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Public opinion and the transatlantic order

Contrary to Realists' prescriptions, attention to the nature of public attitudes on transatlantic relations has been a constant since the very inception of a 'North Atlantic security community' Deutsch et al. (1966) at the end of World War II. The emphasis on public opinion in studying transatlantic relations is relevant for at least four reasons.

First, the particular nature of transatlantic relations makes public opinion an important actor. We share Ikenberry's claim that the 'US-European relations [are] a distinct political order' (Ikenberry, 2008: 8).13 The 'character of the states involved in the settlement' (Ikenberry 2008: 72) is a crucial variable in explaining what kind of international order will be built. Democracies have characteristics that make them more likely to commit to institutional orders of the type that were created at the end of the Second World War. Specifically, Ikenberry (2008: 76-79) suggests three characteristics of democracies - political transparency, accessibility and political viscosity - that make binding commitments more credible for democratic than for authoritarian states (see also Risse, 1995). Given the democratic nature of the states composing this order, public opinion is a far more important player than in authoritarian regimes, at least in the general sense of setting the limits of what is politically acceptable and establishing the outer limits of policy alternatives (see also Hose and Oppermann, 2005).

Second, given the unique nature of the Transatlantic order, public opinion is often mentioned and referred to by scholars, commentators and policymakers as an important indicator of the state of transatlantic consensus or disagreement (Hose and Oppermann, 2005). Studying public opinion allows for exploring the nature and roots of the Transatlantic order in ways that are comparable and over time.

Third, in order to achieve a credible foreign and security policy, European and American political leaders need the support of their own domestic publics. What George (1980) called 'policy legitimacy' is a crucial precondition for the success of any foreign policy. This was true during the Cold War, when NATO member states had been struggling to match the requirements of a credible deterrence with the need to reassure the public about its effectiveness (Howard, 1982-1983) and to 'sell' to the public the costly strategic competition with the Soviet Union. This is even truer now that nuclear deterrence has acquired a different role and meaning and actual coercion of opponents is more likely. Public opinion in transatlantic relations is a powerful constraining force that political elite have to face and to cope with under certain conditions (Hose and Oppermann, 2005).

Fourth, the increasingly deep transnational linkages between European and American civil societies have made the concept of a transatlantic public audience a reality (Hayes and Guardino, 2011). In their attempt to promote policy results closer to their own domestic preferences, European and American leaders engage with increasing frequency in the explicit 'targeting' of public opinion in their transatlantic counterpart: Europeans (for American leaders) and Americans (for European leaders). (Putnam, 1988; Eichenberg, 1993; Knopf, 1993; Hose and Oppermann, 2005).

It therefore does not come as a surprise that the study of public opinion has been a constant element in transatlantic relations, as testified, for example by the attention the American government has long paid to the matter, through the USIA survey series dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.

 
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