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date: 19 September 2017

Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Dramatic changes in the way the public acquires information and formulates its attitudes have potentially altered the opinion and foreign policy relationship. While traditional approaches have treated public opinion on domestic and foreign matters as largely distinct, the culmination of a series of changes may eliminate the effective distinction between foreign and domestic policy, at least in terms of how the American political system operates. All the factors central to the opinion and foreign policy process, such as information acquisition, attitude formation, media effects, the effect of opinion on policy, and presidential leadership now appear to mirror the processes observed at the domestic level.

This analysis reviews historical trends in the literature on public opinion and foreign policy that has focused on the rationality of the public’s opinions, the structure of its attitudes, and its influence on foreign policymaking. The traditional Almond-Lippmann consensus portrayed an emotional public with unstructured attitudes and little influence on foreign policy; however, revisionist views have described a reasonable public with largely structured views on foreign policy that can, at times, constrain and even drive those policies. More recently, the rise of “intermestic” issues, contain both domestic and international elements, such as globalization, inequality, terrorism, immigration, and climate change, have interacted to transform the domestic and international context.

The bulk of this analysis highlights emerging new research directions that should be pursued in light of the changes. First, scholars should continue to evaluate the “who thinks what and why” questions with particular attention to differences between high- and low-information individuals, the effect of misinformation, and information sources. In doing so, research should build on research from non-American contexts that points to the important influences of societal and institutional factors. In addition to continued examination of traditional demographic factors such as partisanship and ideology, additional attention should turn to consider potential genetic and biological foundations of attitudes. Finally, researchers should continue to evaluate how the new media environment, including social media, affects how the public accesses information, how the media provides information, and how political elites attempt to shape both. Given these changes, scholars should consider whether it continues to make sense to treat public opinion dynamics regarding foreign policy as distinct from domestic policy and its implications.

Keywords: public opinion, foreign policy, media, political elites, attitudes


It has been said that foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on. In a sense, this is true.

—Hubert H. Humphrey, June 29, 1966

When Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey made this observation in 1966, the bipolar Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, with its primary focus on traditional interactions between nation-states, dominated world politics. Domestically, the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy had yet to fray; the trauma of the Vietnam War lay just over the horizon. American political parties consisted of uneasy ideological alliances. Democrats were divided between northern liberals and conservative southerners, and Republicans were split between liberal northeasterners and conservative westerners and Midwesterners. At times, the cleavages within the parties were perhaps more important than the divides between them. News of foreign affairs landed in American driveways in the form of morning and afternoon newspapers, as well as the once-a-day national newscasts from a few national television networks. Presidential polling was just becoming institutionalized (Jacobs & Shapiro, 1995). In this context, scholar Aaron Wildavsky (1966) suggested that the exigencies of national security fostered bipartisan support for the president abroad, whereas partisan conflict pervaded domestic politics. Somewhat contradicting Humphrey’s implication of a similarity in process across the foreign and domestic arenas, Wildavsky’s view portrayed a distinction in the political process between the outward-looking foreign policy and the inward-directed domestic policy.

Fifty years later, the international and domestic landscape has changed radically. Internationally, nonstate actors (whether international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, or terrorist organizations) and flows of information, people, and ideas now challenge the dominance of nation-states. Domestically, more ideologically uniform political parties provide little space for issue compromise. Technological innovation has radically reshaped the information landscape so that individuals now have access to consistently updated information from a multiplying number of resources from around the globe. Polls appear to be ever present in American politics. During this period of transformation, intermestic issues (Manning, 1977)—those subjects neither purely domestic nor purely international, such as immigration and trade—rose in prominence. As the number and importance of these issues expanded, the notion of any dividing line between the “domestic” and “foreign” sphere has increasing eroded.

In considering recent research and its implications, this review suggests that foreign policy is no longer even “domestic politics with its hat on” in the sense Humphrey implied, making a distinction in presentation, if not in process. Rather, no effective distinction exists between foreign and domestic policy, at least in terms of how the American political system operates. In effect, foreign policy has become domestic policy from a public opinion perspective. All the factors central to the opinion and foreign policy process, such as information acquisition, attitude formation, media effects, the effect of opinion on policy, and presidential leadership now appear to mirror the processes observed at the domestic level.

Historical Research Trends

Through the early 2000s, research on public opinion and foreign policy largely fell into one of three broad buckets related to the rationality of the public’s opinions, the structure (or lack thereof) of these attitudes, and whether or not these attitudes influenced foreign policymaking to any great degree. A pessimistic perspective suggested a largely moody and emotional public (Almond, 1950; Kennan, 1951; Lippmann, 1922, 1955) that possessed largely unstructured attitudes (Converse, 1964). At least in foreign policy, these detriments did not cause an enormous amount of concern, since most analysts concluded that the public had only a limited influence on foreign policy (Cohen, 1973). This Almond-Lippmann consensus dominated scholarly thinking on the subject from the early 20th century until the Vietnam War (see Holsti, 2004, for a summary).

The Vietnam War and Watergate era not only led to disruption in traditional political dynamics, but also to a re-examination by scholars of the core understandings in the field, as the presumption that policy elites “knew best” seemed to belie experience. On the first question, a consensus emerged that public attitudes, while not perfectly informed by any means, were much more stable than had previously been thought and appeared to respond reasonably to situations and changing circumstances (Jentleson, 1992; Page & Shapiro, 1992). As for structured attitudes, Eugene Wittkopf (1990) provided the most widely accepted framework, pointing to two attitudinal dimensions: (a) cooperative internationalism, describing whether an individual favors or opposes working with other nations to solve global and national challenges; and (b) militant internationalism encompassing whether a person favors forceful action to pursue American interests. Subsequent research suggested that this structure accounted for elite foreign policy attitudes as well, though with a different distribution (Holsti, 2004). Extensions on this research engaged the question of whether a third unilateralism or multilateralism dimension existed (Chittick, Billingsley, & Travis, 1995; Hinckley, 1992). Recent research has also pointed to the need to consider isolationism as an independent third dimension (instead of just reflecting opposition to militant and cooperative internationalism; Rathbun, 2007). Taking the research in a different direction, some suggested that general core values structured attitudes in a linked hierarchical manner (Hurwitz & Peffley, 1987). Recent research has pointed to the importance of core values in structuring foreign policy views and has associated their relationship with party identification and political ideology (Jacoby, 2014; Kertzer, Powers, Rathbun, & Iyer, 2014; Rathbun, Kertzer, Reifler, Goren, & Scotto, 2016). Current research paths then continue to engage both the question of the dimensional content and the ordering role of core values.

Initial re-evaluations employing statistical analyses seemed to point the way toward a full reconsideration of the traditionalist view of a limited public influence. Scholars found that public attitudes correlated with foreign policy (Monroe, 1979) and that shifts in public opinion tended to precede policy changes (Page & Shapiro, 1992). Following this success, researchers explored an increasing number of offshoot areas to discern whether a consistent pattern of public influence emerged and found a strong role for public attitudes influencing congressional voting on foreign policy (Fordham, 1998; Meernik & Oldmixon, 2008), defense spending (Hartley & Russett, 1992), uses of force (James & Oneal, 1991; Ostrom & Job, 1986), and presidential rhetoric (Rottinghaus, 2006).

Still other scholars pursued a range of narrower frameworks in examining the public’s influence. While conceding that opinion didn’t drive particular policies to be accepted, some scholars pointed to a broad constraining influence of public attitudes (Foyle, 2004; Powlick & Katz, 1998; Sobel, 2001). Still others sought out a range of conditioning factors shaping the public’s influence such as the level of public support for the policy (Graham, 1994), elections (Gaubatz, 1999; Nincic, 1990), presidential attitudes toward public opinion (Foyle, 1999), stage of decision making (Knecht & Weatherford, 2006), issue salience (Foyle, 1999; Knecht, 2011), and presidential popularity (Canes-Wrone, 2006).

Even before the shift in the media and information environment brought on by the Internet, mobile devices, and social media, the beginnings of a new wave of critical research that was challenging both the public’s influence on and the president’s ability to shape public opinion started to emerge. Perhaps the most significant marker in this shift came when Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page (2005) published a statistically sophisticated examination evaluating public opinion’s association with the views of policymakers on foreign policy and concluded that the attitudes of business elites and policy experts instead of mass public opinion were associated with the policymaker attitudes. These findings would feather with other research suggesting little presidential responsiveness to public opinion (Wood, 2009). Presidential activity regarding public opinion seemed to focus instead on employing increasingly sophisticated polling operations to seek to change public opinion (Heith, 2004) and maintain popularity while pursuing unpopular policies or only superficially appearing to present policies that aligned with public sentiment (Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000). These findings presaged subsequent analyses that amplified the limited-responsiveness view (Burstein, 2006; Canes-Wrone & Kelly, 2013).

The Changing International and Domestic Context

As in the Vietnam era, when international events spurred greater attention to public opinion, the more skeptical perspective on public opinion among scholars since the early 2000s aligned with the shifting international context. Spurred on primarily by trends related to the Iraq War and attitude formation regarding terrorism after the September 11 attacks, scholars increasingly focused on public attitudes and war (see Eichenberg, 2005, and Klarevas, 2002, for broader reviews of the use-of-force literature). Most broadly, scholars have emphasized that public attitudes on the use of force result from assessing the benefits of particular uses of force in comparison to the costs. More specifically, several factors appear to drive public attitudes regarding the use of force, including the national interests that are at stake, the foreign policy purpose of the intervention, and the extent of multilateral support (Jentleson, 1992; Kull, 2002); the first two aspects highlight the potential benefits and the last points to a potential reduction in costs due to burden-sharing. War casualties have long been identified as a primary factor in determining public support for conflicts (Boettcher & Cobb, 2006; Gartner, 2008; Karol & Miguel, 2007; Larson, 1995; Mueller, 1973). In the post–September 11 context in response to the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, casualties received renewed attention as factors affecting public opinion with an emphasis on perceptions and beliefs (as opposed to objective numerical casualty figures). For example, Myers and Hayes (2010) found that individuals who perceived a high numbers of casualties (apart from actual numbers of casualties) expressed less support for war. Additionally, political knowledge and interest in political issues emerged as important factors determining the nature of public attitudes in this area. For example, Koch and Nicholson (2016) found that rising casualties increased interest which then drove higher voter turnout in elections, especially among the least politically engaged.

Three themes emerged from the recent Iraq literature, all of which point to the intersection of information, the behavior of political elites, and the media in determining public attitudes. Emblematic of this work, Ole Holsti (2011) provides a comprehensive examination of American foreign policy toward Iraq before the war, the decision-making leading up to the war, and the sources and content of public opinion regarding the war and its influence. He highlights several aspects that characterized the literature in this field. First, though public attitudes seemed to move reasonably in response to events, the superficial informational foundation for the public’s attitudes could engender a sense of disquiet and subject the public to easier manipulation by determined political elites. In this sense, Holsti observed that “low information rationality” does not seem far removed from “low information irrationality” (p. 180). Second, Holsti emphasizes the importance of the elite cueing and leadership efforts, especially in the run-up to the start of the war, in March 2003. Finally, the shifting media landscape during the Iraq War points to how changes in the media can affect the interaction among political elites, the media, and public attitudes.

A second important work, edited by Richard Sobel, Peter Furia, and Bethany Barratt (2012), brought together scholars studying a number of different countries to compare and contrast the dynamics of public attitudes and its influence. This approach points to a second broad trend in the literature, which is to extend the analysis of public opinion beyond the scope of the United States and consider how varying publics and institutional settings influence foreign policy (see also Baum & Potter, 2015). With the 2003 Iraq War as its focus, the editors brought together experts on twelve different nations to consider the influence of public opinion of the foreign policy choices in these countries. Particularly noteworthy here are their final conclusions (p. 241) that (a) portray leaders as relatively free from public limitations; (b) suggest public constraint is highest in nonparticipating countries and limited to the initial decision to enter the war or not given declining public attention over time; and (c) limited prospects exist for electoral punishment from problematic foreign policy. Taken together, these works emphasize the interactive effects of the roles of information, the media, and the behavior and response of elites to public opinion.

A particular focus in this more recent period emerges from the interaction among information about foreign policy events, media portrayals of the information, and cuing efforts by political elites. Information availability and asymmetries have taken on increasing importance in recent analyses, as scholars have emphasized how elites, the media, and public attitudes form a strategic interaction in how information is presented and perceived by the public (Baum & Groeling, 2010), and even how the media reporting of public opinion polls can shift public attitudes (Stroud & Sparrow, 2011). For example, one study found that the tone of media presentations affected how well the public believed the Iraq War was proceeding; whereas the tone of presidential statements affected the public’s perception of how well president George W. Bush was dealing with the war (Eshbaugh-Soha & Linebarger, 2014). Needless to say, the dynamics of media and public opinion warrants detailed discussion on its own (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007; Cohen, 1963; Entman, 2004; Foyle, 2011; Roselle, 2010; Rutherford, 2004).

Some, who often portray the public as information misers, suggest that the public largely follows elite cues regarding support or opposition to conflicts. Consensus opinion generates support, while elite disagreements generate splits among the public (Powlick & Katz, 1998). The public then takes its cues from the party leaders with whom they identify (Berinsky, 2009; Brody, 1992). Alternatively, experimental research suggests that the public attends more to substantive information about events, and that elite cuing provides a secondary effect (Boudreau & MacKenzie, 2014; Gelpi, 2010). Finally, somewhat aside from the substance of events or media portrayals, others have emphasized perceptions of success as having the strongest effect on public support for war (Feaver & Gelpi, 2005; Gelpi, Feaver, & Reifler, 2005/2006, 2009).

New Research Directions

Looking forward, three broad areas should provide productive ground on which to focus scholarly attention. First, continued attention to the “who thinks what and why” questions should continue to provide a basis for evaluation. Second, since the source of nearly all information about the outside world necessarily comes to the public through the media, how recent changes in the media environment and media consumption affect the dynamic between public opinion and foreign policy should be pursued. Finally, scholars need to further investigate recent research findings suggesting that politicians respond to narrower segments of the public than the mass public. Collectively, scholars should continue to examine how public attitudes, the media, and elite behavior interrelate (Baum & Potter, 2015; Western, 2005).

Traditional realist concerns about public opinion emphasized the public’s lack of substantive foreign policy knowledge. While nothing has emerged to question the assumption that the public is fundamentally uninformed about foreign affairs, three recent developments suggest the need for greater attention to information sources.

First, scholars studying American politics have long concluded that low- and high-information individuals differ in their assessments of policy issues and reactions to the information provided by election campaigns (Althaus, 1998; Gilens, 2001; Zaller, 2004). For their part, foreign policy scholars have concluded that members of the public can, at best, employ generalized inclinations to organize their thoughts about particular instances, even if those thoughts remain substantively uninformed (Jentleson, 1992), or that mass public opinion, in aggregate, can overcome individual informational shortcomings (Page & Shapiro, 1992). Scholars focused on foreign policy have begun to disaggregate mass opinion by information level and have found high- and low-information individuals react differently to changing circumstances and information. The individual, not the information, seems to be the most important factor. For example, if low-information individuals become more informed about a policy, they do not align their attitudes with the high-information voters. Instead, research suggests that low- and high-information voters react to information about foreign policy events differently (Berinsky, 2007; Sirin, 2012). By implication, it appears that the factors that cause individuals to be “low-information” in the first place affect how these individuals perceive foreign affairs even when they acquire more information. Further, research has suggested that potential differences exist between individuals with generalized knowledge about foreign affairs and those with issue-specific knowledge (Sirin, 2012). Much of the work in this area has focused on the Iraq War and casualties, and scholars should broaden the substantive areas exploring these concepts.

Second, the concept of misinformation, and the difficulty in correcting “wrong” information, has received increasing attention in American politics (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). Focusing on domestic issues, scholars in this area have examined the interrelationships among party identification, education, political knowledge, and media use (Meirick, 2016). The findings in this area suggest that unmotivated, low-information individuals may be more responsive to the “correct” information, whereas motivated, generally knowledgeable individuals are less receptive to the “correct” information if it contradicts preexisting beliefs (Nyhan, Reifler, & Ubel, 2013; Weeks, 2015). One notable foreign policy finding regarding the 2003 Iraq War was that possessing increasing levels of “misperceptions” about the war (that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the war, that Saddam Hussein worked closely with al Qaeda, and that world opinion supported the United States war) was associated with higher levels of support for the conflict (Kull, Ramsay, & Lewis, 2003/2004). The question that requires more attention is whether (a) misperceptions drive policy attitudes (implying that corrected information might shift attitudes), or (b) policy attitudes (and beliefs) drive misperceptions (implying that corrected information would have little influence on attitudes). As foreign policy issues with significant domestic linkages such as trade, globalization, and immigration attain more domestic salience, it would be worth considering the effect that misinformation has on foreign policy stances on these issues. The interaction of these concepts might yield surprising results, as has been the case in the American politics subfield.

Third, regardless of what the American public thinks, an implicit assumption in much of the work on foreign policy and public opinion is that American political elites are the most influential on American public attitudes (Berinsky, 2009). Recent work has challenged this notion as well by suggesting that foreign elites can have just as much of an informational effect as domestic elites. The main empirical work in this area centers around the 2003 Iraq War where domestic elite cuing failed to operate in a traditional sense because Republican elites supported the conflict and Democratic elites either supported the conflict or remained silent. This research found that Democrats and independents took their cues from non-American elite voices to determine what to think about the conflict (Hayes & Guardino, 2013; Murray, 2014). Experimentally (Dragojlovic, 2015), results point to interactions among party identification and level of political awareness mediating the responsiveness of individuals to foreign cuing by friendly national actors (low-information Republicans were less persuaded, and Democrats were potentially more persuaded). As with much of the recent work in this area, the 2003 Iraq War provides at least the initial data on the question. Scholars should push beyond the Iraq conflict and consider whether foreign elite cuing applies in other substantive areas (climate change or trade, for example), on issues where the foreign audience aligns with a Republican foreign policy, and how the respondent’s political information and demographic factors interact with these cuing dynamics.

Although the substantive focus of this field (and this review) focuses on the United States, a growing number of studies engage questions in this literature in a comparative context (Gerber & Mendelson, 2008). The need to examine core concepts in a non-American context has long been recognized by scholars working in this field who acknowledge that varying institutional and social environments affect how public opinion influences foreign policy (Eichenberg, 1989; Foyle, 2003; Holsti, 1992; Isernia, Juhasz, & Rattinger, 2002; Risse-Kappen, 1991). Spurred in part by the explosion of available data on public opinion in non-American contexts (Heath, Fisher, & Smith, 2005), this work has targeted each component of the Almond-Lippmann consensus and pushed into new frontiers in considering the influence of institutional context.

A growing number of studies have examined the core components of the reasonability and stability of public opinion on foreign policy in other nations, and results have largely been consonant with the American case. Several studies have considered public opinion’s attitudes in a number of non-American countries (Belanger & Petry, 2005; Foyle, 2007; Furia & Lucas, 2006; Holsti, 2008; Isernia et al., 2002; Nacos et al., 2000) and evaluated the origins and structure of public attitudes (Bjereld & Ekengren, 1999; Ganguly, Hellwig, & Thompson, 2017; Jenkins-Smith, Mitchell, & Herron, 2004; Schoen, 2007). For example, Holsti (2008) provides an extensive examination of non-American attitudes toward the United States, its foreign policies, and American society. Particularly noteworthy is the extension of this work that considers how the attitudes of non-Americans affect their country’s foreign policies. Consistent with previous accounts in the American literature, Holsti attributes the attitudes of these non-American publics as reasonable responses to the changing strategic context and U.S. foreign policies. Not surprisingly, a commonality across these studies emphasizes both the similarity in the processes of attitude formation across nationalities and the differences between how the situational circumstances lead to differing substantive attitudes. For example, Everts and Isernia (2015) compared and contrasted American and European attitudes toward the use of force and concluded while Europeans and Americans share similar worldviews, they diverge in net assessments of uses of force because they react to contextual issues differently (e.g., potential casualties). Similarly, a multinational longitudinal examination of public attitudes toward climate change points to publics responding to the same drivers of opinion (significant events, weather conditions, sociopolitical, and economic conditions) with variation in opinion overtime and across countries in response to the value that these drivers take on (Capstick, Witmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015).

Others have focused on the influence of public opinion (Gerber & Mendelson, 2008; Nacos, et al., 2000). For example, Goldsmith and Horiuchi (2009) consider the influence that visits by American officials have on the attitudes of non-American publics, emphasizing that the particular American official’s credibility determines a trip’s positive or negative influence. Some have begun to consider how institutional and political structures influence the opinion-policy process and have suggested that, as one would expect, that there are important differences in how opinion affects policy in non-American cases (Chan & Safran, 2006; Jacobs, 1992; Lai & Reiter, 2005; Nacos et al., 2000; Pickering & Kisangani, 2005; Risse-Kappen, 1991; Trumbore, 1998). In particular, two studies have highlighted the value of comparative analysis in this field. Focused closely on public opinion and the 2003 Iraq War, Sobel, Furia, and Barratt (2012) brought together scholars from a number of nations and compared and contrasted the opinion formation and influence dynamics in the United States and European countries, as well as Japan, Mexico, India, and Turkey. By employing the same methodology across these cases, the volume is able to highlight how similar factors (e.g., intensity of public attitudes, amount of division among the public) interact with a nation’s particular institutional and political context to determine whether and how public opinion influences foreign policy. Second, taking a broader systemic approach, Baum and Potter (2015) developed a model of how a country’s media environment and party system affect the availability of information. These processes then interact to shape public opinion and policy outcomes. In a similar vein, a multination study of foreign news coverage and public attitudes reinforces the view that news media content varies by media source (market vs. public service media), which affects the foreign affairs knowledge of viewers (Aalberg, Papathanassopoulos, Soroka, Curran, Hayashi, Iyengar et al., 2013). Much in the vein of comparative politics, these works highlight that while the same variables operate in different nations (i.e., the media), their effects can differ based on particular social and institutional contexts.

Given the promising findings from these comparative examinations, greater extension into new countries should yield exciting insights. As this work moves into non–United States contexts, a greater presence from scholars and concepts from the comparative politics subfield will be needed to understand the complexities of public opinion in varying institutional and social contexts. This avenue points to the need for complementary multiauthored work to bring together specialists with varying geographic specialties (e.g., Ganguly, Hellwig, & Thompson, 2017; Oppermann & Viehrig, 2011; Sobel et al., 2012)

Traditionally, the most common demographic explanations for foreign policy attitudes have emphasized political ideology and partisan affiliation (Holsti, 2004). Scholars have found that partisan frames on foreign policy issues continue to structure attitudes toward foreign policy (Snyder, Shapiro, & Bloch-Elkon, 2009) and that partisan divisions are deep and growing, particularly on foreign policy (Iyengar & Westwood, 2015; Smeltz, Daalder, Friedhoff, & Kafura, 2016). The most common assessment is that although demographic groups might differ in policy attitudes, they “move in parallel” in response to circumstances (Page & Shapiro, 1992, p. 178).

Scholars have long recognized the partisan and ideological origins of foreign policy attitudes; however, recent research has pointed to a sharpening of the differences between the political parties as moderates have become increasingly rare among political elites (Koppelman, 2012; Salam, 2012; Smeltz, Daalder, Friedhoff, & Kafura, 2015). Voters appear to be increasingly partisan and ideological in their voting behaviors (Bafumi & Shapiro, 2009), which has affected how information is processed and the world is understood (Shapiro & Bloch-Elkon, 2008). Scholars have begun to examine the extent to which these more partisan and ideological attitudinal foundations affect domestic policymaking (Shapiro, 2011) and foreign policy (Shapiro & Bloch-Elkon, 2007), although there are some who question whether this dynamic extends to foreign policy (Kertzer, Brooks, & Brooks, 2017).

Scholars have begun to challenge the findings on a range of demographic characteristics by suggesting that several other factors may be important in shaping foreign policy attitudes, alone or in combination with other characteristics. For example, Eichenberg (2003) and Eichenberg and Stoll (2012) found significant gender differences; women were on average less supportive of both the use of force and defense spending, with differences in support of defense spending by men and women varying over time in similar manner.

Religious belief has often been overlooked as a potential explanatory variable for foreign policy attitudes. Ironically, as American society has become more secular, scholars have increasingly found that religious beliefs are associated with foreign policy inclinations, especially attitudes toward the Middle East. Scholars have noted the significant influence of religious beliefs, especially among evangelical Protestants, on matters dealing with Israel, Islam, the Iraq War, and on U.S. Middle East policies (Baumgartner, Francia, & Morris, 2008) and questioned whether individuals with different religious beliefs respond in the same ways to similar information (Taydas, Kentmen, & Olson, 2012). Additional research has also suggested that religious beliefs interact with partisan views (Cavari, 2013). These initial findings suggest that study of the influence of religion on foreign policy attitudes would be a worthwhile endeavor.

As the popular press has focused on the rise of the millennial generation, generational perspectives have received increasing attention (Schuman & Corning, 2012). With the culturally salient September 11 attacks and the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in the 2000s, scholars have begun to consider whether millennials, who came of age in the midst of these international developments, as well as with the advent of social media and personal computing devices (e.g., iPhones), differ in their foreign policy inclinations. The question driving this research is whether millennials’ experiences with these international, social, and technological events might fundamentally affect their attitudes on foreign policy. Although this research is only in the beginning stages, initial findings suggest that millennials view the world in fundamentally different ways than previous generations (Foyle, 2016; Thrall & Goepner, 2015). As with the findings on religion, this research suggests that the previous research on generation that emerged in the post–World War II and pre–September 11 eras might be temporally bound.

Finally, in addition to considering how the demographic characteristics of individuals might influence their attitudes, scholars might be well served to consider how societal characteristics interact with demographic factors in the determination of their foreign policy attitudes. For example, Balestrini (2014) found that not only do national economic situations (e.g., unemployment, trade balances) affect individual attitudes; they also interact with other general demographic societal characteristics (societal education-level attainment). Societal level characteristics appear to interact with an individual’s demographic characteristics (e.g., education, occupation) in determining foreign policy attitudes (such as about globalization). What this suggests is that the influence of demographic characteristics on foreign policy attitudes might be highly contextual in ways that have not been fully appreciated, because much of the research in this area has looked most closely at the United States.

Taken together, these recent demographic findings point to potential new avenues for re-examining old assumptions and pushing into new areas of attitudinal research. Demographic characteristics thought to be less important should be reconsidered for influence and to evaluate whether the new political and social environment interacts with these factors in unexpected ways. In addition, as is being done in a growing number of studies, this work should push outside the United States context to discern the extent to which findings about attitudes are culturally bound.

The potential genetic and biological origins of political attitudes provides perhaps one of the most intriguing new directions in this field. Within the subfield of American politics, a growing number of studies have identified potential genetic foundations of a range of political traits (such as political knowledge and sophistication, ideology, and voter participation) with varying degrees of potential influence between genetics and environmental factors (Charney & English, 2012; Hatemi & McDermott, 2012). Neuroscience research has pointed to the effect of brain processes as a source of partisan bias, political ideology, and political attitudes (Jost, Nam, Amodio, & Van Bavel, 2014). At least on a limited basis in laboratory experiments, biological response systems have been associated with attitudes regarding trade, immigration, defense spending, and the Iraq War (Oxley, Smith, Alford, Hibbing, Miller, Scalora et al., 2008). Given the more fundamental concerns raised by international politics, such as survival, fear, and intergroup competition, as well as progress, hope, and intergroup cooperation, a useful approach might be to consider whether fundamental orientations toward foreign policy issues, such as defense spending, alliance behavior, multilateralism, and trade derive at least in part from genetic, biological, or neurological processes as much from environmental causes.

Taken as a whole, despite decades of research on the sources, relationships, and behavioral effects of information and attitudes, recent research points to a range of potentially fruitful avenues of exploration. At the same time, how individuals can access information has radically changed since the expansion of the Internet in the 1990s. A dramatic transformation in the media landscape has occurred in the last several years, and scholars are just beginning to come to grips with not only the effects that it might have but with the questions it raises.

The media’s role in transmitting information to the public is well recognized in the communications and American politics literature but often underappreciated in the international politics literature (Baum & Potter, 2015, pp. 5–6; see also Baum & Groeling, 2010; Baum & Potter, 2015; Foyle, 2011; Iyengar & Kinder, 2010; and Page, 1996, for a good summary of the received knowledge on the media’s influence). Such changes in the information environment present interesting new areas of research. The previous models of media influence emerged from a situation in which information transmission largely occurred in one direction, from the media to the public. The current new media elements, such as essentially unlimited access to information through the Internet and social media venues like Facebook and Twitter, are widely acknowledged to have created a new media environment whose effects are not well understood. Although the Internet changes the medium through which the public receives information, it is not clear that it fundamentally alters the substantive process of how individuals formulate opinions and behave in response to foreign policy. Scholars have begun to consider whether the Internet will have no effect, incremental influence, or revolutionary change on politics (Fung, Gilman, & Shkabatur, 2013) and potentially be a source of power in itself (McCarthy, 2015). Even before President Donald J. Trump deployed Tweets to drive the media agenda, scholars were considering how Twitter and other social media might be fundamentally affecting the dynamic of communication between political elites and masses. Gainous and Wagner (2013) suggest that social media does not fundamentally change how people formulate their attitudes or change their attitudes, since they seek reaffirming information. Yet, they suggest that it can both spur greater participation while social media’s reinforcing mechanism can foster polarization. In contrast, Parmelee and Bihard (2012) argue that social media (Twitter) can enhance the ability of political elites to control the agenda by directly communicating to their followers. Other research challenges this line of analysis by pointing to the effect of the offline social environment and interpersonal discussions have more influence on attitude formation than does mass media (Radziszewski, 2013). These dynamics take on real, substantive electoral implications given the discussions about “fake news” and the Russian government’s efforts to use social media, and these dynamics to affect public perceptions (Higgins, McIntire, & Dance, 2016; Rainie, Anderson, & Albright, 2017; Timberg, 2016).

These considerations point to the factors that shape public attitudes about issues that they already find salient. But what makes foreign policies issues salient to the public? Traditional views (Almond, 1950) describe a public that merely follows the “news of the day” without a foundation aside from the latest shiny object. Bernard Cohen (1963, p. 13) famously indicated that the “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” The change in the information environment poses the challenge that scholars should reexamine several fundamental dynamics such as agenda setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), priming (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010), and framing (Entman, 2004). In regard to foreign policy in particular, scholars have long appreciated the role that the media has in heightening public attention across a range of issues and political contexts (Aalberg et al., 2013; Soroka, 2003). The complex interplay among the public, media, international events, parties, and policymakers remains a source of interest (Heffington, 2016; Oppermann, 2010; Oppermann & Viehrig, 2011). Scholars have long been interested in variations in issue salience (Eichenberg & Stoll, 2003; Wlezien, 2004), how it affects voting (Aldrich, Sullivan, & Borgida, 1989; Franklin & Wlezien, 1997; Niemi & Bartels, 1985; Rabinowitz, Prothro, & Jacoby, 1982) and the responsiveness of the political system (Hill & Hurley, 1999; Page & Shapiro, 1983; Monroe, 1998). Scholars would do well to consider how the changing partisan and ideological nature of foreign policy attitudes interacts with the changing media environment in determining issue salience and how it affects policymakers.

The question then fundamentally turns back to the issue of change versus continuity. In short, does the media, however defined, still affect the formation of opinion in the ways previously envisioned? In addition, to this point, scholars seem to believe that the individual choice involved in social media and the consumption of Internet news reinforces preexisting attitudes. This would seem to imply “old wine in new flasks” in terms of the media. Previous research on attitude formation suggests that the new media might have differentiated effects on segmented populations. Does the effect of the new media vary across high- or low-information individuals; Republicans, Democrats, Independents; digital natives (millennials) and nondigital natives; and individuals with different foreign policy beliefs and values? Does elite cuing on foreign policy matters operate in the same way when the information necessary to examine foreign policy issues for oneself lies at the individual’s very fingertips? To put it bluntly, the challenge of the new media is to consider whether what we have come to accept as the “received knowledge” still holds. Is the new media age really “new” as it relates to attitude formation?

We should also consider this changed informational environment in the context of recent findings on how political elites respond to public opinion. A growing finding within the literature on foreign policy is a generalized disconnect between public attitudes as expressed in polling and the foreign policy choices pursued by political leaders (Druckman & Jacobs, 2015; Gilens & Page, 2014; Jacobs & Page, 2005; Page & Bouton, 2006). Instead, policies seem more likely to be associated with the attitudes of narrower segments of the population, such as the more economically well-off and interest groups associated with businesses. Research suggests that presidential speeches have taken on an increasingly partisan, rather than centrist, pattern (Eshbaugh-Soha & Rottinghaus, 2013) which would seem to align with the partisan cuing effects literature discussed previously. Research continues to find that presidents can affect public opinion, though this effect appears to be more limited to agenda-setting effects or conditioned by other factors (such as issue salience, the behavior of other actors; Eshbaugh-Soha & Peake, 2011; Rottinghaus, 2010; Villaobos & Sirin, 2012). More generalized studies of presidential leadership of public opinion point to a more limited marginal influence of presidential leadership efforts (Cohen, 2008; Edwards, 2006).

The intersection of these findings on the news media, presidential responsiveness, and presidential leadership imply at least several potential avenues for investigation. First, how does the increasingly fast-moving media environment affect the public’s influence on foreign policy and the president’s ability to influence public opinion? On the one hand, the speed and direct connection of new media that allows leaders to connect with the public could enhance their ability to shape public attitudes. On the other hand, public selectivity in news source could limit these effects and potentially restrict their influence to traditional cuing effects rather than providing a broad ability to shape attitudes. Second, recent research has found a responsiveness to segmented populations while explanations diverge about which segments are represented. Do presidents respond primarily to partisans, or are they more responsive to economic elites as they formulate foreign policy, or is it both? Third, foreign policy scholars tend to view foreign policy issues as potentially distinct from typical run-of-the-mill domestic-policy issues. Does this implicit assumption in the research still hold?

Finally, to what extent does our understanding of these dynamics shift if we broaden the focus in foreign policymaking from the president and consider congressional policymaking? Foreign policy scholars have considered how members of Congress vote in response to highly salient issues such as war and intervention, especially in relation to casualties (Hildebrandt et al., 2013; Kriner & Shen, 2014; Mack, DeRouen, & Lanoue, 2013). Scholars have pursued increasingly sophisticated analyses evaluating how public opinion and interest groups affect the policy choices made by legislative representatives and have concluded that the public’s effect on these choices are limited (Burstein, 2014) or mediated by interest groups (Giger & Klüver, 2016). As with the presidency, the news media plays an important role in responsiveness (Arceneaux, Johnson, Lindstädt, & Wielen, 2016). More generally, studies focused on Congress, public opinion, and foreign policy, especially in regard to the decision-making behaviors of individual members of Congress, are rare. Scholars would do well to not only consider the collective behavior of representatives as reflected in their votes, but to more narrowly examine how individual members navigate the intersection of issue salience, public knowledge, partisan frames, and news media interactions. Recent attention has focused on war and conflict, but do other policies, such as foreign trade and immigration, follow a similar dynamic, especially in light of the economic factors increasingly being highlighted in research at the presidential level?

Ending the Foreign Policy Exception

Former vice president Hubert Humphrey implied that foreign policy was similar to domestic policy though with a more formal “outside” appearance; whereas scholar Aaron Wildavsky painted a picture in which partisan division characterized domestic policy and bipartisan consensus reigned beginning at the shore. These two views were somewhat in tension. This review has identified a number of structural and attitudinal changes that have accelerated since the September 11 attacks and have fundamentally altered how public opinion interacts with foreign policy. Institutionally, technological change and media fragmentation has led some to contend that traditional media effects are becoming less commanding (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010). Elites, especially the president (Druckman & Jacobs, 2015), appear to be more responsive to narrower sets of interests as they have adapted to both the media environment and the potential uses of modern polling mechanisms. Congressional support for presidential initiatives appears to emerge as much from partisan and ideological differences as public attitudes (Hildebrandt, Hillebrecht, Holm, & Pevehouse, 2013). Although there is some debate about whether the Republican Party, in particular, has only recently become more unilateral and nationalist (Busby & Monten, 2008, 2012; Dueck, 2010) and whether that aligns with broader public sentiments on foreign policy, it is clear that, to the extent that foreign policy issues become salient, the public tends to view them through more partisan lenses.

Public attitudes also seem to become increasingly disconnected from policy while at the same time more partisan and ideological in their origins. As elites have become more polarized, research suggests that the public increasingly responds more to partisan cuing than substantively grounded information (Druckman, Peterson, & Slothus, 2013). International politics has substantively been driven by issues that are increasingly intermestic, such as climate change, economic trade and finance, migration, energy access, and terrorism; this creates an ever shrinking list of issues that may be seen as purely “foreign” policy issues. The full implications of the recent shifts in how each of these factors have affected the public opinion and foreign policy relationship are yet to be fully appreciated. To start, scholars working within this field need to question whether these changes do, in fact, add up to a fundamental alteration of the functioning of the opinion and policy relationship. Among other issues, scholars need to evaluate the role of information in shaping attitudes about foreign policy, how the media portrays foreign policy, how elites interact with the media regarding foreign policy, how elites respond to and attempt to lead public opinion, and more generally, how public opinion interacts with the broader political system on foreign policy issues.

Although it is too soon to tell, the interaction among these factors have brought the domestic processes associated with public opinion, attitude formation, and foreign policy to the fore. With a “populist turn” in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the British public’s decision to leave the European Union, and across the globe (Acharya, 2014; Inglehart & Norris, 2016; Mead, 2017; Stewart & Wasserstrom, 2016), the question arises as to whether the domestic politics of foreign policy are surpassing the broader internationalist foundations of the U.S.-led post–World War II liberal international order. International relations scholars have fretted for some time that the domestic consensus that underlay American commitments to the preservation of the international order has unraveled (Busby & Monten, 2008, 2012; Kupchan & Trubowitz, 2007), though not without challenge (Chaudoin, Milner, & Tingley, 2010; Jervis & Labrosse, 2017). The long-running Chicago Council on Global Affairs provides a series of extensive polls tracking public opinion regarding foreign policy. Their 2016 report points out that while Trump supporters certainly favored limitations on trade and immigration, these more insular attitudes did not reflect the sentiments among the broader public, which supported more traditionally internationalist approaches to alliance, trade, an American leadership role, military superiority, and immigration (Smeltz et al., 2016). Although an examination of the full dynamics of these interactions lies beyond the scope of this review, the research considered here suggests a less steady public opinion foundation (at least one subject to the complex vicissitudes of the American political system). Whether these changes portend greater variability in foreign policy substance as political elites, public opinion, and the political system interact in new and unexpected ways remains to be seen.

What can be asserted is that the shifts in public attitudes, the media environment, and elite behavior imply that the distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy might no longer be meaningful from a theoretical perspective in the field of public opinion and foreign policy. Just what this portends for the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy is not yet clear. What is apparent is that dramatic changes have occurred on most factors affecting the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy. What is not clear as yet is whether these apparent changes meaningfully transform when and how public opinion does (or does not) influence foreign policy. The first step is to begin to consider the cumulative effect of all these changes and to ask the question, has foreign policy become domestic policy?


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