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date: 25 March 2017

Public Opinion on Foreign Policy Issues

Summary and Keywords

Scholars and governments are interested in four sets of questions concerning public opinion on foreign policy and national security policy. First, what do public opinion polls measure? How do citizens, who are generally uninformed about foreign policy and world affairs, form opinions on these matters? Second, how rational is public opinion? Is it stable or volatile? Are opinions coherent? Do opinions plausibly reflect the flow of world events? Third, what factors influence the formation of citizen opinions? Specifically, what is the impact of fundamental attitudes toward war and military force, partisanship, ideology, and gender? Finally, how universal are the determinants of citizen opinion, especially on crucial issues of war and peace? Are the findings in global comparisons the same as those in the American or European contexts?

Considerable scholarship has been devoted to these four questions. Scholars now characterize public opinion as rational, in the sense that it is fairly stable, coherent, and responsive to real world events. Attitudes toward war and military force are a major focus of the research literature because many specific policy attitudes flow from fundamental views of war. Gender has also become a major focus of research because many studies find that women are less supportive of the use of military force for most purposes. Finally, scholars are beginning to discover that some opinion patterns are universal across societies, while others are more affected by the individual characteristics of national societies. Studies of global public opinion have expanded greatly, with recent scholarship focusing on global attitudes toward gender equality, immigration, and climate change.

Keywords: polling, opinion surveys, public opinion, citizen opinion, global public opinion, foreign policy, war and conflict, gender politics, Iraq war, Afghanistan war, public mood, European Union, ideology, war


The last 50 years have seen a substantial increase in citizen questioning of their governments’ security policies, beginning with citizen protest against the Vietnam War and continuing in the more recent popular disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, scholars now argue that the study of foreign and national security policy can no longer be based solely on the military aspects of deterrence, coercion, and war. Rather, as Michael Howard put it, governments and scholars must pay attention to reassurance, the requirement of governments to “persuade one's own people, and those of one's allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs” (1983, p. 317).

This article proceeds from the assumption that public opinion will continue to be an important concern in debates about international issues, especially concerning issues of war and peace. It is therefore all the more important to clarify exactly what “public opinion” means, how it can be measured, and how it behaves. There is fertile ground for such an inquiry. Over the last 40 years, public opinion polling has spread to most corners of the globe, making international comparisons much easier than was the case previously. Moreover, scholarship on public opinion and foreign policy has produced a virtual revolution in the way scholars understand the process of opinion formation and change. In particular, research has brought new answers to four sets of important questions:

  1. 1. What do public opinion polls measure? How do citizens, who are generally uninformed about foreign policy and world affairs, form opinions on these matters? Quite simply, how can we measure “public opinion”?

  2. 2. How “rational” is public opinion? Is it stable or volatile? Are opinions coherent? Do opinions plausibly reflect the flow of world events? Does public opinion respond to what governments do? Precisely what is the form of that response?

  3. 3. What factors influence the formation of citizen opinions? Specifically, what is the impact of fundamental attitudes toward war and military force? How important are partisanship, ideology, and gender?

  4. 4. How universal are the determinants of citizen opinion, especially on crucial issues of war and peace? Are the findings in cross-national comparisons the same as those in the U.S. or European contexts?

In this article, I review the scholarly literature on these questions and present data from public opinion surveys to illustrate the discussion. The immediately following section describes why the answers to an individual survey question can be close to meaningless. However, I also present two examples to show that the combination of many questions on policy issues can measure the public’s “mood” on policy choices. Subsequent sections examine the questions of how “rational” these opinions are; precisely how opinion moods fluctuate in response to government policies; and the impact of ideology, partisanship, and gender, as well as the importance of fundamental attitudes toward war. Finally I discuss the extent to which citizen opinions across the globe reveal both universal logics and the logic of specific national characteristics.

Measures: From Single Questions to Policy Mood

Ambivalence and “Mood”

Scholars of public opinion are aware of a paradox: the very grist of their studies—the single survey question at a single point in time—is close to meaningless in gauging “public opinion.” Responses to a single survey question are highly sensitive to the wording of that question (Eichenberg, 1989, 2005; Mueller, 1973, 1994).

Why are citizen responses to survey questions so sensitive to the wording of the question? One reason is that some policies involve technical issues that are distant from citizens’ daily lives. Unless events conspire to make them salient to citizens, opinion surveys often yield a fair percentage of disinterested or uninformed opinions. A second reason is that citizens lack information about world affairs and therefore look for cues to help resolve uncertainty about complex policy issues. We know, for example, that different questions about the possibility of war with Iraq showed highly different percentages within many countries. The mention of Saddam Hussein, casualties, or ground troops in questions about the Iraq war provided cues that conditioned the percentage who favored the war (Eichenberg, 2005; Everts & Isernia, 2005). When survey questions mentioned the United Nations or the support of allies for the war, this produced different percentages because these are quite distinct cues. Lacking detailed information about a range of foreign policy issues, citizens do not engage in an extensive search for that information but often use simple cues contained in the question itself. Similar cues might come from the morning headlines or a conversation over the water cooler, which helps explain why even an identical question might yield different percentages over the course of a week or even several days.

A second explanation for the instability of individual responses is contained in a simple, yet elegant theory of survey responses developed by John Zaller and Stanley Feldman (Zaller, 1992; Zaller & Feldman, 1992). They argue that citizens are relatively uninformed about issues and, more importantly, that they are also ambivalent and conflicted. On controversial issues such as social equality or war and peace, people are likely to possess competing or even contradictory opinions. One may, for example, strongly prefer the peaceful resolution of a particular international conflict while at the same time acknowledging that military force might become necessary or approve it after it is employed. For any particular issue or policy choice, individuals possess a range of ambivalent sentiments.

How is this ambivalence resolved when an individual is presented with a survey question that requests a relatively simple response? According to Zaller and Feldman, people consult a number of “considerations” that are most salient in their memory at the moment of the survey, that is, information that is most accessible in the respondents’ thinking. For those who have thought little about the specific issue, this might reduce to the considerations that are communicated by the question itself—mentioning the UN might resolve the ambivalence for some in the direction of “peace.” Other considerations might be communicated by additional questions in the same survey. For example, if the survey questionnaire includes a long series of items about the casualties that could occur in war, this will likely affect the responses to subsequent questions about using military force (Zaller & Feldman, 1992; see also Mueller, 1994). Ansolabahere, Rodden, and Snyder (2008) reach a similar conclusion; they find that citizens do have stable policy preferences that are obscured by the “noise” of measurement error that accompanies surveys taken at different points in time.

These observations show why the responses to a single survey question are of limited value. Single questions are rooted in one specific wording at a single moment in historical context, and they evoke a particular set of considerations for respondents. Individuals may formulate their answers differently in response to another question that evokes different considerations at a different moment in time. The implications for students of public opinion are clear. One can only gain a reliable assessment of “public opinion” on a particular issue or policy choice by studying as many variations in question wording as possible. Further, to fully understand how events external to the survey influence the considerations of respondents, one has to study how opinions unfold over time. The examples in the following two sections illustrate these points.

The U.S. Mood on Defense Spending

In his study of the attitudes of U.S. citizens toward the role of government, Stimson (1999) describes his concept of a public “mood.” He observes that there are hundreds of survey questions on increasing or decreasing the government’s role in the domains of social security, healthcare, education, and many other policy areas. Each question reveals a different level of support for increasing or decreasing the U.S. government’s role. Nonetheless, Stimson demonstrates that the movement over time of these individual survey items has much in common—they tend to move up or down together. There is, he argues, a “common disposition” to favor (or oppose) an increase in the role of government in citizens’ lives. The utility of Stimson’s insight is heightened by the fact that his index of policy mood based on this set of questions is a very good predictor of election outcomes in both U.S. presidential and congressional elections. Citizens know what they want, and they vote accordingly (Stimson, 1999).

We can extend Stimson’s logic to the field of international affairs by studying citizen support for defense spending in the United States. The defense budget represents the core of national security policymaking, and considerable evidence discussed below shows that the public’s influence on budgeting outcomes is significant. Yet ascertaining the public’s support for defense spending is no easy task. Nonetheless, Figure 1 shows that the U.S. public’s defense spending “mood” has been fairly consistent over time. The figure shows three separate survey questions that measure support for defense spending. The first two, by the Gallup organization and the General Social Survey (GSS), ask slightly different versions of the question of whether defense spending is too much, too little, or just right. The third series is constructed from a defense spending scale in the American National Election Study (NES). For each of the series, I calculate support for defense spending as the percentage that favors an increase divided by the total favoring either an increase or a decrease in spending. Put briefly, the measure represents support for defense as a percentage of the total who express an opinion on increasing or decreasing the defense budget.

Public Opinion on Foreign Policy IssuesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Three measures of net support for defense spending in the United States. “Net support” is defined as “increase” divided by the sum of “increase” and “decrease” in surveys on defense spending.

(Source: Gallup and GSS surveys are available through the IPOLL database of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. The NES responses are available from the NES website:

Not surprisingly, the three question formats do yield different levels of support. Nonetheless, the three series clearly move together, suggesting that each reflects a collective disposition regarding spending on the defense budget. These questions on defense spending therefore confirm that something coherent can be measured from what at first blush appears to be a cacophony of separate items. Later in this article we will see that these same opinions respond in a systematic fashion to the government’s actual defense spending decisions and that the U.S. government subsequently responds systematically to the public’s mood. Thus, from the raw materials of individual survey questions, we can begin to construct a picture of the democratic politics of defense policy.

The Mood in Europe

Can the analysis of policy mood be generalized to public opinion outside the United States? One might argue along with Stimson that “[p]ublic opinion is about as institution-free as anything in politics can be. And it is the specifics of political institutions that so restrict our ability to create theories of general interest. The happy message, then, is that a model of public opinion that works for the American case ought to transfer across national boundaries with a minimum of difficulty” (1999, p. xxii). According to this logic, the thought processes of people everywhere are likely to be the same. This means the same lack of specific information about foreign policy; the same ambivalence on difficult political issues; and the same tendency to resolve uncertainty and ambivalence by using the cues. These cues can be contained in the wording of survey questions, the considerations that are evoked by major political events, and by referencing their values, partisanship, gender, and other personal characteristics. If correct, we should find general dispositions in public opinion outside the American political system.

Consider the process of European integration, which began modestly in 1957 with the establishment of a common market. During the 1980s and 1990s, the process accelerated rapidly with an expansion from 6 to 15 members, the further liberalization of the European market, and the transition to a single European currency in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. By 2004, the European Union (EU) had expanded to 25 members and had dramatically increased the number of policy domains covered by the union’s legislative authority. It had also established the euro as the common currency for all of Europe. At the same time, public support for the process of integration grew in importance. The public reacted very negatively to the Maastricht Treaty, which caused the union’s governing body—the European Council—to state in 1996 that “citizens are at the core of the European construction: the Union has the imperative to respond concretely to their needs and concerns” (Presidency Conclusions, European Council, Turin, March 29, 1996, p. 1).

The EU conducts a great deal of polling to monitor the “needs and concerns” of its citizens. Yet measuring support for “integration” is hardly easy. The technical meaning of the word is fairly clear; integration is a process of gradually merging the authority of what were formerly separate sovereign states. But in practice, “European integration” has had at least three purposes in both official and scholarly discourse. First, the establishment of the original Common Market was accomplished quite explicitly in the pursuit of peace, following the cosmopolitan argument that the causes of war are rooted in the competitive anarchy of a system of separate sovereign states. Second, the common market and European Union were designed to increase European prosperity. Finally, framed as it was by the Cold War, the Common Market obviously had implications for European power. Power would flow to Europe by combining the resources and influence of the individual member states and by eliminating their separate and even competing voices on the world scene.

All three of these purposes are reflected in the EU’s survey questions about European integration. Figure 2 displays the European average in response to three questions. The first, labeled unify, evokes the cosmopolitan notion of eliminating sovereignty by asking: “In general, are you for or against efforts being made to unify Western Europe?” A second question—benefit—addresses the more utilitarian concern of prosperity. It asks: Has “(your country) … on balance benefited or not from being a member of the EC (common market)?” Finally, a question on community membership offers elements of both utilitarian and cosmopolitan sentiment, asking: Do “you think that (your country’s) membership of the European Community [common market] is a good thing, neither good nor bad, or a bad thing?” The reference to “your country” and the “good versus bad thing” juxtaposition probably weights the question in a nationalist, instrumental direction, while the reference to membership in the European community has mild cosmopolitan overtones.

Public Opinion on Foreign Policy IssuesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Results for three survey questions on support for European integration. The graph shows the average responses from surveys in all EU states that have been members since 1985.

(Source: Commission of the European Union, Standard Eurobarometer (bi-annual). Retrieved from

Figure 2 reveals that until the mid-1990s, the three questions displayed a clear hierarchy of support. The cosmopolitan overtones of the “unify” question evoked the most favorable responses, followed by the mixed message of membership and the starkly utilitarian question on “benefit.” However, beginning with the collapse of support on all three measures that followed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, benefit and membership appear to have become close to identical. Anticipating the theme of the next section of this article, I would argue that this is a perfectly rational evolution. After the Maastricht Treaty the EU expanded its powers into more and more policy areas that affected the material interests of European citizens—hence, there was a lot more cost and benefit to be concerned about (Eichenberg & Dalton, 2007). The fact that Europeans would increasingly interpret the membership question in a fashion similar to the benefit question therefore suggests that citizens had correctly identified the shifting nature of the integration process.

In any case, the differences in support for integration found in the three questions show that citizens resolved any uncertainty by responding to the cosmopolitan or utilitarian considerations evoked by the question and by changing policy circumstances. Nonetheless, Figure 2 also suggests that a common disposition—what we might call a “European integration mood”—also permeates these sentiments. Although the membership question did peak somewhat higher about the time of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, clearly there is a great deal of common movement in the three measures.

Is Public Opinion on Global Issues “Rational”?

We have seen that the combined impact of short-term considerations and the personal predilections of survey respondents produce opinion moods that ebb and flow in ways that make a good deal of sense given what we know about the policy issues.

This pattern of stable, sensible movement in citizen opinion contradicts a longstanding consensus concerning public opinion on foreign policy. Prior to the 1980s, the prevailing view of scholars was that an uninformed, disinterested public was almost by definition incapable of producing a “rational” public opinion on foreign policy matters (this view is presented in detail in Holsti, 2004, pp. 25–98). In particular, many foreign policy experts characterized public opinion as irrational in several specific senses of the word. First, it was argued that public opinion was highly changeable, indeed unstable, in the sense of revealing large swings from one opinion to another for no apparent reason. Second, public opinion was incoherent: an opinion on one foreign policy issue was unlikely to be related to views on other, even similar issues. Finally, public opinion could therefore not have any real relation to world events or policy actions, because the information needed to form such opinions was low. In addition, public opinion was too changeable and incoherent to produce any plausible relationship between the real world and public opinion. And if opinion was so irrational, how could foreign policy be governed democratically?


Images of overly unstable foreign policy opinions changed after Shapiro and Page’s (1988) landmark study of American public opinion and foreign policy. They amassed an extensive database of survey questions on foreign policy in the United States between 1935 and 1985. When they calculated the magnitude of change between any two identical items, their analysis is telling: public opinion turned out to be very stable. In half of more than 1,000 surveys, there was no significant opinion change between adjacent time points. Among those questions that did reveal change, the largest share was rather modest. Moreover, Page and Shapiro examined reversals in the direction of opinion that might suggest a fickle or capricious public. Such fluctuations were very rare: they occurred in only 18% of the relevant survey questions, leading Shapiro and Page to conclude that “[t]his would not seem to support the notion that the public has fickle and vacillating moods toward either foreign or domestic affairs” (1988, p. 219).

Stability also characterizes a variety of opinions on foreign policy and national security in the Western European countries. After studying a large number of Western European public opinion surveys on the East–West military balance, nuclear weapons and arms control, defense spending, and the NATO alliance, I concluded that “continuity in public opinion was far more prevalent than change” (Eichenberg, 1989, p. 198). Similarly, employing data from over 1,000 survey questions in France, Germany, and Italy, Isernia, Juhász, and Rattinger (2002) found results that were strikingly similar to those of Shapiro and Page. Overall, opinion was characterized by moderate change, and reversals in the direction of opinion change were rare.


A separate question is whether individual opinions are coherent, that is, whether views on one issue are correlated with views on similar issues. For example, if one has a generally favorable view of the United Nations, should one also favor securing UN approval before using military force to resolve conflicts? Similarly, if one is positively disposed to defense spending and using national military forces for deterrence or conflict resolution, should one also downplay the role of the United Nations?

These sorts of question have animated a substantial body of scholarly research, which finds that individual opinions are relatively coherent. Eugene Wittkopf conducted the most comprehensive research on this topic. Wittkopf (1990) studied surveys by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on American public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. These surveys are particularly valuable because they include a very large number of questions on a variety of political, military, and economic issues. Analysts can investigate the degree to which citizens’ views on one set of issues (such as international institutions) are correlated with their views on other issues (such as the use of military force).

Wittkopf’s most important finding is that Americans have long been divided on a crucial question: the role of military force in international relations. Americans divide into three groups on this question. A “hardliner” group largely endorses the threat or use of military force and considers issues of power balance and competition to be primary in international relations. An “accommodationist” group is critical of military force and therefore favors the use of multilateral international institutions to resolve global conflicts. A mixed “internationalist” group favors elements of both militant and cooperative engagement in world affairs. Also, a small isolationist group opposes all types of international engagement.

Equally important, Wittkopf finds that citizen opinions on a range of international issues tend to cluster together within these groups. Indeed, the strong correlation among many survey items is what defines the groups. Thus, a person who favors a strong role for the UN also tends to be critical of military power; to favor trade as a tool for building international cooperation; and to disdain unilateralism while endorsing multilateralism. A militant internationalist would have largely opposite opinions. The key point is that citizen responses to many different questions are correlated in this way. Their opinions are, in a word, coherent.

Studies of public opinion in Western Europe reveal the same coherence. These studies are the similar to Wittkopf’s finding for U.S. public opinion: opinions about the role of military force in international relations seem to most strongly condition the worldview. For example, Ziegler (1987) studied European public opinion toward transatlantic relations during the 1980s, including survey items on NATO, defense spending, and support for missile deployment in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Like Wittkopf, he found that opinions tend to cluster into a relatively militant group (generally favoring military solutions) and a more dovish group, with a “mixed group” also existing. A host of other studies have found a similar structure among Europeans and the American public (Jenkins-Smith, Mitchell, & Herron, 2004). Like individual opinions, moreover, these clusters of attitudes have been relatively stable since 2002 (Everts & Isernia, 2015).


We thus have evidence that public opinion is “rational” in the dual sense of exhibiting stability and coherence. But what of plausibility? Does public opinion change in ways that reflect events occurring in the global environment or in reaction to government policies? And what is the form of that response? The examples described earlier provide substantial evidence that public opinion moves plausibly in reaction to events and policy. In addition, Shapiro and Page (1988) found that public opinion rarely reverses direction. Based on extensive analysis of a number of foreign policy opinions, they further concluded that “[t]hese changes have seldom, if ever, occurred … without reasonable causes, such as the actions of foreign friends or enemies or changes in the United States’ position in the world” (1988, pp. 220–221).

Can we generalize about the form taken by the reactions of the public? Some opinion change is clearly instrumental; it reacts to the success or failure of government policy. For example, the evaluations of European integration described earlier are strongly correlated with the EU’s economic policy performance. Europeans react negatively to bad economic news but positively to the gains made from expanding trade (Eichenberg & Dalton, 2007; Gabel, 1998). Aside from this instrumentality, there is also evidence that public reactions to events reflect a desire for moderation in policy. For example, Nincic (1988) studied American evaluations of foreign policy toward the Soviet Union under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Nincic’s principal question was whether public opinion considered presidential policies too “hard” or too “soft.” The results were clear: under Carter, respondents tended to argue that policy was too “soft,” and under Reagan too “hard.” Nincic labels this pattern the “policy of opposites” and suggests that the public essentially reacts by expressing a desire to “reign in” presidents who move too far in either direction. The pattern of “opposites” in public reactions to defense and foreign policy also suggests the more general relevance of Stimson’s (1999) notion of a moderate zone of acceptability in citizen issue opinions. When government policy moves outside the zone of what the public will accept (or tolerate), public opinion will react by demanding a return to acceptable policies.

There is substantial evidence of this pattern of “opposites” in public reactions to changes in defense spending in the United States and in Western Europe. Wlezien (1996) conceptualizes the pattern in terms of a “thermostat” metaphor: if policy (in this case defense spending) moves below or above the public’s desired level, opinion will react in the opposite direction by favoring a countervailing change for subsequent years. Following this metaphor, Wlezien finds a negative correlation between changes in the defense budget and public opinion. Indeed, the “thermostat” phenomenon characterizes citizens’ reaction to budgetary change in both the defense and domestic policy domains in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere (Eichenberg & Stoll, 2003; Wlezien, 1996; Soroka & Wlezien, 2009). Moreover, the evidence suggests that governments subsequently adjust budgets to reflect public preferences, a finding that holds in the United States and several European countries (Hartley & Russett, 1992; Wlezien, 1996; Eichenberg & Stoll, 2003). In both domestic and foreign policy, then, the thermostat reaction suggests that for the public, moderation is a virtue—and governments do take notice.

The studies of opinion clusters discussed immediately above suggest that citizens with very hawkish or dovish views are not the majority in either the United States or Europe. Rather, the plurality or even majority of citizens are “pragmatists” (Asmus, Everts, & Isernia, 2004) or “internationalists” (Wittkopf, 1990) who prefer a mixture of forceful and conciliatory policies. Not surprisingly, therefore, if policy moves too far in either direction, a substantial number of citizens will signal the opinion that the thermostat should be turned back in a more moderate direction.

What Variables Influence the Formation of Citizen Opinion?

Research demonstrates that public opinion on foreign policy issues is more structured than was once commonly believed. This is not because citizens are highly informed about foreign policy issues, but rather because the wording of survey questions (among other factors) contains clues that resonate with broader citizen values and preferences. For example, people may not know much at all about the internal politics of Syria, but they are likely to have some predisposition about their country becoming involved in the Syrian civil war.

Recent scholarship emphasizes four additional factors that citizens employ as filters to assist them in forming opinions on new or complicated issues in foreign policy: basic attitudes toward war and military force, ideology, partisanship, and gender. The importance of attitudes toward war is evident in a number of studies. For example, we saw in the previous section that foreign policy opinions in the United States and Europe cluster into two attitude clusters that basically measure support for more forceful and more cooperative approaches to international politics. Similarly, Bartels studied American opinions of defense spending and concluded that the “dominant influence was a general willingness ‘to use military force to solve international problems’ … it is the dominant determinant of defense spending preferences in every specification, regardless of which other variables are included …” (1994, p. 481). Eichenberg and Stoll (2015) found the same result in their study of American and European opinions of defense spending: controlling for a number of other variables, basic attitudes toward war were by far the strongest and most consistent correlate of support for the defense budget.

Not surprisingly, the importance of fundamental attitudes toward war and military force are an important correlate of support for specific wars and other military interventions. For example, Everts and Isernia (2015) find that a basic hawkish or dovish orientation was the strongest correlate of American and European support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar study of British citizen opinion on participation in the military actions in Afghanistan and Libya found that support was best explained by fundamental attitudes concerning the morality and the costs and benefits of the wars (Reifler et al., 2014).

Perhaps not surprisingly, many studies also show that attitudes toward war are themselves strongly correlated with an individual’s ideology and partisanship. It is not surprising because political polarization on war and peace issues has been part of the ideological and partisan divides in many countries for over a hundred years. Moreover, as Berinsky (2009) has recently demonstrated, partisanship provides a cue that citizens use to follow elite debates as they seek to form opinions on new or complicated issues. Research by Everts and Isernia (2015) and by Eichenberg and Stoll (2015) also shows that fundamental attitudes toward war are strongly correlated with a person’s ideology. Given the consistency of these findings, it is tempting to suggest that attitudes toward war may in fact be the “international” component of what we normally consider a citizen’s ideology. Partisanship, in turn, is rooted in ideology, so it is not surprising to find that many foreign policy opinions are strongly correlated with partisanship. In fact, it is likely that citizens look first and foremost to party leaders for cues as they form their opinions (Berinsky, 2009). Nonetheless, it is important to note that the relationship between partisanship, ideology, and attitudes toward war is not immutable. In fact, using the World Values Survey to study acceptance of war in global public opinion (“willingness to fight for one’s country”), Welzel, Inglehart, and Puranen (2015) find that the related processes of economic growth, social change, and cultural change lead to a shift in values that is less supportive of participation in war, a finding that has great importance for the future.

Finally, gender has emerged in recent scholarship as an important influence on foreign policy attitudes, attitudes toward war, and attitudes toward international trade. For example, Berinsky (2009) showed that women were less likely to favor the United States entering World War II. Scholars have also found a significant difference between the views of men and women in support for the Vietnam War (Mueller, 1973), the Persian Gulf War (Conover & Sapiro, 1993), and the war in Afghanistan (Huddy, Feldman, & Casese, 2009). An additional study demonstrated that women were less likely to support the use of military force during every military intervention by the United States from 1990 through the beginning of the Iraq War (Eichenberg, 2003). There is also evidence that women are more skeptical of war as an instrument of policy in most countries of the world (Eichenberg & Read, 2015). Because attitudes toward war are a major influence on more specific security policy choices, the implication is that gender is one of the most important correlates of opinions on national security issues.

The same is true of scholarship on citizen attitudes toward international trade. For example, Mansfield, Mutz, and Silver (2015) find that women are significantly less supportive of liberalized trade, a finding that they attribute to women’s lesser attachment to competitive values, their aversion to relocating in pursuit of employment, and their higher levels of isolationism in general. Other studies of attitudes toward international trade find that an individual’s level of education and location in the labor force are important influences (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2006; Scheve & Slaughter, 2001). Given these findings, the study of gender polarization on both security issues and international trade is likely to be an important part of the future research agenda.

Are There Universal Patterns in Global Public Opinion?

Because most scholarship is based on U.S. and European public opinion, a question arises: How universal are patterns in public opinion on global issues, especially on the crucial issues of war and peace that have preoccupied global audiences for more than 20 years?

The attitudes of U.S. citizens on war and peace issues—the use of military force—are now well understood. Jentleson and Britton (1998) showed that the support of U.S. citizens for using military force is heavily influenced by the objective for which force is used. Support for restraining or defending against foreign adversaries (foreign policy restraint) is very high, as is support for humanitarian relief operations, presumably because these actions enjoy normative and legal legitimacy and because the military requirements of success are fairly clear. In contrast, support for involvement in civil wars is low, because such actions enjoy less legal legitimacy and perhaps also because they are risky and potentially costly operations. In a study of all U.S. military interventions since 1981, Eichenberg (2005) confirms the importance of the principal policy objective and also finds that U.S. citizen support for peacekeeping missions is low, perhaps because they risk involvement in civil strife situations.

These findings have been replicated in a number of studies with similar results, although each new study offers a theoretical improvement (for comprehensive reviews of this literature, see Holsti, 2004; Eichenberg, 2005). Most important is the work of Larson, who argues that U.S. public support for military operations is a cost-benefit calculation: citizens evaluate the potential benefits of the action in terms of the stakes involved and the probability of success and the costs of the action in terms of the human and financial costs. In his study of a number of military conflicts involving the United States, Larson finds robust support for his argument (Larson, 1996; Larson & Savych, 2005). The importance of rational calculation is also confirmed in additional studies that find that the stakes, human cost, and relative success of the mission are key determinants of citizen support, although the principal policy objective remains a major influence on base levels of support (Feaver & Gelpi, 2004; Gelpi, Feaver, & Reifler, 2005/2006; Eichenberg, 2005).

How universal are these patterns? Do the considerations that influence the opinions of U.S. citizens also operate elsewhere around the globe, or do opinions elsewhere differ from findings in the U.S. setting? Until recently, it was difficult to answer these questions. Although there have been studies of citizen opinion in individual European societies (Everts & Isernia, 2001; Bobrow & Boyer, 2001) or concerning individual historical conflicts (Sobel & Shiraev, 2003; Everts & Isernia, 2005), there have been no truly comparative, historical studies of the sort that characterize scholarship on U.S. public opinion. Moreover, public opinion outside of Europe and the United States has received limited attention. True, there has been tremendous growth in truly comparative, global polling, especially concerning American foreign policy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but survey organizations also conduct surveys on a wide variety of other global issues. Nonetheless, scholars have only begun to tap these global sources in basic research on the sources of attitudes (Goldsmith, Horiuchi, & Inoguchi, 2005; Everts & Isernia, 2015).

Certainly there are clues to the determinants of support for using military force in global public opinion. For example, both in Europe and elsewhere there is substantial evidence that the legitimacy surrounding the action is a key influence, as evidenced by the endorsement of international institutions, coalitions, or alliances (Sobel & Shiraev, 2003; Everts & Isernia, 2005). Public opinion in Europe also shows a sensitivity to risk and casualties (Everts & Isernia, 2015), and one cross-national study of opinion in 64 countries showed that support for the U.S. war against Afghanistan in 2001 varied with such national characteristics as alliance memberships, trade with the United States, past experience with terrorism, and the percentage of Muslims in the population (Goldsmith, Horiuchi, & Inoguchi, 2005). There is, in short, some limited evidence that support for using military force demonstrates both universal aspects that condition support in all countries (international legitimacy) and national variations in which the characteristics and international position of a country influence the level of support for military actions.

One important study examined support for using military force using two sets of variables, universal logics and national characteristics (Eichenberg, 2006). The study of 81 countries included public opinion surveys before and during the Persian Gulf War, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the U.S.-led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Significantly, there is a universal logic to support for using military force. The principal policy objective of the action, the degree of international legitimacy attached to the action, the participation of international forces, and the risk and costliness of the action are very strong correlates of support for using military force. This pattern holds even controlling for such national characteristics as relative wealth, military power, trade relationships, and religious composition of the population. One example illustrates the importance of these universal logics. Generally, societies with large Muslim populations have been skeptical of using military force. However, during the Gulf War in 1991, 19 survey questions about coalition military action against Iraq were asked in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all countries with majority Muslim populations. Support for military action against Iraq averaged 50% in these countries and approached 60% in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In the other conflicts, support for using force averages 25% in predominantly Muslim societies.

This finding reinforces the universal importance of policy objectives and international legitimacy to support for using force. The restraint of a demonstrably aggressive neighbor in the Persian Gulf overrode whatever doubts that Muslims in the region might have had about the use of force against Iraq in 1991. The fact that the coalition military effort had been endorsed by the United Nations was also a probable factor (Eichenberg, 2006). Some considerations, it appears, are indeed universal.

Yet, even when controlling for universal logics, the effect of important national characteristics, such as relative wealth, relative military power, alliance commitments, and religious composition of the population, remain strong correlates of support for using force. Put briefly, poor, weak societies that are not allied with the United States are far less supportive of using military force than are wealthy, powerful allies of the United States. The important conclusion concerning these relationships is that

[t]he experience and interests that are captured by national characteristics form something of a structural baseline in national perspectives. Citizens of a country that is poor, militarily weak, and outside the alliance orbit of the international system’s dominant powers are unlikely to look positively on the use of military force to resolve conflicts, especially when it is the military of the system’s most powerful actors that form the core of the forces involved. Nonetheless, this structural baseline is not immutable. There are also political and normative logics that move support above and below the baseline of support. (Eichenberg, 2006, pp. 51–52)

The different levels of support of Muslim citizens during the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003 is a perfect illustration. Support was low in the latter case because its objective was regime change; it was carried out by just a few international actors led by the United States; and it was not endorsed by the international community. In the former case, the action aimed to reverse a clear case of aggression; it was sanctioned by the international community; and it was carried out by a broad coalition of actors.

Finally, it is important to note a number of studies of global public opinion that analyze questions beyond the issue of war and peace. For example, using data from the World Values Survey, Inglehart and Norris (2003) examine the impact of economic growth and cultural change on attitudes toward gender equality around the world. Brechin (2003) analyzed global attitudes toward climate change, and Mayda (2006) studied global opinion toward immigration. One innovative study analyzed the impact of U.S. foreign aid and found that global opinions of the United States were positively related to the amount of U.S. foreign aid received (Goldsmith, Horiuchi, & Wood, 2014). In summary, the last 20 years has seen a prodigious increase in global comparisons of opinions on a variety of global issues, and this body of scholarship is likely to increase in the future.


In the past, research on citizen opinions of world affairs was something of a hard case for those who hope for democratic control of policy. Citizens in most countries are not well informed on global issues, and on many issues they are understandably ambivalent. As a result, when the pollsters ask complicated questions about truly difficult decisions—such as the decision to go to war—citizens are likely to sway one way or the other, depending on the exact words that are put before them.

Yet a review of scholarship on public opinion concerning issues of foreign policy, national security, and war and peace reveals that citizens in most countries have quite sensible reactions to these complexities. Although survey organizations are prone to place quite different questions before respondents, their responses reveal identifiable “moods.” Citizens notice the nuances of policies that are queried in public opinion surveys, and the “mood” of citizens reveals itself. These moods are quite reasonable given the policy choices surrounding them, and the evidence suggests that governments represent this sentiment in subsequent policy. Equally important, citizen opinions are “rational,” in the sense that they are relatively stable, coherent, and plausibly related to world events, and recent research suggests that citizen do react to the policies that leaders choose, at times producing tangible political costs to leaders (Tomz, 2007).

Finally, there is some evidence that citizen opinions on world affairs, especially on issues of war and peace, share some universal judgments. Citizens in all countries value the international legitimacy that flows from the endorsement of international institutions. Citizens in all countries shy away from risky actions and from the possible loss of life in war. But it is also true that attitudes are formed from a national perspective. Citizens of rich and powerful states are more comfortable with the use of force in international relations. Citizens of poorer and weaker states are far less enthusiastic. The conversation between the citizens of these two groups represents an important challenge for the future.


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