impact of the public. Since the 1950s, when the first systematic studies appeared, major changes have occurred in the appreciation of the nature of public opinion and its actual or potential influence. In the 1950s, public opinion was seen as lacking all of the qualities required to play a meaningful role in foreign policy, confirming Realists' assumption that public opinion was a relatively ineffectual variable in predicting how states behave in international affairs (Acheson, 1965; Kennan, 1957; Lippmann, 1922; Morgenthau, 1985). As one author suggested, public attitudes are more of a 'virtual force' than an 'actual force'. (Herberichs, 1966-1967: 626). Many observers would argue that this is still true today and that therefore, in normative terms, democracy in foreign policy is therefore neither possible nor desirable. However, over the 1970s, for a set of historical and scientific reasons (on which see Holsti, 1992) many began to see public opinion as more stable and rational, yet with little impact on the policy process (Holsti and Rosenau, 1984). Other studies in more recent years brought further evidence in favor of the revisionist thesis that public opinion is a relevant factor in spite of its shortcomings. These and other changes have brought about an end to what was sometimes referred to as the 'Almond-Lippmann' consensus (Holsti, 1992). They have also presented a formidable challenge to the 'incompatibility thesis' to which reference was also made above. In recent years, scholars have produced increasingly convincing evidence that the public, though often lacking in knowledge, sophistication and interest, holds consistent opinions on foreign policy issues, which are rightly taken into account and responded to by politicians.11 Public opinion constrains the freedom of maneuver of political leaders. At times, it can facilitate a particular agenda and legitimize it; in other situations, it presents a barrier making certain policies more risky and politically expensive.
The most recent perspective sees public opinion as a significant component in the crafting of foreign policy. Such research follows the important work of Page and Shapiro (1983, 1992), who established that changes in public attitudes toward certain policies are followed by shifts in policy. This is particularly momentous when there are large changes in public opinion (20 points or more). In these instances, they found that policy changes usually follow change in public opinion 90 percent of the time. Aldrich et al. (2006: 496) concluded correctly for the United States: 'A mounting body of evidence suggests that the foreign policies of American presidents - and democratic leaders generally - have been influenced by their understanding of the public's foreign policy views.' Other recent studies provide ample evidence of links between public opinion and foreign policymaking.12 These findings have strengthened the argument of Liberals, who have traditionally considered public opinion as rational and a critical barometer in forecasting states' foreign policy, and, hence, worthy of being taken into account in the making of foreign policy decisions. At the same time, the (American) literature reveals that (in the US) the relationship is complex and not necessarily unidirectional. This is especially true as far as the use of military force is concerned. Despite a dearth of supporting evidence, this conclusion seems to be valid for other, especially European, countries as well.
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