Public Opinion and the Media in Foreign Policy | Model Diplomacy



When we talk about the impact of public
opinion on foreign policy, it matters whether we're talking about broad
American public or whether we're talking about subgroups. The overall American public very seldom
directly guides foreign policy. The overall public tends to have two indirect effects. The first is it can constrain the freedom of maneuver that presidents
or Congress can have. The second is that public opinion tends
to shape or influence what priority policymakers
give foreign policy. Now when you think of subgroups of the public, lobbies or special interest groups, they can often have a significant impact on
foreign policy. They can do so because they're knowledgeable, they're highly
motivated, and often they act in numbers. Silicon Valley high-tech companies work
very hard to get their input into U.S. policy on, let's say, intellectual property rights. Evangelicals are very active in making sure that U.S. family planning policy
and funding overseas does not underwrite abortions. The media have far less impact on
public opinion and on foreign policy than you might think. You have
first off the fact that people come to the news with their own worldview. People
tend to pick news sources that will give them the take on the world they
want to hear. The second thing is, oftentimes we talk about the impact media might have. What we're really talking about is the impact of an event. Take for example 9/11. Clearly that
engendered wall-to-wall news coverage. But the fact that the American public suddenly embraced a much more aggressive foreign policy had a lot less to do with how CNN, or MSNBC,
or CBS News covered the story than the fact that the United States had suffered
a horrific terrorist attack and that 3,000 Americans had died on a beautiful sunny day. Generally speaking the American public
doesn't follow foreign policy very carefully. And so while Americans may become
concerned about an issue overseas, it won't necessarily have a detailed view on exactly what it is that the United States should do. So in that sense the public often doesn't send
clear signals to policymakers about what they need to do.
It's important to keep in mind that public opinion can shift dramatically. That poses
a real challenge to policymakers. The fact that the public is with the president or
with Congress when a policy is enacted doesn't mean they will be with the president
or Congress when the policy goes bad. Many Americans supported the Iraq
war when it began in 2003. By 2006, 2007 the public was much less enthusiastic.
Control of Congress changed hands from Republicans to Democrats in good part
because of dissatisfaction among the American public about how the war was going.
What you see is often also that American public opinion can have conflicting
impulses, what we might call a double wish. The public wants two things
but they're in conflict with each other. An example came in 2014, with the
Obama administration facing the threat of ISIS fighters, or the Islamic State, in
Iraq and Syria. Many Americans were horrified to see that American hostages
had been killed by ISIS forces and wanted something done. But by the same token the American public was pretty clear: it did not want to see American combat troops
on the ground in Iraq, let alone in Syria. And so that sense of where the public
was–wanting something done, but not wanting to put boots on the ground– really bedeviled the president's policy.

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